Kavanaugh, Trump, and the Republican Congress are finally on the verge of doing what right wingers and centrist Democrats have been trying to do for decades — crush the values and achievements of American liberalism, especially as it expressed itself in the counterculture in the United States in the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. If there ever was an argument for the notion of history moving as a pendulum, conservative reaction to the counterculture is the best example that you’ll find.
Given the world we live in now — with the specter of a Tea Party misogynist court and a president who is methodically dismantling environmental regulations even to the point of allowing more deadly mercury to rain from the smoke stacks of coal fired power plants — will the pendulum of politics begin finally to move the other way? Will a new counterculture emerge built from the remnants of the high ground held by liberalism 45 years ago in a constitutional nation that believed in the Bill of Rights?
The old counterculture was more than beatniks and hippies, and sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The student revolution of 1968 and the anti-war movement here were more central to the counterculture but not formative either. Underlying the left in those days was, from my perspective, was a universalizing spirit, a set of values that tried to embrace and be of service to everyone. It was embodied in eight philosophical and political expressions: the woman’s movement, environmentalism, the struggle for civil rights, unionism and workers’ rights, anti-militarism, the struggle against poverty, the shared values of creative people in all mediums, and the emphasis on a sound and even inspiring education for everyone. Of course, paradoxes permeated the highest ideals of these eight expressions of the common good. Environmentalism was tainted by a kind of high-brow racism, well-hidden, but present in views that land was somehow more important than people. And misogyny ran through everything, except the women’s movement, one would think.
The counterculture was empowered by an elevated sense of equality as an idea, if not always as a practice. It was also against many things — phonyism, corporate malice and Machiavellian power, plutocracy, bigoted fundamentalism, privatization as an expression of classism, the war machine and the military-industrial complex, and a business culture of advertising propaganda and corruption.
But the old counterculture couldn’t stand up to the onslaught of American conservatism. Its ire wasn’t aroused to fight fire with fire. It really didn’t have an organizing agenda, nor a genius for coalition building and the will to match the dark doings of conservative guerilla warfare. It preferred to remain noble and, as we now see, horribly fragmented and unsustainable. It settled for moral victories and could do nothing to prevent its eventual defeat at the hands of conservatives who now have fueled the formal structure of our constitutional democracy with people who basically hate its freedoms and its struggle for equality, but who understand that in a political system where votes still count, you better know how to get those votes and keep them.
If a new coalition opposing the conservative hegemony is to be built, one that recognizes that its ends justify far more strenuous and serious means than it’s been willing to use, it can’t be generationally based or structured around identity politics. The big question, though, is how do you generate a renewed American left that gains less energy from being against the squalor of conservatism and gains more energy by being vigorous champions of the common good? Is it possible that conservatives actually believe in their views more than liberals believe in theirs?
The new counterculture, if there is to be one, must recognize itself as an actual subculture, an authentic political and philosophical entity. There’s a lot of questions about the possibility of this new subculture being organized around the traditional two-party system. A third party, though, is really not a viable alternative either in the United States. The new left has to be more about changing ideas and norms than ideological purity. But can it be organized outside existing political parties? Is the Democratic Party ready to embrace it, or will the counterculture have to take the party over? How does the left attract the disaffected, intelligent people of conscience of all ages? How does it manage to overcome idealistic America’s distrust of politics?
One thing is crystal clear. The new counterculture must do politics as if votes matter. It must inculcate in its members a realization that all politics is local, all local politics is mean and nasty and contentious, but that in a system where votes count you suck it up and get the votes, and I’m not just talking about national politics. Votes count in any legislative process, anywhere, no matter how small or obscure. One vote often makes the difference. Chances are we will have Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court for 30 years or more on the strength of a mere two votes in the Senate. Trumpianism didn’t need a coup to take over the country, it did it the old fashioned way — it won the count.
Nothing will change the contentious nature of the democratic free-for-all. That’s its nature. It is no more changeable than an oligarchy is. Democracy is contentious. The only antidote is to stop complaining about it and get good at it, good at winning — like the conservatives have, while never stooping to use the vast odium of their means, but not shying away from the wars in the trenches. Does everyone have the stomach for this? No. But those who can bear it, even slightly, have to learn to live with the paradox of their ideals and the democratic tussle and mud wrestling required to see them prevail. Hold to the higher ground, of course. But don’t constantly get stabbed in the back because you’re too grand or too sensitive to mix it up.
What is the soul of the new American left? What are Its shared values? It’s all wrapped up in three words: They help everyone.
All of us are in danger of falling into poverty, through no fault of our own, because of sickness, aging, or socioeconomic upheaval. All of us are the victims of environmental pollution. Nothing is more globalizing than CO2-induced climate change. We are all potential victims of prejudice and owe our allegiance to those of of us who are already are victims — women, racial and ethnic minorities, marginalized and unfavored people of varying genders, workers who are treated like slaves until they organize, teachers attacked for being part of a system crippled by privatizers who loath public education, and people who feel offensive wars are immoral at their core, even when they’ve been labeled as an act of self-defense.
The right wing has won the present moment, not because they are right, but because they understood the nature of politics better than the rest of us. Can the left in America overcome the temptations of gratuitous hedonism and get to work for the good of all? That’s the political question we’ll be witnessing in action for decades to come.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it