Lefty historian Michael Kazin, author of the brilliant and vastly acclaimed The Populist Persuasion, asks of Peter Beinart's recent theory of the "new, new left": "Why Aren't Those New, Millennial Liberals Protesting the Shutdown?"
Given their views, large numbers of Millennials should be protesting vigorously as the House GOP holds the state and the economy hostage to an agenda straight out of a Rush Limbaugh show. They should be surrounding the Capitol to defend Obamacare and blast the Republicans for denying food stamps to millions of poor people. They should be clogging the phone lines to Congress to announce a grand mobilization to overturn the GOP majority in 2014.
But they aren't. From the far right and with opposite goals the Tea Partiers do this sort of thing with feral exuberance, but the far left (or what passes for it in America, anyway) is strangely muted.
Kazin directly answers his own question of Why? by noting the left's restrained "enthusiasm" for healthcare reforms that lack, for instance, a public option, as well as noting that "Americans on the left also harbor a deep cynicism toward the federal state"--hence rallying to the defense of a pragmatically compromising administration is, for the idealistic, an unnatural act.
Yet Kazin implies another reason for the left's docility--a crippling reason I believe should be elevated to the ranks of the flatly expressed:
So as the Tea Partiers—inside and outside Congress—mobilize with passionate intensity, their counterparts on the left monitor their media and hope for the best. Perhaps Beinart’s sanguine prediction will come to pass a few years from now. But to laugh, anxiously, as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Gail Collins eviscerate Ted Cruz and his ilk does nothing to beat back the danger a determined, well-funded mass conservative movement poses now to the imperfect but vital reforms Obama and the Democrats have been able to pass [italics mine].
Kazin's advice: "Don’t fret, organize." Yet the above, which is bitingly accurate in its analysis, suggests less of an anxious fret than a corrosive smugness: all that Stewartesque humor lends itself to a sentiment of such easy superiority over the right-wing knuckledraggers, what else is needed? The left is so conspicuously right it's laughable; and there, on the left, it ends--just after checking, perhaps, on more of Martin Bashir's hysterical sarcasm and Rachel Maddow's giggling all-knowingness.
Smugness isn't a principle, yet I'm afraid it's becoming a chief characteristic of the left--and it's killing real activism.