The Radical Liberal: New Man in American Politics
Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority
The New Left, together with the war in Vietnam, has moved many liberals several degrees leftward; this may be its chief contribution, so far, to American politics. Today the call for a “new politics” is sounded not only by radicals but by liberals opposed to the war and increasingly alarmed by the breakdown of representative government and the drift toward violence. Even though the Left itself has failed to put together a movement capable of revolutionizing American society, it has communicated to many people a sense of crisis, an awareness of the system’s unresponsiveness to their needs, which has turned them from admirers of American democracy into harsh critics.
After the ruins of the Conference for New Politics, which better than any other event illustrated the weakness, confusion, and incompetence of the New Left, there has grown up another kind of new politics, scorned by the far Left but capable of organizing masses of voters behind the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Kennedy’s assassination, appalling in itself, also dramatizes the condition which gave rise to these movements in the first place, the failure of the political system to function as it is supposed to function. The system no longer responds to the expressed wishes of the voters. If they elect Lyndon Johnson as a dove, he turns into a hawk; if they try to end the war by voting for Robert Kennedy, the arbitrary, unpredictable, and meaningless act of an assassin thwarts this choice as well. The nomination of Hubert Humphrey would only drive home the point, leaving those who briefly caught a glimpse of hope despairing and embittered, and at the same time determined to carry on in some form the revolt against the Johnson policies which for a time promised to capture the Democratic party.
SINCE THE “NEW POLITICS” promises to be with us for some time, it is important to ask whether it expresses anything more than opposition to the war, a growing concern about the divisions in American society, and a revolt against the present Democratic leadership. Some of the spokesmen for the antiwar movement and for democratic reform at home have begun to refer to themselves as “radical liberals” and to seek ways of extending liberalism beyond the cold-war consensus. They envision a new coalition of middle-class reformers, enlightened labor unions, students, and the poor, united behind a program of social change that would substantially alter American institutions while stopping short of revolution—an objective which the “radical liberals” consider unrealistic and probably undesirable as well. Their commitment to work within the existing political system distinguishes them from the militant leaders of the New Left, with whom, however, they share a dissatisfaction with the present state of American society so deep that it is unlikely they could be reconciled to a continuation of the old politics. As a new element in American politics, therefore, “radical liberalism” deserves careful attention. Is it capable of becoming a new majority? And if it did …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
The Future of Radicalism September 12, 1968