Diane Winston tells us what’s missing from “Whatever Happened to the American Left?,” an opinion piece by Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent Magazine, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. (I pointed a finger at it on Sunday.) Winston explains that Kazin neglects three important issues in his diagnosis of the invisible, hamstrung Left: the conservative movement didn’t start in the 1970s; the American Left is not MIA, just underreported; and that he better not leave religion out of the conversation or he’s missing an essential part of the political story. Winston writes:
As soon as FDR proposed the New Deal, coalitions of businessmen and religious leaders began their fight against the incipient socialism that they perceived in Roosevelt’s efforts to revive the economy and right the wrongs exposed by the financial calamity.
The coalition partners each had their particular motives. Businessmen fretted the bottom line, while religious leaders feared godless Communism. But many saw the overarching threat as one and the same: the New Deal would undo the American way of life predicated on radical individualism, hallowed by Christian teaching and protected by the political system that had developed in tandem with free-market capitalism.
Winston’s right, of course. The unholy alliance between business and religion–to fight godless Socialism, to fight socialist Communism, to preserve and justify unfettered economic growth for the corporate class–really absolved the media of any duty to meaningfully discuss equality or rights (other than the right to be privileged). Of the Left, Winstons writes:
Simply put, their work did not jibe with the traditional news media values of conflict, currency and power. These were regular people doing everyday work in the hope of effecting incremental change. Their stories went unreported for the same reasons that much of the right’s small-bore organizing went unremarked in the 1940s, 50s and 60s: reporting on evolutionary social change is tougher than writing up this week’s conflict, and journalists have a hard time seeing how religion figures into almost every niche of American cultural ecology.
Yes. But one thing I wish Winston had applied her wise analysis to is the unreported conflict of even “evolutionary social change.” What social issue at the moment isn’t surrounded by conflict? The debt, the death penalty, diet, health care, medicare, the environment, the military, women’s rights, gay rights, family structure…? Surely within each and all of these struggles is a story line that interestingly and accurately conveys what’s at stake for the rest of us.
Why does the Left fail again and again to attract at least establishment media’s attention? As we see down on Wall Street this week, it takes police brutality (or cleavage) to catch the eye of The Daily News, The Atlantic, or The New York Times; even still it’s often a dismissive eye. Hypocritical too when compared to treatment of other movements on the Right like the Tea Party. Yet the Left can’t simply blame the media’s desire for conflict for it’s silencing, dismissal, and inefficacy and then call it a day.
My two cents are that in addition to what Winston writes there are other reasons for the Left’s lack of traction. She nails this one (because she’s one of a small clan of writers and scholars who knows religion and media better than anybody): an inability for society at large and the establishment media to get its head around religion. Religion, when defined most broadly, is one of the better sources of emotion, engagement and yes, stories we’ve got.
The heart of the matter, if you ask me, is the Left’s failure to be interesting, engaging, or to tell these good stories. (Others much smarter than I am have pointed this out before.) but really! Think of all the man-against-goliath, -the company store, -the inhumane factory boss, – the establishment stories you can and tell me they don’t rival any narrative of power and excess (or submission and duty) the Left’s opponents put out. But rather than take back the narrative from others, the Left lays down facts and cries hypocrisy, it hunkers down in its territoriality, it privileges intellect, and it doesn’t get religion!
So yes, as Kazin says, better organizing is essential. And as Winston makes clear, we all need to rethink how we talk about religion. But I would add that if the Left wants a chance to take back the media narrative from proponents of business and American exceptionalism, it better start getting interesting.