The star power of Barack Obama and his new administration seem to be sucking the oxygen out of the political discourse. He is the news and every appointment he makes and every signal he sends has great import for the entire country.
This essay then is not about Barack Obama but rather an examination of a particular sub-segment of the political spectrum. I want to show that the activist left has a disproportionate relevance on the overall debate, especially in the historical context of the last eight years.
There is an informative milestone within these events where we can clearly identify this group and also understand its special significance. In the months after the September 11th attacks in 2001, George Bush’s approval ratings soared to 90%. That means that only ten percent of the population was cognizant and willing to speak out about the bad direction the country was taking.
Many people in hindsight express their reservations about what Bush and Cheney were doing and this is fine and completely understandable. But there needs to be some recognition of the particular loneliness of being a dissenting voice in those days when the Patriot Act was passed in a day with a single no vote; when the usefulness of torture was approvingly discussed in the media; when no-fly lists quickly included peace activists; when the Senate Judiciary committee was dumbstruck by John Ashcroft’s patriotic bluster; when detention without charge became acceptable; when the massive bombardment of an impoverished country was called a moral war. Ninety percent of the American people, whether enthusiastically or with reservation, signed off on this course.
Those who did not made every effort to be heard over the next several months. As centrist Democrats capitulated on the Iraq war resolution in an effort to hang onto power, the activist left, the ten percent, was arguing that defining a moral position against an illegal pre-emptive war was more important than winning an election. The Democrats ignored them and lost the Senate any way.
As the drumbeats for war increased, the demand by the left for principle over pragmatism also increased. By March of 2003 it had swelled to a worldwide movement. About half the country understood the principle and opposed the invasion. But the establishment in both the Democratic and Republican parties began working fiercely to discredit and silence this growing movement. There were bizarre and disappointing instances such as Terry Gross grilling the spokesperson for United for Peace and Justice about links to communists and the New Yorker magazine running a hatchet job on Noam Chomsky and his opposition to the invasion. Fox News openly derided anyone who wasn’t for the war and the Wall Street Journal editorial page spewed contempt at the slightest dissenting opinion. Scores of Democratic politicians were unequivocal in their support for the war.
In spite of the initial success of the invasion, the anti-war movement remained strong and coalesced around the candidacy of Howard Dean. Whatever the failings of his campaign, it has to be remembered that John Kerry co-opted Dean’s anti-war message and the grass-roots united behind him with the belief that he would carry that message forward. But in the general election Kerry never openly criticized the war and its rationales and attempted to outflank Bush on his right. More importantly, that great movement of people who had courageously opposed official policy silenced themselves in the belief that any demand for an adherence to principle would handicap the pragmatic pursuit of power. John Kerry lost and the peace movement never recovered its immediacy.
Nevertheless, over the next two years, the visionary truth that the ten percent was preaching in 2001 was becoming the accepted truth of the vast majority of Americans. Again in 2006 the centrist Democrats co-opted the message of opposition to the failed Iraq War and this time they didn’t abandon it until after they had won the election. Rahm Emanuel in particular made the pointed disavowal that any credit might be due to the leftist grass-roots movements. Instead he saw it as the vindication of centrist establishment pragmatism.
I review these events to re-enforce the identity of the activist left and to highlight the theme of how important it is that it make itself heard irregardless of the prevailing political atmosphere. In other words, we may be strident a**holes but we have an incredibly vital role in moving the political debate forward.