The Dance of Liberals and Radicals

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The Dance of Liberals and Radicals

Protest as part of Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. (Photo: OccupyWallStreet.net)

March 15 was the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's best speech, his "We Shall Overcome" address applying the final round of pressure on Congress to enact the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Much of the speech invoked the bravery, dignity and historical rightness of Martin Luther King Jr., and his fellow movement activists.

All of which puts me in mind of the complex relationship between liberals and radicals.

History shows that liberals need radicals. We need radicals because drastic change against entrenched evil and concentrated power requires personal bravery to the point of obsession. It requires a radical sensibility to look beyond today's limits and imagine what seems sheer impossibility within the current social order. And sometimes it's necessary to break the law to redeem the Constitution.

No great social change in America has occurred without radicals, beginning with the struggle to end slavery. Causes that now seem mainstream began with radical, impolite and sometimes civil disobedient protest.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was the best sort of radical. His tactics broke what was then the law -- flawed, biased, oppressive law. But he was above all affirmative and idealistic. He kept in his mind the kind of society America needed to be, and could be. He appealed to the best in America, bore personal witness and shamed his racist oppressors. MLK braved violence and eventually his own assassination, yet his radicalism was always constructive.

Birth control began as a radical movement for which some women went to jail; and astonishingly, contraception is still considered radical in some circles today.

The demonstrations against the Vietnam War were at first the work of radical protestors. Only later did they become more mannered and mainstream.

Some women today may take for granted rights that never would have been achieved without the radicalism of early feminism and then second-wave feminism. Same with gay rights, same with disability rights. Sometimes, outrageous tactics are needed to barge into the chamber of civil debate.

Even supposedly mainstream principles such as pure food and drugs, or safe working conditions, began with radical protest. The fact that these principles are being relentlessly undermined by corporate elites suggests the need for continued vigilance and radical protest once again.

The labor movement has a long history of necessarily confrontational organizing. And radicals, famously, make the best organizers. Unions were largely illegal until the 1930s, so you could not organize one without breaking the law. (Today, it is corporations that break the law to resist unions).

But here's where the story gets complicated. Radicals also need liberals.

The sit-down strikes of the 1930s could be institutionalized as durable reform only after FDR enforced the right of workers to organize, using first the 1935 Wagner Act and more importantly the leverage of wartime defense contracts. Militancy in factories combined with a sympathetic national government, to secure real gains for working people.

The civil disobedience of Dr. King and his followers required a rendezvous with Lyndon Johnson's desire to be the president who redeemed the promise of Lincoln.

Johnson was far from a radical, but when he declared, "We shall overcome," he was putting the power and prestige of the presidency on the side of radicals who were breaking the law to affirm the Constitution. Johnson was well aware the he could not have passed civil rights legislation without King -- and King of course understood how much he needed Johnson.

Marxists describe the State as "the executive committee of the ruling class." When the top financial posts at the U.S. Treasury are handed off among various alumni of Goldman Sachs, the way a prostitute is passed around drunken sailors, it sure seems as if government is a subsidiary of Wall Street. But occasionally, as in the alliance between Roosevelt and labor radicals, or between MLK and LBJ, the government actually functions as ally of the working class and the broad middle class of ordinary citizens. That's why one can cling to the hopes of liberalism.

Which role the State plays depends on the balance of activism. As current politics reveal all too vividly, government's default setting in a capitalist economy is to serve the wealthy and the powerful. Liberals can write policy proposals to their hearts' content. But unless they are backed by radicalism on the ground, they are playing in a sandbox.

David Rolf, a key architect of Seattle's $15-an-hour minimum wage and one of the best of today's radical labor organizers, puts the problem with prescience and eloquence. In a recent speech, he offered an aphorism that should stay with us:
"Policy is frozen politics." (I actually googled it -- and as far as I can tell, the phrase is original to Rolf.)

Policy is frozen politics. If you look back on American history, there are moments when political action produces reform and lasting social legislation. Politics produces policy. The policy advances social justice. For a time, that policy endures, the "frozen" fruit of what was once living activism.

But as Rolf explained, continuing the metaphor, even when seemingly embodied securely in law, policy tends to melt over time in the absence of continuing political mobilization and vigilance.

That's why all the legacy laws of earlier brief eras of political mobilization are under attack today from legislatures and courts reflecting rightwing resurgence -- civil rights laws, Social Security, pensions, the right to form a union, wage protection, Medicare, progressive taxation, and so on.

It's because politics has become lopsided. Policy is frozen politics -- the legacy of an earlier era and earlier political struggles. But policy can always be reversed by elites. That's why it takes hot politics -- liquid politics, current politics, radical politics -- to defend and refresh policy.

Yet, the story gets still more complicated; for it's not only leftwing radicals who are able to use the tactics of confrontation.

In much of our own era, the right has discovered the power of disruption--anti-choice crusaders blocking the way to Planned Parenthood clinics; anti-Obama activists disrupting Congressional district meetings on the Affordable Care Act; rightwing radicals in police uniforms executing innocent black teenagers.

Sometimes the civil disobedience of the right isn't in the streets. It's financial engineers illegally destroying the dreams of homeowners; or corporate moguls illegally stealing workers' wages; or the Koch Brothers and the power of wealth stealing our democracy.

We don't want a repeat of the Nazi era, where radical leftwing and radical rightwing gangs fought in hand-to-hand combat. That's the opposite of a liberal society. But neither do we want to be played for fools.

As polite liberals in policy parlors seek ways to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, we need to make damned sure that we are not out-organized. That, as always, will require some radicals.

Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for Business Week, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe and Huffington Post. He is the author of A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future, Obama's Challenge, and other books.

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