Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, kicked off the eighth season of the Center for American Progress’s Progressivism on Tap series on October 26 with a discussion on the challenges and accomplishments of the American left. Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., hosted the event.
Kazin opened by asking whether leftist movements of the last century were a success. This is hard to prove if success is measured by structural change. Radical movements in the United States historically do not leave behind lasting institutions, parties, or alternative economic theories. Kazin argued, however, that the left built an enduring cultural legacy—a significant expansion on the ideas of freedom and diversity and protection of rights for all members of society.
Further, pro-labor groups in the 1890s, civil rights and peace advocates in the 1960s, and anticapitalists in the 1990s were all radical voices that pushed the envelope on what constituted the "common good," pointing a finger at systems of discrimination and abuse at work in our society. If what is lacking in our progressive narrative today is a coherent economic alternative to the current brand of capitalism, Kazin said, what is very much alive and well is that “utopian idealism” of an America where no people are exploited, discriminated against, oppressed, or denied the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But progress takes time. Movements don’t affect policy change overnight, according to Kazin. Rather, major progressive successes historically occurred when radical movements were picked up, shaped, and enacted by liberal politicians and pragmatic theorists.
Conservative pushback against a liberalizing culture has been building for years, and Kazin admitted that telling young progressives simply “to defend the gains” of their predecessors may not be enough.
Instead, he concluded by offering a challenge: How can progressives help shape the radical voices at Occupy Wall Street into more successes for the left?