Nothing Left (Harper’s March 2014)

From: Harper’s, March, 2014, pgs. 28-36.

Nothing Left

The long, slow surrender of American liberals

By Adolph Reed Jr.

For nearly all the twentieth century there was a dynamic left in the
United States grounded in the belief that unrestrained capitalism
generated unacceptable social costs. That left crested in influence
between 1935 and 1945, when it anchored a coalition centered in the
labor movement, most significantly within the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO). It was a prominent voice in the Democratic Party
of the era, and at the federal level its high point may have come in
1944, when FDR propounded what he called "a second Bill of Rights."
Among these rights, Roosevelt proclaimed, were the right to a "useful
and remunerative job," "adequate medical care," and "adequate
protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and

The labor-left alliance remained a meaningful presence in American
politics through the 1960s. What have become known as the social
movements of the Sixties — civil rights activism, protests against the
Vietnam War, and a renewed women’s movement — were vitally linked to
that egalitarian left. Those movements drew institutional resources,
including organizing talents and committed activists, from that older
left and built on both the legislative and the ideological victories
it had won. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, fears of a
relentless Republican juggernaut pressured those left of center to
take a defensive stance, focusing on the immediate goal of electing
Democrats to stem or slow the rightward tide. At the same time,
business interests, in concert with the Republican right and supported
by an emerging wing of neoliberal Democrats, set out to roll back as
many as possible of the social protections and regulations the left
had won. As this defensiveness overtook leftist interest groups,
institutions, and opinion leaders, it increasingly came to define
left-wing journalistic commentary and criticism. New editorial voices


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