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An interminable war in Indochina; the revolutionary movement elsewhere in disarray; the American left fragmented and driven onto the defensive; Nixon acting belatedly but with apparent success to disarm his opponents; public services in decline; the quality of public discussion lower than ever; demoralization and drift on every side—the political scene has seldom looked more dreary. Only three years ago the glacial rigidity of American politics appeared to be breaking up. Even habitual pessimists proclaimed a “great thaw.” Columbia, Paris, the dumping of Johnson seemed so many proofs that the diverse strands making up the new left had finally coalesced as a movement, a political force.
Now it appears that the new left, even in the moment of its apparent triumphs, had already passed the peak of its influence. The Chicago convention was an end rather than a beginning. The nomination of Humphrey and, even more important, the smooth handing-on of the war from a Democratic to a Republican administration showed how limited was the left’s capacity to influence national events; while the government emerged from the turmoil of ‘68 slightly shaken but capable of carrying on a hateful war, of intimidating or outflanking its critics, and even—as recent events have shown—of acting with decisiveness and imagination.
The collapse of the new left became unmistakable in 1969 with the split in SDS, the emergence of the Weathermen, and the virtual disappearance of the antiwar movement. The Chicago trial, the Spock case, the Berrigan affair, and the harassment of the Panthers forced radicals on the defensive and obliged them to expend their energies on self-preservation. Meanwhile the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy removed the foremost leaders of an aspiring liberal resurgence, while the failure of the McCarthy campaign solidified the defeat of left-leaning liberals.
Throughout the Sixties, there had been a reciprocal relation between Kennedy liberalism and the new left, easily overlooked by radicals who insist that the left thrives on repression. If the radical opposition widened the space available to respectable dissent and forced some establishment politicians to the left (the growing radicalism of Robert Kennedy himself being the clearest example), it is also true that the new left was helped into being in the first place by the new sense of expectancy introduced into American politics by John F. Kennedy, whatever his intentions, and kept alive by his brother.
The advent of Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell coincided with the dissipation of the moral energies of the black movement (briefly revived—a last gasp—after the death of King), the collapse of the antiwar movement, the sudden decline of campus militancy after Cambodia, and the spread of a new mood of uncertainty and resignation.
The degree of its dependence on the surrounding political environment reveals the failure of the American left to develop an autonomous life. The new left either refused or was unable to learn much from its predecessors, even from their mistakes, and in the end paid heavily for its indifference …
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