Why the New Left Is Now the Democratic Party

Original Article

If Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy were somehow resurrected and transported in time to the present, they would not recognize today’s Democratic Party in comparison to the one which raised them up as successful presidents in earlier times.

The two major political parties in the U.S. have always been fundamentally different. The Republican Party has been rooted in transcendent values and unchanging principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Democratic Party acknowledges that the starting point of the country was the Declaration and the Constitution, but has contended since Woodrow Wilson that progress requires constant adaptation, changing morals, and liberal interpretations of history.

The progressive philosophy that the Democratic Party has come to embrace now has its roots less in transcendent values of life, liberty and the pursuit of individual happiness and more in the tenets of class identity and equal outcomes. Since the free market system of capitalism produces unequal outcomes of success and wealth distribution, Democrats are generally disposed to ideas and input that purport to redress this disparity.

Powell: Why the New Left Is Now the Democratic Party

Democratic Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, 1961. (AP File)

The best critique of early industrial capitalism came from the German philosopher Karl Marx, who believed that the contradictory forces of labor and capital inevitably bring about class struggle. This in turn would cause the working class proletariat to rise up and overthrow the capitalist order, seize the means of production, eliminate private property and create a new order that would equitably distribute resource from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need. The notion of conflict of interest between labor and capital, class warfare and the need for government redistribution of wealth, which has made its way into the Democratic Party, has its roots in Marx.

Of course the proletariat never rose up in any advanced industrialized state. Instead Marx’s political and economic solution was first implemented in the largely agrarian nation of Russia, carried out by Marxist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Lenin made major contributions to Marx’s theories, so much so that Marxism-Leninism became the dominant theoretical framework for advancing national liberation movements and communism wherever in the world secular radical revolutionary movements arose.

Among Lenin’s contributions was the theory of the vanguard. Since the proletariat masses would never rise up, Lenin argued that it was necessary for a relatively small number of vanguard leaders—professional revolutionaries—to advance the revolutionary cause by working themselves into positions of influence. By taking over the commanding heights of labor unions, the press, the universities, professional and religious organizations, a relatively few number of revolutionaries could multiply their influence and exercise political leverage over their unwitting constituents and society at large.

It was Lenin who introduced the concept of the “popular front” and coined the phrase “useful idiots” in describing the masses who could be manipulated into mob action of marches and protests for an ostensibly narrow cause of the popular front, which the communist vanguard was using as a means for a greater revolutionary political end.

While Lenin was seizing power in Russia, Antonio Gramsci was emerging as a leading Marxist theoretician in Italy and would found the Italian Communist Party in 1921. After being imprisoned by Mussolini, the Fascist Prime Minister of Italy, Gramsci authored what came to be called the Prison Notebooks, partially published in 1947 and in complete form in 1975, a legacy that made him one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the 20th century.  Gramsci argued that power for the communist is best attained in developed, industrialized societies such as Europe and the United States through “the long march through the institutions.”  This would be a gradual process of radicalization of the cultural institutions—“the superstructure”—of bourgeois society, a process that would in turn transform the values and morals of society. Gramsci believed that as society’s morals were softened its political and economic foundation would be more easily smashed and restructured.

Cultural Marxism was also in vogue at the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University in Germany—that is until 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Many members of the Frankfurt School, such as Herbert Marcuse, Eric Fromm, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkeimer and William Reich fled to the United States, where they ultimately found their way into professorships at various elite universities such as Berkeley, Columbia, and Princeton.  In the context of American culture, “the long march through the institutions” meant, in the words of Herbert Marcuse, “working against the established institutions while working in them.”

The countercultural influence of radicals like Marcuse and Gramsci has been advanced more by insinuation and infiltration than by confrontation. Their “quiet” revolution was intended to be diffused throughout the culture, over a period of time, to remake society.  Gramsci argued that alliances with non-communist leftist groups would be essential to the collapse of the capitalist bourgeois order.  Marcuse believed in an alliance between radical intellectuals and the socially marginalized, the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and ethnicities, the unemployed and the unemployable.  By the late 1960s Marcuse became known as the father of the New Left in the United States that rose up to oppose the Vietnam War.

The New Left counterculture did not end when the troops came home from Southeast Asia. It went mainstream, with many of the 60s radicals becoming professional revolutionaries who would go on to work in the knowledge industry: the universities, foundations, and the media and special interest activist groups.

By winning “cultural hegemony” acolytes of Gramsci and the Neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School believed that the wellsprings of human thought could be largely controlled by mass psychology.  Resistance to cultural Marxism and its entire secular progressive offspring could be largely silenced and negated by ridiculing and marginalizing people of opposing views.  Allies in the media provided coverage and a framework of acceptance for radical issues and leaders.  Traditional values of morality, family, the work ethic and free market institutions would be made to appear reactionary, unnecessary and culturally unfashionable. Ultimately this evolved into what has become known as political correctness.

As the 1970s were coming to a close the counter-cultural alliances would include radical feminist groups, civil rights and ethnic minority advocates, extremist environmental organizations, anti-military peace groups, union leaders, radical legal activist organizations like the ACLU, human rights watch-dog organizations, community organizers of the Saul Alinsky mode, national and world church council bureaucracies, and various internationalist-minded groups. Working separately and together, these groups could count on favorable media exposure, which facilitated building bridges to the Democratic Party—becoming vocal constituencies deserving attention and legislative action.

The New Left in America realized that it was neither necessary nor desirable to own the means of production as originally envisioned by Marx. Redistribution could be accomplished through progressive taxation that was enshrined by an enlightened Democratic Party. Corporate priorities could be redirected through sensational and biased media exposure, proxy contests, mass demonstrations, activist lawsuits and regulatory actions. No need to be responsible for the means of production, when you could advance Marx’s anti-capitalist narrative by indicting individual corporations and capitalism from the sidelines.

By the 1980s a third of the Democrats in the U.S.  House of Representatives supported the budgetary priorities and the foreign policy advocated by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), the leading revolutionary Marxist think tank in the United States, located Washington, D.C. Robert Borosage, the director of IPS, was advancing one of his key stated goals: “to move the Democratic Party’s debate internally to the left by creating an invisible presence in the party.”  The particular genius of Borosage and IPS was their strategy to spawn a myriad of spin-offs and coalitions, a force multiplier that took propaganda and the Leninist popular front strategy to a new level.

Powell: Why the New Left Is Now the Democratic Party

Obama inauguration January 2009 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

By 2008, the long march through the institutions resulted in the New Left being deeply entrenched in constituencies that provided a bedrock of support and policy positions for the Obama presidential campaign. And while Barack Obama had a very unconventional background punctuated by associations with Marxists and anti-American radicals throughout his life, and an extreme left-wing voting record, the major media–now enveloped with political correctness–made little effort to report on his background or examine his substantive qualifications. Barack Obama was both the culturally cool and articulate black candidate who provided a means for national redemption for a racist past and also the one who provided a blank slate upon which people could project their own desires for hope and change.

Upon assuming office, President Obama had no problem bypassing the Constitutional advise-and-consent role of Congress in his appointment of a record number of czars, many of whom were so radical they would have failed to pass Senate confirmation. One of the offshoots of former IPS director Robert Borosage was the Apollo Alliance, an organization that he co-founded in 2001. Apollo saw its political clout increase dramatically with the election of Barack Obama. Van Jones, a self-described communist and an Apollo Alliance activist was appointed Green Jobs czar by President Obama. A month after inauguration, a centerpiece of Apollo’s policy agenda was packaged right into the $787 billion stimulus bill, which directed $110 billion to green jobs programs.  At the time of the passage of that bill—what came to be known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “The Apollo Alliance has been an important factor in helping us develop and execute the strategy…”

In a free society extreme and derivative ideologies from the destructive legacy of Marx can find some appeal to the disaffected. A constitutional republic like the United States should have sufficient strength to withstand most contradictions and absurdities. The problem today is that the American two-party system of checks and balances, which works best when compromise can be accomplished between the parties, has been thwarted. With the long march through the institutions having resulted in one of those parties no longer sharing much in the way of common ground—in terms of philosophical heritage and values of liberty, private property and limited government—compromise has become nearly impossible. The infusion of Neo-Marxism into the Democratic Party has so affected Congress and the current president as to render bipartisan solutions and leadership unworkable.

The experimentation with a left-wing president, like Barack Obama, may be less an aberration than the logical outcome of the transformation of the Democratic Party. The Republic can survive President Obama, who will, after all, be voted out after one term or forced out after two terms. It may have more difficulty surviving and prospering if the culture remains fractured with a majority adrift from the heritage and values of liberty and personal responsibility that are at the heart of the Declaration and the Constitution. For now Americans need to vote with the confidence that they still have the power to change the course of the nation and restore a free and vibrant economy and secure the blessings that will follow.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.