Historically, liberals and the Left have underestimated the Right. Today, they overestimate it.

I’m going to float a series of vast and quick historical generalizations in order to try and get at something that is distinctive about the present moment in US politics.

Beginning in Europe in the 19th century, liberalism has been engaged in an on-again, off-again, two-front war: against the right and against the left. Against the right’s revanchism and the left’s radicalism, liberalism has held itself up as the original Third Way. It is the reasonable and moderate alternative to the extremes, offering men and women the promises and profits of a capitalist, vaguely democratic, modernity but without its revolutionary perils and reactionary mystique.

Though it has on occasion entered into a more productive, albeit tension-filled, front with the left, liberalism has always been uneasy about the left. For a variety of reasons, among them a doubt about the left’s commitments to the rule of law, civil liberties, the norms and procedures of parliamentary democracy, and the institutions of the capitalist market. (Which is ironic since it was the left that historically fought hardest for civil liberties and the right to vote, but I digress.) Liberalism and the left thus have been either uneasy partners or outright antagonists.

While liberalism has often loathed the right, it has not always been sufficiently attuned to developments on the right. Its attentions are too often focused in the other direction. So fraught has been its relationship to the left, it has often ignored or overlooked the shape-shifting power of the right. Till it was too late.

The left has not been entirely blameless in this. It, too, has been engaged in a two-front war: against liberalism and the right. On the ground, and in the streets, the left has understood the power of the right, but up in the more rarefied precincts of political theory, intellectual debate, and elite party argument, the left has often, and catastrophically, construed liberalism to be its greatest and only enemy. Even at a moment like the present in the United States—when liberalism, at least as it has been historically understood in the United States, has been in abeyance, or at best, has played second fiddle—the left has tended to focus on the failures and betrayals of liberalism.

What liberalism and the left have in common, in other words, is an insufficient appreciation of the right. What made that lack of appreciation understandable, historically, was that the left—whether in the form of socialist parties, communist internationals, militant trade unions, social movements, and the like—had some real power and traction on the ground. It was understandable for liberals to be more focused upon—and fearful of—the left, which often seemed ready to march right over the liberal middle. So was it understandable for leftists to be more focused upon—and pissed off at—liberalism, which often seemed ready to betray the left.

But that is not the situation we are in right now. In fact, we haven’t been in that situation for some time.

Since the 1970s, virtually all the political momentum has been on the right. Three elections—of Richard Nixon in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and George W. Bush in 2000—mark the right’s long march to ascendance, with the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War signifying its arrival at the peak.

As I have argued, both in my book and in various articles, that peak of power is a perilous position for the right (indeed, for any movement) to be in. From their apex of power, movements can only go in one direction. The only question is: What can they take with them, how much damage can they do, as they plummet from power?

Think of it this way: the landslide election of Lyndon B. Johnson marked the peak of Democratic Party liberalism. It was a moment when the Democrats were able to deliver on their most basic commitments (to the extent that they could): Medicare, civil rights, the War on Poverty. But it was also the moment, we now know, that liberalism and the Democrats began their precipitous descent. Likewise, on the other side, the election of George W. Bush. (Johnson and Bush, incidentally, are classic examples of what Steve Skowronek calls articulation presidents: they radically extend the existing regime’s commitments, but in the course of doing so, set the stage for shattering that regime.)

This does not mean that Republicans or conservatives can’t get elected now. Jimmy Carter got elected in 1976. But his presidency signaled not a resurgence of liberalism but its end: his deregulation was an early warning signal of the morphing of Democratic liberalism into Reaganite neoliberalism; his funding of the Salvadoran regime, building of the MX Missile, and support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, were the first act of Reagan’s Second Cold War. So will there be elections—perhaps one, maybe more—of Republicans and conservatives that signal not a resurgence of conservatism and the GOP but their end.

Donald Trump, I believe, is a symptom of that Republican free-fall. Should he be the nominee of the Republican Party—and I have every reason to believe that he will be—he will occupy the role, as I have argued, of George McGovern in the 1972 election.

And that is why I think all the concern—particularly among centrist liberals and some leftists—over the anti-Trump protests is so misplaced.

Writing at In These Times, David Moberg gave these concerns a particular historical spin:

Any greatly disruptive protests at the Cleveland Republican Convention would only feed into Trump’s plans. It is worth remembering the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (where both Katz and I were participants) ended up losing popular support for both the Democratic party and for the protesters. It was a turning point in the eventual unraveling of the New Left.

A repeat of Chicago 1968 outside the Cleveland Republican convention could simply reinforce Trump’s image as the strong man needed to control chaos at home and abroad.

Ultimately, Trump will win or lose through elections. (No putsch seems in the wings.) When people act in the streets they must conceive those actions in terms of how that will hurt him at the polls.

As I said, liberals and leftists have often failed to appreciate the power of the right. The converse of that failure, in the current moment, is that they don’t appreciate the weaknesses and limitations of the right. (Which is ironic, given that Moberg is writing in a publication called “In These Times.”)

That’s an occupational hazard among liberals and leftists of a certain generation—those, like Moberg, who may have participated in the protests at the 1968 DNC Convention or who watched them from afar. Either in support, which they’ve since come to reconsider, or in horror. These are men and women who remember, perhaps too well, the fratricide on the left, and between liberals and the left, and who now fear that they’re seeing a repeat performance, with irresponsible ultra-radicals in the streets antagonizing the virtuous silent majority in the suburbs who will simply run headlong into the arms of the right.

But what these liberals and leftists forget is that the right has been in the driver’s seat for the last four decades. No one—save some on the left—is under the illusion that the left has much if any real power. When there is violence or disruption at a Trump rally, it is not a referendum on a fraying postwar liberal consensus. It is instead a judgment on the Reagan regime: a regime that is on the ropes, and whose warriors now seem to be the ones who are pushing for violence, who are embracing lawlessness, who seem so disorderly. (Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination certainly seem to understand this; would that liberals and the left did as well. But the reason Trump’s rivals get it is because they’ve not given the left much thought in recent years. They don’t see us as a threat, and rightly so. One day they will. But we’re not there yet.) And should something similar happen at the Republican Party convention in Cleveland this summer, it will not be a replay of the Democratic Party convention of 1968—that moment when liberalism, at its greatest point of power, fractured so wildly and perilously. It will be a replay in reverse: as that moment when conservatism, at its greatest point of power, fractures so wildly and perilously. Again, this is something that conservatives of all stripes understand. And why they are so fearful about the future—and are mooting ever more desperate fantasies of escape.

When I tried to make some of these points on Facebook last night, a reader thought I was insane. He pointed out that Republicans are today in control of 31 governorships and 30 state legislatures; have total control (the “trifecta” of the governorship and both houses of the legislature) of 22 state governments (to the Democrats’ 7); and control both branches of Congress (54-44 in the Senate—it’s really 54-46 because the two independent caucus with the Democrats—and 247-188 in the House). How could I possibly think conservatism or the GOP is not a wildly popular banner under which Trump will march into the White House?**

For this simple reason: In 1972*, the Democrats were in control of 31 governorships and 23 state legislatures (to the GOP’s 16; the rest were split); had total control of 17 state governments (to the GOP’s 9); and controlled both branches of Congress (54-44 in the Senate, 255-180 in the House). Not entirely dissimilar from today, only in the opposite direction. And what happened? The largest landslide in American electoral history. In favor of the Republican candidate.

* Much thanks to Phil Klinkner for access to the data and Seth Ackerman for the calculations.

** I made an error about the House numbers in the first published version of this post; thanks to reader Charles Komanoff, I’ve corrected it now.




  1. Frank Wilhoit March 20, 2016 at 3:42 pm | #

    The categories are not valid. Today “the Right” only stands for one thing, and that is unaccountability — for correctly affiliated businesses, military, law enforcement, churches, and/or even individuals. There is nothing else. The pseudo-philosophical rationales for unaccountability are so much noise.

    There is only one space not occupied, and that is the space of equality before the law: no unaccountability, of any kind, for any actor, ever. Perforce this is the territory that “liberalism”, “progressivism”, or “the Left” must occupy. There is no other ground on which to stand.

  2. LFC March 20, 2016 at 3:42 pm | #

    It seems to me that liberals and the left should want the media spotlight at the Republican convention to be on the Republicans themselves, since there is some good reason to believe the Republican convention will not be an apex of sweet harmony and consensus. Even if, as the OP argues, conservatism is on the verge of a historic crack-up and free-fall, why take chances? Let them fight among each other and let the media focus on that.

    What a bunch of angry left and liberal anti-Trump demonstrators in Cleveland may do is to divert attention from the Repubs’ internecine fights and allow Trump to escape the full effects of the internal Repub struggle. Trump himself has said there would be or might be “riots” if he arrived w the necessary delegates and were denied the nomination. Let the Repubs have their own “riots” then. Why divert attention from that?

    I agree this will not be a replay of 1968, however it plays out. That’s partly because in ’68 some people inside the hall at the Dem Convention were sympathetic w the protesters outside. Daley unleashed the Chicago police on them, and Ribicoff accused Daley of “Gestapo tactics” from the podium and Daley shouted back from the floor. That sort of thing is not going to happen in Cleveland b.c no one inside the hall will likely be very sympathetic with the protesters outside, regardless of whether they want Trump to be the nominee. Protests in this context will mainly, as I said, divert attention from the Repubs’ own problems and lack of unity, and I don’t see why leftists or liberals would want to do that.

    If one were 100 percent positive that Trump could not beat Clinton, that wd be one thing. But in the absence of such certainty, why take chances by doing something that will end up strengthening him?

  3. ronp March 20, 2016 at 3:51 pm | #

    What is sort of odd is that the right’s ascendance in the US (legislatures, governors, federal congress), happened the same time cultural openness expanded (gay marriage, less overt religious participation, etc) happened.

    And it’s not like the right has rolled back the great society programs much at all. Medicare expanded, ACA enabled. Real progress on prison and sentencing is happening, legalization of marijuana, etc.

    The right’s policies are not popular and I cannot see them getting more popular soon.

    I do wish we could get labor on board to organize for better wages and benefits. Working class has really bought into management and owner arguments on why unionization is “bad.”

    • R. Stanton Scott March 21, 2016 at 5:54 am | #

      Not that odd at all…the ascendancy of the right is a reactionary response to the expansion of cultural openness.

      • Eve Sinaiko March 21, 2016 at 8:46 am | #

        That’s true of the right in the southern states, which have become a strict enclave with clear borders, within which socially conservative issues matter greatly. It’s not true of the so-called Reagan Dems – the white voters in the Rust Belt (and nationwide) and a fair chunk of black and Hispanic voters.

        There, as today, the support for the right came from the loss of jobs and the fear that social programs were hiking taxes and going to other people. This remains a very powerful GOP talking point–so powerful that it is propelling Trump, despite his many deficits, and despite his visible disinterest in religion.

        Dems have not succeeded in exposing this talking point as false – it remains intact, despite the collapse of the GOP. And that alone makes the GOP still viable.

        The mystery is why the GOP clings to a platform that appeals only to the deep South (excluding VA, FL, and NC, and adding KS, OK, and NE).

  4. kevin March 20, 2016 at 7:26 pm | #

    Trump’s efforts to get the media and his portion of the public to view his protesters in the same way Nixon and Reagan got people to view Civil Rights and Vietnam protesters in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s — as *the* problem, as opposed to people protesting the problem — is the first time I saw his as anything other than a clueless buffoon. It is a very smart move. And, I worry that it just might work for him. Everyone should know the corporate media will work for the Republicans, as they always do, and it still has a big impact. If they can turn Kerry’s war heroism into French cowardice, they can turn protests against racism and fascism into lawlessness that requires a strong man to impose order. So, I shudder when I read commentary from the left banking on Trump being a godsend for Democrats, or liberals, or the left . . . I see no reason for such optimism at this point. I guess what I am saying is that my take is 180 degrees from Mr. Robin’s.

    • emchitty March 26, 2016 at 2:35 pm | #

      What will have an even bigger impact, and could propel Trump to the presidency, is ISIS attacks in Europe. People in the US no longer appear capable of principled response to terroristic attacks (after all, what did Bush urge us to do after 9/11? Go shopping.). The yearning for Trump’s crudeness, arrogance, cruelty, and lack of any sort of vision may overwhelm us all.

  5. Roqeuntin March 20, 2016 at 7:33 pm | #

    I want you to be right about Trump losing like McGovern did in ’72, only on the opposite side, but I just don’t have that faith in either Republican voters or even the American public at large. Spending the Bush years at college in small town Iowa really did a number on me. The good guys don’t always win, and I have zero, absolutely zero faith in decision making abilities of those who vote for the GOP. While I wholeheartedly agree with your bigger, long term analysis, I just can’t make myself believe, try as I might that 2016 won’t see president Trump.

    Two side notes:

    1) The most memorable thing a professor said to me in the four years I was at college by far happened the day after Bush got re-elected. I had a one on one meeting with a guy who taught poetry. He had grown up in the South and supported the political left (I think he even voted Green in certain circumstances). He was old enough to be there prior to the ending of segregation and felt massive amounts of guilt for his ignorant, youthful participation in it. He had written poems about them attempting to integrate the schools while he was a child.

    Anyhow, he saw my face and said “We all thought it was the end of the world when Nixon got re-elected.” Somehow, that was exactly what I needed to be told to know that things were going to be alright. That life would indeed go on and there was still hope.

    2) I’m reading that Kitty Kelly book in between a couple of others (Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Kotkin’s Stalin biography). I can see why you were talking about it. I’m not far in, but she talks about them as if they were a kind of royalty, the old nobles jockeying for position in a king’s court. I guess in a certain way they were.

  6. louisproyect March 20, 2016 at 7:59 pm | #

    I think that the Republican control of the Senate and House has more to do with Obama’s ineptitude than support for a rightwing agenda.

  7. Dahesu March 20, 2016 at 9:01 pm | #

    So then in this analogy is HRC the Nixon of the left?

    • GPS March 21, 2016 at 1:14 am | #

      I sure hope so; if that’s the case, then perhaps she’ll be thrown out of office for something that makes the left love her; just like all those right-wingers who “didn’t like Nixon until Watergate”

    • Graham Clark March 21, 2016 at 1:15 am | #

      Well, can you think of a Democratic candidate more likely to give us our own Watergate?

      • Graham Clark March 21, 2016 at 1:19 am | #

        Come to think of it, they also have in common a history as failed former presidential candidates, and very high ranking subordinates of presidents who very likely hated their guts.

    • Roquentin March 21, 2016 at 11:53 am | #

      I really like this analogy of HRC as the Nixon of the left.

  8. tony March 21, 2016 at 10:30 am | #

    Is the argument you are making here, Corey, that the driving forces that will stop Trump represent a social power pendulum now poised to swing against the Right?

    Certainly as the right has amassed power, it’s created new opportunities for fracture and incentives for in-fighting, but I’m skeptical of any sort of inevitability in swinging against the right. The struggle over hearts and minds seems to be playing in a way in which images and channeling of passions and forging viable alternatives are going to matter. A war of positions continues.

    I’m also skeptical that images of “radical protesters” trying to stop Trump rallies might not become useful for Trump himself. Not necessarily and clearly today the storyline in most of the mainstream media is giving conservative opposition a wedge against Trump and seems to be hurting him (though hard to tell to what extent that reflects the reactions of diverse groups of people). But Trump’s best hopes of taking power stem from bringing together some coalition through uniting various groups against a common enemy or enemies. If he’s able to unite Republicans and conservatives against HRC, along with a significant sector of blue collar democrats against “establishment politics” or cultural liberalism, he has a shot. Doesn’t seem likely now, but things could change.

    I think the greater likelihood for Trump would come from the emergence of a new threat, or the intensification of an existing one, to serve as that common enemy. Who knows what the political fallout of a terror attack in the U.S. would be – certainly the strong man would try to make himself out to be the savior. But left radicalism might also serve as that unifying enemy if Trump’s advisers are able to stage some spectacular images in just the right ways to push the emotional buttons of the so-called silent majority. This is not happening yet, but if his campaign strategists prove devious enough, that’s likely going to be the first place they will look.

  9. Escott March 21, 2016 at 11:08 am | #

    Corey, here’s my analogy of your historical generalization:
    A car driving through a muddy corn field has a differential that transfers power to the other wheel when it loses traction; one wheel is Left, the other Right. Liberals is the compass that steers.
    We know that humans tramping blindly through a field trace a circle, though they think they’re going straight.
    Unfortunately, this analogy of your generalization indicates Liberals have failed to guide.

  10. SDS Pride March 21, 2016 at 11:40 am | #

    What makes you think this is an honest miscalculation and not a hokey civil-war re-enactment to suck all the oxygen out of organizing efforts for Sanders?

  11. Jason Bowden March 21, 2016 at 9:21 pm | #

    Trump is offering 1) a much smaller defense budget — freeloading rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, either pay us, or we gtfo 2) ending corporate inversions 3) no cuts on entitlements 4) higher taxes on hedge fund managers, with hints he’s willing to cut deals with Democrats 5) renegotiating bad trade deals that hurt American workers 6) beefing up our weaksauce border security that’s hurting American workers 7) opposition to the Iraq War 8) neutrality on Israel/Palestine 9) funding of planned parenthood 10) accepts gay marriage as the law of the land.

    Trump is not only the most centrist Republican since Eisenhower — he’s to the left on Hillary Clinton on most of these issues.

    Trump and his supporters represent a rejection of Saint Reagan. As the campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan show, they’ve been lurking around for a while without representation. The Tea Party — basically affluent evangelicals with secondary education — attempted to overthrow the neocon establishment, thinking they would be greeted as liberators. But in doing so they unlocked an entire wing of the GOP that has been dormant for a while due to lack of viable options.

    Trump is called a fascist because he has the nerve to take the concerns of even the most lowly white voter seriously. The real divide of the 21st century isn’t between conservatism and liberalism — it will be between nationalism and internationalism. Whites, as we’ve seen with Sanders, are on the nationalist side of the equation — they don’t know it yet, but they are the reactionaries of the future. Immigrants and minorities will be siding internationalist CEOs pushing for stuff like freer trade and more h1b visas.

    • brodix March 21, 2016 at 10:42 pm | #

      Ultimately humanity needs a solid foundation, which means heathy local economies, on which to build a truly viable global economy.

      What we have now is a global financial system predicated on all economic and social interactions being denominated in quasi-national currencies, that can be effectively controlled and taxed by a global elite.

      All money has to be backed by some obligation and money today is backed by public debt. Which necessitates creating as much as possible. They don’t budget, as that is prioritizing and then determining what is affordable. What they do is to put together enormous bills, add enough goodies to get enough votes and the prez can only pass or veto it. To actually budget, they could break the bills apart, have every legislator assign a percentage value to each item, put it back together in order of preference and then the prez would draw the line. “The buck stops here.” This would not only maintain the division of power, but distribute it over the legislature more effectively.

      Then a system of local public banking would invest wealth generated within communities, back out as public investment, rather than having it flow through New York banks, to be borrowed back by these localities. Which would require less federal funding and more local resilience.

      Money is a circulation system, like roads. There was a time when the political executive function of government was private as well. It was called monarchy and they insisted ‘mob rule’ could never work, but eventually they proved so incompetent and corrupt, there was no alternative. We are now there with the financial system.

      We treat money as both medium of exchange and store of value, but in the body, the medium is blood and the store is fat. Store fat in the arteries and you have clogged arteries, poor circulation and high blood pressure, which is essentially the condition of our banking system, with a bloated banking sector, poor circulation back out the essential functions of society and quantitive easing to try and compensate, but which mostly sticks in the arteries.

      If government were to threaten to tax excess wealth back out of the system and not just borrow it, people would quickly find ways to invest directly into their future needs, which would entail investing in stronger communities and a healthier environment, aka, the commons, as stores of value and not just resources to be mined for value.

      • brodix March 21, 2016 at 10:50 pm | #

        I would also note that prior to the invention of this very efficient financial system to store notational value, there were significant carrying costs to saving value and soda natural tendency to distribute it back out to those around you. So while this system facilitates more individual autonomy, it also creates more social atomization. Then this financial mechanism is useful for extracting wealth out of society at a very granular level.

  12. brodix March 21, 2016 at 10:07 pm | #

    I think there are deeper forces at work in this situation, than the pendulum swing back toward the left and some of these essential factors should be taken into account.
    For one thing, good and bad are not some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. What might be good for the fox, might not be so good for the chicken and any large society is composed of multitudes of these polarities. Yet in order to function as a whole, a group of people need some collective sense of good, to move toward and bad, to avoid. Sometimes this can be opportunity, like the fox and sometimes it can be security, like the chicken. We are led with hope and herded with fear. Opportunity, whether of economic liberalism, or the social leftist variety, is expansion, while conservatism, whether cultural, civil, or economic, is to consolidate one’s advantages and power.
    Now the primary motivation of humanity through history and beyond, has been growth, from ‘go forth and multiply,’ to ‘go west, young man.’ The problem is that we are at a significant global crossroads, in that the geography of the world has been pretty much filled, the low hanging fruit of technology has been picked and we have largely been propelled the last few decades by compounding amounts of debt, to be passed on to future generations, working in an economic model that has also been hollowed out by debt. We really are ‘at the end of history.’ The top of the wave is mostly foam and bubbles.
    The fact though, is that we evolved and live in a thermodynamic environment and these cyclical physical processes are the larger context of our sense of linear direction. Much as we once used to think of the world as flat, we think of evolution as linear, rather than these intersecting dynamics of expansion and consolidation. The high pressure zones driving us and the low pressure ones pulling us.
    As it is, the economic circulation system of finance, that has enabled this global economy, is also used as a rent extraction process that is now strangling it. This is not entirely bad, given the environment could only survive under the current extraction model for so much longer.
    So if we want to look toward the future, under all the chaos on the surface, it is those deeper currents that are presently building up enormous economic pressure systems, versus the increasing low pressure areas that have to be methodically examined, so that people on both sides of the equation can understand the situation they find themselves in and not simply be herded by their fears, or led with unfulfillable promises.

    • Aethyreal March 29, 2016 at 4:27 am | #

      Do you post your writing anywhere? You have a compelling style.

  13. Dawgzy March 21, 2016 at 11:06 pm | #

    Goldwater in 1964 was thought to be the end of the GOP conservatism. But his candidacy gave life to a strong vein that flourished in the party, eventually giving rise to Reagan. Trump is a proto-fascist- he might lose in November- might- but his candidacy is giving birth to a nativist, racist , nationalistic movement that will only grow. He’s shown the fellers in the white hoods how to do it properly.

  14. Frank Wilhoit March 23, 2016 at 6:36 am | #

    No, Trump is called a fascist because he incites violence. And this is the only thing that his people have been waiting for: permission/cover to take direct action. Next stop: Rwanda.

    • Jason Bowden March 26, 2016 at 6:53 am | #

      Frank, relax. You don’t have to worry about me or other Trump supporters shutting down Bernie or Hillary rallies. You may not support my rights, but I support yours.

  15. Michael March 24, 2016 at 4:55 pm | #

    Great piece. One quibble: “No one—save some on the left—is under the illusion that the left has much if any real power. When there is violence or disruption at a Trump rally, it is not a referendum on a fraying postwar liberal consensus.”

    This may be an accurate observation with regards to Liberal Democrats. It is not the sense you get listening to or reading the Glenn Beck-types on the right. There is a siege narrative there. The siege mentality inaccurately conflates social liberals and the radical left, but nevertheless, inflates perceptions of the latter’s power. There’s something frightening about this mismatch between perception and reality.

  16. milx May 24, 2016 at 10:06 am | #

    But the Fifth Congress was most notable for institutionalizing the analysis, as Zinoviev said in his speech, that “the fascists are the right hand and the Social Democrats are the left hand of the bourgeoisie.” Stalin, in his speech, reiterated the point, arguing that the Comintern needed “not a coalition with Social Democracy but lethal combat against it as the pillar of fascist-ized power.” (Kotkin, Stalin v.1)

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