The Quiet Revolution: How the New Left Took Over the Democratic Party
Frustration with division and gridlock in Washington leads many Americans to impugn both political parties for the current broken and ineffective state of government. There is plenty of blame to go around, but below the surface there has been a quiet revolution going on in only one of the two parties -- the Democratic Party -- which is the main source of today’s irreconcilable division and moral confusion.
What’s remarkable is how the political and cultural center of American values has collapsed in the last two and a half decades with the Democratic Party having moved dramatically to the left. Recently, Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz could not explain the difference between the modern Democratic Party platform and that of socialism, while at the same time gushing over the prospect of Socialist Bernie Sanders having a prominent place at the 2016 Democratic Party convention.
If people today could somehow be transported back to the time of Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy, they would swear those standard bearers were Republicans with little in common with today’s Democratic Party.
America’s two major political parties have always been fundamentally different. The Republican Party has been rooted in the moral principles and transcendent values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Democratic Party acknowledges that the starting point of the country may have been the Declaration and the Constitution, but since Woodrow Wilson many Democratic Party leaders have contended that progress requires constant adaptation, changing morals, and liberal interpretations of law and history.
The progressive philosophy that the Democratic Party has come to embrace now has its roots less in the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of individual happiness and more in the tenets of race and class identity, equal outcomes, and an expanding welfare state. Since individuals vary in talent, ability, and motivation and the free market system produces unequal outcomes of success, a core principle of the Democratic Party is now redressing this disparity through the redistribution of wealth.
The strongest 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, he argued, causes 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 resources 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 redistribution of wealth, which has made its way into the Democratic Party, has its roots in Marx.
The proletariat never did revolt successfully en masse in any advanced industrialized state. Instead, Marx’s political and economic revolution was first staged 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 paradigm for advancing national liberation movements, communism, and socialism wherever in the world radical revolutionary movements arose.
Among Lenin’s contributions was the theory of the vanguard. Since it was apparent that the proletariat masses were unlikely to 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, and professional and religious organizations, a relatively small 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.
As Lenin was consolidating 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 communists’ route to taking power in developed, industrialized societies such as Europe and the United States would be best achieved through a “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 Wilhelm 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.”
While the Frankfurt School was neo-Marxist, many of its adherents were less interested in economics and redistribution of wealth than in remaking and transforming society through attitudinal and cultural change. They incorporated Marxist class theory into sociology and psychology while also assimilating Freud’s theories on sexuality. Thus, Marx’s theory of the dialectic of perpetual conflict was joined together with Freud’s neurotic ideas, creating a sort of Freudian-Marxism. Their stated goal was a total transformation of society by breaking down traditional norms and institutions such as monogamous relations and the traditional family. This was to be accomplished by promoting and legitimizing unhinged sexual permissiveness with no cultural or religious restraint.
The countercultural influence of radicals like Marcuse and Gramsci has been advanced more by insinuation and infiltration than by confrontation. Their “quiet” revolution to remake society was intended to be diffused throughout the culture gradually over a period of time. Gramsci argued that alliances with non-communist leftist groups would be essential to the collapse of the capitalist bourgeois order. Marcuse believed that radical intellectuals needed to ally themselves with the socially marginalized substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and ethnicities, the unemployed and the unemployable.
While the influence of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School and Marxists like Gramsci was greatest in intellectual circles in a strategic sense, Saul Alinsky arrived on the scene in Chicago in the 1930s with the tactical tools for the foot-soldiers of social and political revolution -- the community organizers and non-academic labor and single-issue activists.
Alinsky had a certain charm and appeal to wealthy funders, and had no trouble raising considerable sums to establish the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago from department store mogul Marshall Field and Sears Roebuck heiress Adele Rosenwald Levy, as well as Gardiner Howland Shaw, an assistant secretary of state in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Alinsky also had other benefactors in Washington and Wall Street. Eugene Meyer, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1930 to 1933, bought the Washington Post at a bankruptcy sale in 1933 for $825,000. During the difficult years of the Depression that followed, the Post carried stories that legitimized Saul Alinsky and his ideas.
In keeping with Lenin’s famous quote that “capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them,” Alinsky once boasted, "I feel confident that I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution for Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday."
Alinsky's tactics had more in common with Gramsci and Marcuse than the revolutionary and violent approaches of Russian Marxists Lenin and Stalin. Alinsky, too, believed in gradualism and subversion of the system through infiltration rather than confrontation and revolution.
Alinsky believed that politics was war by other means, stating specifically that “in war the end justifies almost any means.” But he was more than a nihilistic progressive revolutionary. Alinsky’s handbook, Rules for Radicals, first published in 1971, included an admiration for the prince of darkness, Lucifer, noting that he was “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom…”
By the 1960s Marcuse and Alinsky were recognized as two of the most influential leaders of the New Left, which gained strength and numbers by taking a leading role in the anti-Vietnam War movement. However, Alinsky and Marcuse were critical of the violent and confrontational tactics of many of the anti-war radicals, such as Bill Ayers and the Weathermen, preferring instead that radicals work behind the scenes and bore into the establishment. This was seen later in the 1960s with Alinskyites positioned to take advantage of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs, to direct federal money into various Alinksy projects.
Alinksy succeeded in what would be a crowning achievement: the recruitment of young idealistic radicals -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- who would go on to climb to the top of political power in the Democratic Party. Hillary wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley College in 1969 on Alinsky’s methods and remained a friend of Alinsky until his death in 1972. A decade later, Barack Obama was trained in the methods and Rules for Radicals in the Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago.
Camouflage and deception are key to Alinsky-style organizing. When Barack Obama was organizing black churches in Chicago and was criticized for not attending church himself, he pivoted and became a regular church attendee, ultimately becoming a member at Jeremiah Wright’s radical Trinity United Church of Christ.
The New Left did not simply fade away when the troops came home from Southeast Asia. It went mainstream, with many of the 60s radicals deciding to follow Alinsky’s counsel to clean up their image, put on suits and infiltrate the system. They would become professional revolutionaries who landed jobs in the knowledge industry: the universities, foundations, and the media and special interest activist groups.
By winning “cultural hegemony,” the acolytes of Gramsci, Alinsky, Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School believed that the wellsprings of human thought could be largely controlled by mass psychology and propaganda. One of Alinsky’s unique contributions, explained as the seventh Rule for Radicals, was the tactic to avoid debate on the issues by systematically silencing, ridiculing and marginalizing people of opposing views. At the same time, allies in the media provided cover and a framework of acceptance for radical issues and leaders. Traditional values of morality, family, the work ethic and free market institutions were made to appear outdated -- even reactionary, unnecessary, and culturally unfashionable. Ultimately this evolved into what has become known as political correctness, which now envelops the culture.
By 1980, the counter-cultural alliances would include radical feminist groups, civil rights and ethnic minority advocates, extremist environmental organizations, and advocates of liberation theology, anti-military peace groups, union leaders, radical legal activist organizations like the ACLU, human rights watch-dog organizations, community organizers of the Alinsky model, national and world church council bureaucracies, anti-corporate activists, and various internationalist-minded groups. Working separately and together, these groups could count on a sympathetic media and favorable coverage, which facilitated building bridges to the Democratic Party and 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, boycotts, activist lawsuits and regulatory actions. No need to be responsible for the means of production, when you could advance Marx’s anti-capitalist agenda from the sidelines by indicting individual corporations and the system of capitalism itself.
By the early to mid-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 succeeding in one of his 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 spinoffs and coalitions, a force multiplier that took propaganda and the Leninist popular front strategy to a level never seen before in America.
Fast forward to 2008, and we find the long march through the institutions resulting in the New Left being embedded in constituencies that provided a base of support and policy positions for the Obama presidential campaign. And while Barack Obama had a very unconventional background of lengthy associations with Marxists and anti-American radicals throughout his formative years and early adulthood, a nearly twenty-year membership in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “hate America” church, and an extreme left-wing voting record, the major media–now enveloped with the blinders of 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, while also being the one candidate 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, Lenin, and the Frankfurt School can find some appeal to the alienated and disaffected. A constitutional republic like the United States should have sufficient strength to withstand most contradictions and absurdities held by a relatively small minority.
The problem today is threefold: the Left’s wholesale domination of much of the knowledge industry, a growing uninformed and disengaged electorate, and a failing two-party system. The normal process of checks and balances, which is made possible when compromise can be accomplished between the parties, simply no longer works. 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 a philosophical heritage and values of liberty, private property, and limited government -- compromise has become nearly impossible. The radicalization of the Democratic Party has so affected Congress and the current president as to render bipartisan solutions and reconciliation all but impossible.
In the end, what is important for Americans to realize is that the experiment with a left-wing president, like Barack Obama, is less an aberration than the logical outcome of the transformation of both the Democratic Party and the American culture. And the election of Hillary Clinton, a student of Alinsky and well-schooled and practiced in his teachings of deceit and camouflage would take the United States further along its trajectory of decline. Hillary’s election would effectively constitute an Obama third term.
The big question is whether the nation can survive and prosper if the culture remains fractured with a majority adrift from the heritage, morality and values of liberty and personal responsibility that are at the heart of the Declaration and the Constitution.
Edward Gibbon, the renowned historian, published his first of six-volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in 1776, the year Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. Gibbon described six attributes that Rome embodied at its end: first, an overwhelming love of show and luxury; second, a widening gap between the rich and the poor; third, an obsession with sports and a freakishness in the arts, masquerading as creativity and originality; fourth, a decline in morals, increase in divorce and decline in the institution of the family; fifth, economic deterioration resulting from debasement of the currency, inflation, excessive taxation, and overregulation; and sixth, an increased desire by the citizenry to live off the state.
One might hope that awareness of factors associated with Rome’s fall would prompt an awakening in America. But so many are now disengaged and relatively few people read books, let alone possess the capacity to reflect deeply about causality and historical parallels. Many feel atomized and helpless.
Turning around America’s decline will require more than just political change. It’s vital to reestablish a positive and solid framework and foundation, around which a majority consensus could emerge and grow. Such a foundation was well understood and articulated by George Washington -- revered by many as the greatest of all U.S. presidents. His timeless wisdom was conveyed in both his speech consecrating the nation at its birth and also in his Farewell Address delivered eight years later upon leaving office. He said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Unelected and unaccountable judges and regulatory bureaucrats that are part of today’s ever-expanding federal government are only part of the problem. Clearly, American citizenry need to understand the roots and causality of the current national decline, and the need to embark on a new course with the capacity and energy to go deep and broad and transcend party politics.
Life, liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and even the Constitution itself are now threatened by a secular progressive minority at war with God. Americans need a second Paul Revere moment to wake up and get serious about choosing and electing leaders with the courage to make hard choices and the conviction to correct the nation’s compass.
Reestablishing the ascendency and authority of first principles that are at the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a monumental task. Accomplishing it would no doubt unleash an enormous amount of energy, leading to a more vibrant and bountiful economy that would in turn go a long way in securing other vital national needs, from restoring fiscal solvency to rebuilding the military and securing lasting peace.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle and author of Covert Cadre, a comprehensive book on the New Left in America published in 1988. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.