Before authorities could arraign Jared Loughner on criminal charges for shooting Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people, six fatally, liberal journalists had already delivered a guilty verdict on the political charges. There's no place in a democracy for "eliminationist" rhetoric, Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote the day after the Tucson attacks. Its "saturation of our political discourse—and especially our airwaves" lies behind a "rising tide of violence." The "toxic rhetoric," he contended, is coming "overwhelmingly, from the right," and has acquired strength and legitimacy because "the purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the G.O.P. establishment."
George Packer of the New Yorker reached the same conclusion. For the past two years, he wrote, "many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures" have done "everything possible to turn [their political opponents] into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale." The core problem, again, is that the "relentlessly hostile rhetoric...has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders."
Conservatives objected that many zealots on the Left had behaved as irresponsibly as those on the Right, without receiving so much as a speeding ticket from the rhetoric police. Two days after the Tucson shootings a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, Paul Kanjorski, wrote a New York Times op-ed urging "all Americans to create an atmosphere of civility and respect in which political discourse can flow freely, without fear of violent confrontation." It turned out that Kanjorski, three months prior to this appeal, had called Florida's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rick Scott, a "damn crook" and told a reporter Floridians should, "Put him against the wall and shoot him." The atmosphere of civility and respect during George W. Bush's presidency was such that New York's comptroller, Alan Hevesi, could deliver a college commencement address praising a fellow New York Democrat, Senator Charles Schumer, as someone who would "put a bullet between the president's eyes if he could get away with it."
Liberal writers insisted the excesses on the Left were nothing more than random incidents, while those on the Right formed a sinister pattern. "In fact," Packer declared, "there is no balance—none whatsoever." Conservatives alone are guilty of sins that include making "the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement," and filling "the AM waves with rage and incendiary falsehoods."
This reaction to the Tucson shooting was consistent because it was well prepared: liberals had been warning about the Right's discourse since Barack Obama was elected president. In April 2010, for example, Newsweek's Ellis Cose condemned conservative rhetoric by putting it in historical perspective. Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, told him that to find American political speech as raw as that employed by modern conservatives, "I think you have to go back to the '60s, early '70s."
The crazy talk then, [Frank] noted, was from the radical left, the likes of [Students for a Democratic Society]. But at least in that era, respectable liberals denounced the radical fringe. Now the Republican establishment quietly acquiesces. And the right-wing media egg it on.
Which respectable liberals, and which denunciations, were Cose and Frank referring to? The article didn't elaborate, and inquiries to Cose and Congressman Frank's press office elicited no replies.
Having it Both Ways
More than debating points about who started what and who behaved worse are at stake. Throughout the 20th century many politicians and scholars considered the ideological heterogeneity of America's two main political parties both offensive and absurd. Franklin Roosevelt tried and failed to purge conservative Democratic incumbents in 1938's primary elections, hoping to replace them with ardent New Dealers. In 1950 the American Political Science Association's Committee on Political Parties issued a widely discussed report, "Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System." It called for parties that "provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives of action." Doing so will help voters "keep the parties apart," and help politicians "consolidate public attitudes" toward distinct "work plans of government."
The central feature of the FDR and APSA vision has now been realized: ideological overlap between our two major political parties has dwindled to nothing. The rankings by the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), for example, showed that the most conservative Democrat in the U.S. Senate in 2010, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, was more liberal than the two most liberal Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. As recently as 1994, the second year of another newly elected Democratic president's term, the two most liberal Republican senators, Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, ranked higher on the ADA scorecard than 20 of the 56 Democratic senators.
For better or worse, then, we have arrived at a clear dichotomy between a liberal party and a conservative one. Historical, regional, or ethnic factors have been subordinated to ideological commitments as the basis for partisan affiliation. A two-party system in a nation as big and diverse as modern America necessarily means, however, that these parties are still going to be coalitions. Thus, the Senate Democrats range from Ben Nelson to senators who received perfect scores from ADA in 2010, such as Tom Harkin of Iowa and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, while the Republican coalition included Collins and Snowe as well as James Inhofe of Oklahoma and James DeMint of South Carolina, who receive very low marks from ADA and very high ones from its counterpart, the American Conservative Union.
There is, however, an important asymmetry between the two parties, according to the arguments made by Krugman, Packer, and other writers and politicians after Tucson: the Democrats are a Center-Left coalition, in which the large majority committed to substantive incrementalism and democratic attitudes and processes marginalizes the small minority of extremists. The Republicans, it is alleged, are a Right-Center one, in which radicals who demand dramatic policy changes and have no scruples about asserting that liberals constitute a disloyal opposition call the shots and dominate the shrinking number of centrists.
Moreover, according to the argument made by Cose and the many people who agree with him, this difference between liberalism and conservatism is long-standing and fundamental. The test that conservatives are now failing, by acceding to Tea Party and talk-radio extremists, is one that liberals passed. We are told that when, 40 years ago, radical leftists resorted to violent words and deeds to protest the Vietnam War, institutionalized racism, and the wickedness of "Amerika" in general—respectable liberals met the challenge, and did what decency and democracy require by sternly rebuking the zealots.
Did they? The record is more interesting and equivocal than Cose suggests. It shows that neither then, when it would have counted, nor later, when it would have clarified, did most mainstream liberals offer up anything as direct and definitive as a stern, unqualified denunciation of the New Left, black nationalists, or other activists inspired by them. The more common response was to try to have it both ways, to suggest that the radicals behaved regrettably, at worst, but that the social evils they opposed explained and to some degree justified their conduct. As the years went by, having it both ways meant that this ambivalent response to the radical fringe would be collectively remembered as having been a principled, unyielding one.
Back to the '60s
Consider the protests that shut down many American colleges in the late 1960s. In one of the most notorious episodes students belonging to Cornell University's Afro-American Society (AAS), armed with loaded rifles, occupied the student union building in April 1969, protesting campus disciplinary procedures and the funding and governance of a new black studies program. University administrators negotiated an end to the takeover, promising amnesty to the students who were in the building and nullification of previous rulings against some AAS members by the campus judicial system.
When the faculty refused to ratify the settlement because its leniency towards the students had been compelled at gunpoint, one of the AAS leaders who had been among those who exited the student union with a firearm held defiantly high gave an interview to an Ithaca radio station. That student, Thomas Jones, set the gold standard for eliminationist rhetoric, naming four administrators and three faculty members as racists, saying of each, "And as racists they will be dealt with." He went on to say, "Before this is over James Perkins [the university president], Allan Sindler, and Clinton Rossiter [political science professors] are going to die in the gutter like dogs."
When the interviewer asked if there was anything Cornell could do, Jones replied, "I would suggest that the faculty have an emergency meeting tonight and, if they can do so by nine o'clock, nullify this decision. After nine o'clock it's going to be too late.... Cornell University has three hours to live."
Cornell missed Jones's deadline by a few hours, but otherwise complied with his demands. Between the broadcast threats and the possibility other students would take over other campus buildings, the faculty capitulated, reversing its earlier decision and ratifying the administration's original deal with AAS. Within six weeks unfavorable publicity about the crisis at Cornell, and some professors' insistence that academic freedom there had become a farce, caused the president to resign.
Did respectable liberals denounce Cornell's radical fringe? Some did at first, but quickly came to their senses. Two days after the rifle-toting students left the Cornell student union in triumph, a New York Times editorial called their action "an intolerable display of coercion." "If agreements extorted under duress are to be honored by campus authorities," the Times warned, "the American university is embarked on a course of self-destruction, not self-government."
By the time the Cornell drama had played out, however, the Times editorial page had taken a decidedly neutral stand. The resignation of President Perkins, it declared, was "a triumph for extremists of all varieties." This "tragic" result was caused by his efforts to avert a "disaster" brought on "by militancy on the one hand and insensitivity on the other." The editorial circumspectly noted the "compromises in disciplinary procedures," which Cornell's "administration, perhaps mistakenly, felt it necessary to make in order to avert open warfare." In other words, the Times had retreated in a matter of weeks from saying that agreements extorted under duress would destroy the American university to the new position that honoring such an agreement might have been inadvisable—but then again it might not.
Only "blindness to the lessons of history," the Times had asserted at the start of the crisis, could account for the failure to perceive the fundamental similarity between the armed Cornell militants and "jackbooted students with daggers and sidearms" who trampled academic freedom at German universities in the 1930s. Within weeks, however, the paper had reverted to the comfortable, familiar position of carefully calibrated moral equivalence, lamenting that Perkins, a "genuine liberal," was "trapped in a crossfire...sniped at by radicals and conservatives among faculty and students alike."
The New Republic sped immediately to the equivocal position that the Times needed some weeks to fashion. Yes, the magazine allowed archly in an unsigned editorial, "One may say that sacred canons and immortal institutions are being undermined," and that harsh words like "appeasement" and "capitulation" fairly describe the Cornell administration's response to the campus militants. A more cheerful interpretation was at least equally plausible, however. Perhaps an incident like Cornell's is "a creative development in our democratic experiment, one characterized by sharp collisions, and in which contending interests test themselves and each other, discovering in the process what can be done to reconcile their differences."
After all, the editorial continued, "the black students at Cornell, or at least some of them, had their reasons for thinking they might need to defend themselves against violent attack." Moreover, their motivation was "not so much a demand for a larger piece of the pie, as a hand on the knife that cuts the pie." Since blacks "are fed up being a servant class," it is only natural for them to "want the self-knowledge that they have won more authority, not through the charitable beneficence of the whites, but through their own militance."
The New York Times columnist Tom Wicker was more solicitous of the student militants than either the New Republic or his own paper's editorialists. Wicker's column right after the takeover of the student union contended that the incident demonstrated "a final belief on the part of blacks that they must arm themselves in order to improve their lot—perhaps even to survive—in America." That belief might be mistaken, Wicker argued, but "if blacks think the situation is hopeless, then it might as well be so." In his view, the Cornell upheaval proved it was urgent "to make clear and unmistakable, to blacks as well as whites, an imperative national commitment to bridge this dark and yawning gulf that divides and threatens us." Setting up a framework that ruled out the possibility of ever criticizing any political acts by any disaffected blacks, Wicker concluded, "If that commitment exists, not enough blacks can believe it. And the burden of proof is not on them."
Wicker never abandoned this doleful view of American race relations. In 1992, as he retired from the Times, he told the paper's interviewer that "fear and animosity" between the races was greater than at the time of the Brown school desegregation decision in 1954. "In the approach to legal segregation and discrimination problems, we've done rather well. In the greater problem of reconciling people and causing them to live peacefully together and to accord respect to each other, we've not done so well."
The Chain of History
It's worth mentioning in this connection that Thomas Jones, the black undergraduate who led the effort to cleanse Cornell's racism, by blood if necessary, somehow managed to flourish in a bigoted society. He stayed at Cornell to complete his bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in regional planning, before earning an MBA from Boston University. Jones feared, however, that the legacy of 1969 had made him a "marked man" with no future, as he told the Wall Street Journal in 1997.
He was marked only to glide from one triumph to the next, however, going to work for the accounting firm Arthur Young, then switching to the John Hancock insurance company, where he rose to become senior vice president and treasurer. After seven years Jones left Hancock for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association College Retirement Equities Fund, becoming its president and CEO in 1993, which was also the year he joined the board of...Cornell University. Upon becoming a trustee he endowed the school's James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony, named in honor of the white college president he had threatened to murder.
If you saw a headline about a former leader of Operation Rescue joining the board of Planned Parenthood, you would expect the accompanying article to be about the renunciation of his prior anti-abortion beliefs and actions. No such contrition was demanded from Jones, either by the businesses he worked for or Cornell. Rather, the student union takeover had been an event "that made that chain of history that led directly to Barack Obama being elected," Jones told the Cornell student paper in 2009. Did the takeover compromise academic freedom at Cornell? He didn't see what the one thing had to do with the other:
I'm not quite sure what the direct threat to academic freedom would have been because there was nothing in the takeover that was directed at any specific threat to any professor or any specific textbook or any specific teaching. It was more about what wasn't being taught.... I'm not quite clear how trying to get new information, new subject matter into use, abridges anyone's academic freedom.... We were simply saying that the full story needs to be told and Cornell is not telling the full story.
When asked if he had any regrets about his actions 40 years earlier, Jones had a carefully limited answer:
My only regret is the personal toll. I regret those black students who didn't finish their degrees. And I regret those professors who quit in anger. And I regret Pres. Perkins losing his job, losing the presidency. But I don't regret being one of those who stood up for the fight that we fought that we thought we had to engage in.... The only place I ever achieved the real selfless satisfaction of being part of something so much bigger than me was at Cornell. So I don't have any regrets about that.
The unapologetic apology, expressing atmospheric remorse while taking pride in specific deeds that were necessary and laudable, has become the dominant retrospective mode for graying radicals. "I don't regret setting bombs," the former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers said in a story the New York Times happened to run on September 11, 2001. "I feel we didn't do enough." After the day's slaughter of nearly 3,000 Americans by fanatics made it hard for some readers to appreciate the nobility of the actions Ayers had once taken and still defended, he tried to clarify things in a letter to the editor. "I had a thousand regrets," it said, "but no regrets for opposing the war [in Vietnam] with every ounce of my strength." Yes, he allowed, he had made "complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices...in those terrible times," but all things considered, he and his comrades had shown "remarkable restraint."
Ayers became an issue during the 2008 presidential campaign, as people argued over the nature of his association with Barack Obama. Some respectable liberals did denounce him and what he stood for. They did so, however, on the narrow, self-serving grounds that extreme leftists had embarrassed less-extreme leftists. Ayers and the Weather Underground "did real harm," according to Michael Kinsley. "Their victims were liberals: the millions of people who...opposed the Vietnam War but didn't hate their country." As Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation, "I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left.... I'd like him to say he's sorry...he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people."
You can imagine, wrote Kinsley, "how infuriating it was to the organizers of the big marches on Washington—struggling to keep them peaceful—that there were people of the left effectively in cahoots with the Nixon Administration, determined to undermine all those efforts." Recalling his work in the tamer precincts of the anti-war movement, Princeton political scientist Michael Walzer lamented in 2008, "Too many leftists in those years believed in the maxim of ‘No enemies to the left!'" Walzer's wing of the movement "didn't spell America with a ‘k' and we didn't wave Viet Cong flags, but some of our allies did, and we never figured out how to distance ourselves from them."
We Get What We Want
But what was there, exactly, to figure out? The generation that came up with the slogan "Do it!" could have grasped, had it cared to, that the way to rebuke haters and crazies who called for the murder of college presidents and the victory of the Viet Cong...was to rebuke haters and crazies who called for the murder of college presidents and the victory of the Viet Cong. If respectable liberals had emphatically denounced the radical fringe, insisting that their violent rhetoric and actions were idiotic, odious, and indefensible, the citizens to whom the liberals were trying to appeal would have been able to make the necessary, un-esoteric distinctions.
Instead of condemnation, respectable liberals offered commiseration. The week after the Cornell crisis Tom Wicker wrote a column about campus protests in general. He took note of the opinion, expressed by the president of Harvard, Nathan Pusey, that "disruption and coercion have absolutely no place" in "the free and open university where the governing considerations must be reason and civility." Wicker did so, however, only to refute Pusey and vindicate the disruptive and even coercive students who believe "‘reason and civility' merely cloak hypocrisy and cynicism."
Student rhetoric suggests, for instance, how profoundly student movements have been affected by the undeclared and what many regard as an "immoral" war in Vietnam, and by the struggle for racial equality in America. In both cases, strong convictions have developed that the democratic processes of rational debate and majority voting have not worked, at least not well or swiftly enough.
Why not? Students everywhere volubly hold to the belief that an "Establishment"—political, social, economic, military—manipulates society for its own ends, so that the popular rule of the people is a myth. The war goes on, racism continues, poverty remains, despite the familiar American preachments of peace, democracy, prosperity and the rule of reason....
[If] the war in Vietnam is "immoral" and unreasonable and if ROTC provides a large share of the officers to fight that war, how can a university dedicated to reason and humanity sustain ROTC? Who really abandoned "reason and civility," students asked—the students who seized a building to protest the Harvard Corporation's retention of ROTC, or the administrators who called in police to evict the protesters with what was widely regarded as excessive violence? These are the kinds of questions the "honest generation" is asking, and the kinds of questions that feed its "war on hypocrisy."
Wicker's argument shows that for both the radical fringe and its respectable liberal apologists, "democracy" can be reduced to a single imperative: We get what we want. That is, "The democratic processes of rational debate and majority voting have not worked, at least not well or swiftly enough," is another way of saying, We haven't gotten what we want. When elected executives and legislators don't move fast or far enough to halt a war, redress racial inequality, or fulfill any other item on the Left's agenda, the government's policy never gets credit for having some measure of democratic legitimacy. If the war in Vietnam wasn't ended, or Marshall Plans for the inner cities weren't enacted, this was proof that democracy had been corrupted, thwarted, or hijacked. There was no room in this analytical framework for the possibilities that: people with opposing views had a right to them; that such people might sometimes on some questions constitute a majority; and that no matter how lofty or urgent the cause, it did not justify political actions beyond persuading enough of those people to change their minds in order to forge a new majority with different preferences.
A Higher Type of Life
American liberalism, like leftist movements everywhere, has had a complicated and often disingenuous understanding of democracy's requirements. Liberals are, at bottom, dissatisfied with "mere democracy" and its prosaic institutions of electing or removing representatives who devise and implement public policy. Democracy should be, should mean, something more.
In the Progressive manifesto, The Promise of American Life (1909), Herbert Croly argued that majority rule is "merely one means to an extremely difficult, remote, and complicated end," and that the "bestowal and the exercise of political and civil rights are merely a method of organization." To be legitimate, they must be "used in proper subordination to the ultimate democratic purpose," which is "the gradual creation of a higher type of individual and associated life." If not so enlisted, "the actions or decisions of a majority need not have any binding moral and national authority." By the same token, civil and political rights are "details" of organizing a democracy, according to Croly, meaning that to "cleave" to them "as the very essence of democracy is utterly to pervert the principle of national democratic Sovereignty."
Similarly, John Dewey's sympathetic biographer Alan Ryan argued that Dewey believed democracy would not have fulfilled its potential if it were "just a political system in which governments elected by majority vote made such decisions as they could." As Dewey wrote in 1937:
The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality.
Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living. They are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end [sic].
Croly and Dewey were right to say that majority rule is not a sufficient condition for democracy. Contending that true democracy also requires the emergence of new modes of human personality and social life, as opposed to republican virtues and habits arduously wrought over long centuries, was amorphous and even risible, but not inherently dangerous. Free people could take up the theoreticians' challenge to fashion a higher type of life, and then leave the commune or cult on their own when they realized the project's inanity.
Far more ominous was Croly and Dewey's clear message that majority rule and civil rights aren't even necessary conditions for democracy. If the mundane features of mere democracy fail, somehow, to secure the lofty attributes of true democracy, whatever that turns out to mean, it is the former that can be modified or jettisoned, not the latter that must be clarified. It's no surprise that by 1927 Croly, the New Republic's first editor, empathized with Mussolini's Blackshirts in the same way that the magazine's later editors would succor Cornell's black militants. Whatever the dangers of fascism, Croly wrote, "it has at any rate substituted movement for stagnation, purposive behavior for drifting, and visions of great future [sic] for collective pettiness and discouragement."
Ideas like Croly and Dewey's proved infinitely useful throughout the 20th century for those seeking a democratic excuse to strangle democracy. Despite the material and moral shabbiness of life in the German Democratic Republic, for example, and its pervasive cynicism, there were committed Communists who sincerely believed it really was democratic and republican in ways essential to the pursuit of true democracy, thus permitting and ultimately necessitating the Stasi's depredations.
The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wasn't undemocratic in quite the same way as the German Democratic Republic, but neither was democratic in the ways city council elections and meetings are. The SDS contribution to the effort to define true democracy was the concept of "participatory democracy." The idea, such as it was, held that elected representatives, set apart from the citizen-electors by virtue of being elected, ceased to be representative. True democracy could not withstand the attenuation caused by delegating authority, and needed to be kept close to the citizens trying to determine the contours of their lives and communities.
Paul Berman, a writer who had been an SDS member, argued that those invested in the concept of participatory democracy "didn't intend to get rid of representative democracy, or to abolish the idea of leadership, or to do away with any of the other normal requisites of a functioning organization. But soon enough they took their idea to mean those very things."
Internally, SDS was given over to marathon meetings meant to achieve unanimous consent on every question because, as one member wrote in 1965, "[M]any of us regard voting as undemocratic." One SDS chapter, Berman recorded in a 1987 book review, "held a 24-hour meeting to decide whether to take a day off and go to the beach." Ultimately, he writes, participatory democracy "became a formula for demagoguery and chaos."
Externally, the belief that voting was undemocratic meant that policies enacted by politicians who had won elections had no particular democratic legitimacy, especially if those policies were ones SDS disliked. The notion of participatory democracy became the seedbed for what Berman describes as SDS's "degeneration into violence and irrationality," and its "final embrace of totalitarian doctrines."
The transitive properties of the "No enemies to the Left" rule meant that respectable liberals couldn't bring themselves to criticize the tame activists, who couldn't bring themselves to dissociate from the fierce ones. They were all so disposed because the historicism of American progressive thought provides no basis for drawing lines in the sand. The American republic had an unfolding destiny rather than an essence; progressivism's raison d'être was to discern and build that destiny, to take us beyond our "political and governmental phase of democracy," in Dewey's words, to the next, higher phase of human and social development. Thus, liberals had always looked to radicals for their "vision" of "secular transcendence," the leftist historian Michael Kazin wrote in Liberalism for a New Century (2007), a collection of essays. Having lost confidence in their own technocratic vision—justifiably, since McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara personified it—the liberals of the 1960s could find no basis to reject the idea that the "idealistic" young had the surer grasp of America's destiny, even when the idealism degenerated into irrationality and violence. It was only years later, after Radical Fringe came in dead last, that those who had wagered on him agreed to pretend that there had been a mix-up at the window, and all of them had always meant to put their money on a different horse.
The '60s liberals in academia, journalism, and politics fawned over the New Left radicals who delighted in tormenting them. This doesn't mean that the liberals were guilty of moral cowardice, exactly, since they didn't compromise or abandon their beliefs. They just revealed that they never really believed their beliefs. Allan Bloom, a refugee from the Cornell political science faculty in 1969, wrote later in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) that the "universities gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide." The student radicals had discovered that the "pompous teachers who catechized them about academic freedom" did not, in fact, "really believe that freedom of thought was necessarily a good and useful thing."
Students and colleagues wanted to radicalize and politicize the university. To fulminate against Bible Belt preachers was one thing. In the world that counted for these professors, this could only bring approval. But to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them.
The corollary of the principle that there can be no enemies to the Left is that there are no allies to the Right. Since respectable liberals couldn't or wouldn't criticize the radical fringe directly, some tried to admonish it by invoking the threat of a common enemy. Tom Wicker did so apocalyptically, warning demonstrators that "the inevitable reaction" to campus disorder will be "even greater irrationality and disorder, leading finally to severe repression." The New Republic did so strategically, arguing in 1969 that campus unrest at Berkeley had accomplished little "for blacks or whites, or for teaching, or for the surrounding communities." What it had done was "enhance the political fortunes of Ronald Reagan." Because "a growing body of opinion is appalled by what it sees and hears" on campuses like Cornell, "student-baiting may become as profitable to the politician on the make as red-baiting once was."
Such forebodings about the electoral consequences of the radical fringe's conduct were not groundless. The explicit slogan of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign was "Come Home, America," but its implicit message to the factions of the American Left, near and far, was, "Come home; all's forgiven." The Democrats' enmity and disarray in 1968 had proven anew that a house divided cannot stand: their presidential nominee received 42.7% of the popular vote, far lower than the 61.1% Lyndon Johnson had won in 1964. The 1972 Democrats went on to demonstrate that an asylum united can't stand, either: George McGovern won 37.5% of the popular vote.
In Divided They Fell (1996) historian Ronald Radosh recounts a meeting on the eve of the 1972 Democratic convention between Senator McGovern and 300 protestors, "many from the Maoist Progressive Labor Party" and others from SDS. The good news is that McGovern politely refused their demand that he back down from his promise to wives of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam to "retain a military capability in Southeast Asia until the POWs were released." Furthermore, he declined to add his name to the protestors' petition "calling for life imprisonment for police who killed blacks in the ghettos." The bad news is that McGovern chose to meet—at all, in public, on television, and respectfully—with loons whom one of his third-tier campaign aides should have told to go commit a self-regarding but anatomically impossible act.
A Great Country
McGovern, SDS, Cornell—it was a long time ago. We're as many years removed from all that as those figures and events were from Hoovervilles, speakeasies, and Lucky Lindy. "How many more elections can conservatives win by campaigning against Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale?" David Frum asked before the 2008 election. Barack Obama's victory, in spite of his association with Bill Ayers and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, suggests the correct answer is, "Zero."
Given what they did and didn't write on it, liberals are even more eager to turn the page. The New Yorker's David Remnick complained that Bill Ayers had been "a punching bag of the right wing" during the 2008 election. Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004), was even more incensed. He wrote that the disparagement of Ayers, "a man who poses no conceivable threat to the country" and has "nothing to do with this year's issues," was the Republicans' "vilest hour." Like the partisans who continued to seek votes by "waving the bloody shirt" decades after the end of the Civil War, the culture warriors who refight the 1960s use "the familiar demagogic tactic of our own time," Frank contended, as conservatives try to revive Americans' "fading rancor" from that era by "building monstrous offenses out of the tiniest slights."
But the determination to have it both ways remains, and remains poisonous. Remnick, for example, lets stand without comment or challenge Ayers's assertion that the Weathermen "killed no one and hurt no one. Three of our people killed themselves." This makes it sound like they committed suicide, driven to despair by the Vietnam War and black studies programs' meager budgets. In fact, the three died when the bombs packed with nails they were preparing to deliver and detonate during a dance at an army base blew up in their New York City townhouse. Ayers puts his associates' technical ineptitude on the credit side of the moral ledger, theirs and his, and Remnick goes along.
Frank argues that the Republicans still making an issue of Ayers and the 1960s in 2008 were as fatuous and cynical as the Republicans who, 31 years after Appomattox, campaigned against Democrats by asking voters to reject "anarchy and repudiation." The thing about cynicism, though, is that even if people don't believe what they're saying—and whether they do or don't really believe it is usually impossible for others to know—that doesn't mean that what they're saying is wrong. There's no way to make sense of the Civil War without grasping that the South's repudiation of the Constitution's authority was anarchic. As Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address:
Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism.
According to the 1896 Republican campaign, many Democrats, members of the party that defended slavery before 1865 and Jim Crow after 1877, acknowledged that secessionists had lost the war but refused to concede they had lost the argument. That party, home to those who flouted the 14th and 15th amendments, differed from the Democrats of 1861 only in the belief that while laws enacted by a majority held in restraint by constitutional limitations could be legitimately defied, this defiance should be carried out shrewdly rather than valiantly.
Barack Obama's Democratic Party is as congenial a home for the 1960s' rebels and their apologists as William Jennings Bryan's Democratic Party was for the 1860s' rebels and theirs. It looks non-judgmentally upon Bill Ayers's demand, as lethal to constitutionalism as Jefferson Davis's, that those who deplore a policy enacted by a democratically elected government may rightfully seek to thwart it by asserting all the prerogatives of revolutionaries without surrendering any of the rights of citizens. When the government dropped criminal charges against him because some of its evidence had been obtained by illegal wiretaps, Ayers gloated, "Guilty as hell, and free as a bird. It's a great country."
The radical fringe wanted to live outside the law and also inside the law. Respectable liberals wanted to let them. They lent a hand by praising the radicals with faint damns, then quickly changing the subject to the extenuating circumstances that rendered the fringe's deeds kinda-sorta understandable, acceptable, and even admirable.
Thomas Frank thunders that attacking Ayers at this late date is "desperate and grotesque." But if the historical dangers Ayers posed have receded, the political dangers of Ayers-ism remain. No experiment in self-government can accommodate the rule that those intensely committed to their own political ideals deserve extra-democratic powers to make the laws and extra-legal opportunities to break them. One way to keep hope alive about our experiment is to believe that the earnest and explicit rejection of participatory totalitarianism is a stronger, more durable political force than the cavalier, implicit acceptance of it. America, after all, really is a great country.