Tiny groups of people have shaken the world. Rising from obscurity to orthodoxy with stunning speed, history has been marked with novel ideas initiating tremendous change. Two German economists examining the state of Western Europe’s laborers helped lead to the Revolutions of 1848. Reaganism could be attributed to a few minds at the University of Chicago. And right now, the United States is about to pursue a radical foreign policy, unimaginable 20 years ago, as the result of a few influential thinkers who developed at Chicago. Miniscule collections of individuals have altered government policies, social mores and the general contours of history for both good and bad.
Would these cabals have enjoyed their successes if a wide variety of circumstances had not conspired to allow their ideas to reach the highest levels of power? No, but without the impetus of policies that cross known bounds of decorum, politics becomes a stagnant and decadent pursuit. Power, not societal improvement, becomes the end of the political process.
The Democrats were slaughtered last week. No spin doctoring or punditry will alter that reality. This was an election that needed to be won and the entire Democratic apparatus was not equipped for this task. You can explain this disastrous performance through shifting demographic trends, weak, pathetic, quivering leadership from Terry McAuliffe, Sept. 11 or dumb luck. Countless analysts have offered these explanations and they all bear kernels of truth. However, the problem might be more fundamental than that.
The best advice for liberals is to avoid vituperative complaining and begin the process of critically examining the flaws of contemporary liberalism. One place to start is trying to find the ideas that are going to shape the liberal edifice in the coming decades. This should be an easy task and the Democratic Party should boldly represent these initiatives, but this quickly proves more difficult than imagined. Where is the post-industrial successor to the New Deal or the Great Society? Prescription drug benefits, despite their importance, will neither serve to advance the Democratic Party nor to ameliorate the unique problems of the United States’ present situation.
Where are the new ideas? (Hint: Moving toward the center is not an idea, it’s cowardice). Maybe ideas are generating among the professoriate or perhaps grass roots movements are swelling with radical initiatives. I’m not sure if this is happening, but I can be much more certain that if anything new does in fact emerge it will not have its origin among this country’s student population.
The general dynamic of student movements has served to hinder the development of iconoclastic positions. Under the rubrics of solidarity and coalition building, the benefits of extremists and their political positions vanish. In the well-intentioned effort to build up grassroots support, all ideas, causes and interests are deemed of equivalent importance. Any belief that could be in someway construed as liberal is united under the name of progressivism, despite the radically different motivations of groups.
The campus left has lost its teeth. This is not to say that there isn’t a panoply of radical ideas floating around places like Ann Arbor, but there is no critical assessment of what the solidarity approach has achieved (very little). Protests have become fetishes, serving to symbolize latent power, but providing no means to implement change. Too many letters leftists are content singing Kumbaya or leading a drum circle.
This is an inadequate environment to incubate new ideas and approaches. There needs to be an infusion of tension. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail, “there is a type of nonviolent, constructive tension that is necessary for growth.”
There is a place for protest, there is a time for coalition building, there are reasons for solidarity, but the radical ideas need to come first. The ideas need to be the primary focus of a movement. These ideas cannot be tired rehashes of past beliefs, but need to address the change inherent in a globalizing world.
So in a matter of decades the fertile realm of political opposition that was the campus has lost its potency. The entire liberal community is impoverished as a result of these failures.
These developments are upsetting, maybe even tragic. As the world is engaged in profound permutations, we are stuck watching on the sidelines, with nothing but the occasional cheer or hiss to punctuate our overwhelming silence.
Zac Peskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.