I loved Phil Ochs. He was my favorite singer-songwriter of the 1960s. Phil Ochs was a brilliant lyricist. He could write the most militant protest songs, on the one hand, and the most beautiful, sensitive, love ballads, on the other.
The introduction of the song “Love Me, I'm a Liberal” reads:
“In every American community, you have varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects. 10 degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally...”
and the final stanza says:
“Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old Union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.”
The song became a mainstay at his concerts and a favorite of the radical left.
It also points to a much-touted doctrine of anti-establishment New Leftists of the era. It was a position that served to shore up their identity by cleaving a stark division between themselves and liberals whom they denounced with a militancy even more virulent than their contempt for conservatives.
The argument was that with conservatives you at least knew where they stood. But as for liberals, they mouthed the right words, postured themselves as progressives, but they were, behind their professed sympathies, hypocrites and phonies. Their stated progressivism masked the reality that they were on the wrong side of the struggle. Their true interests lay in not making waves and preserving the status quo. Despite their professed values, liberals were on the side of the establishment. They were committed above all else to fostering their self-interest. Liberalism served to grease the wheels of oppression.
I loved Phil Ochs, but in this regard he — and the New Left, whose values he so powerfully articulated — were pragmatically wrong, and politically were fatefully destructive.
It was wrong because that very attack on liberalism helped turn “liberal” into a dirty word for decades. It helped engineer the destruction of virtually any significant Left on the political landscape for almost a generation.
The New Left destroyed itself with its deterioration into the Weathermen and convulsions of violence. What followed was a conservative wall which calumniated and smothered liberalism and grew ever more powerful. It became incarnated with increasing extremity in the administrations of Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush, until metastasizing into what just departed the White House. It was not until the Obama administration that the word “liberalism” could be uttered again and receive some tentative acceptance in political circles.
But liberalism and activist government has come back in full force with the presidency of Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has gained real traction thanks in greatest measure to Bernie SandersBernie Sanders Texas House Republican tests positive for coronavirus in latest breakthrough case In defense of share buybacks Progressives seething over Biden's migrant policies MORE. It's the turning of American politics for which progressives have long struggled.
Who would have thought that Joe Biden had it in him? But with his administration's recovery and infrastructure plan, we are witnessing the nail in the coffin of Reaganism and the virulently destructive mantra that government is our problem. Not only are we seeing the Democratic Party returning to its roots, reminiscent of FDR and the New Deal, we are witnessing a transformation of the political landscape. It opens new ground on which progressives of all stripes can and need to build. I personally find it very exciting and a sign of hope after a descent into unprecedented darkness.
Here I come to my point: We on the Left must not squander this opportunity. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Criticisms of Biden's extraordinary plans have been already voiced from sectors on the Left: His plan doesn't include Medicare for All; it omits a federal $15 minimum wage (though he is now calling for it), and his plan isn't sufficiently ambitious to significantly combat climate destruction.
I agree – all true. But I would strenuously argue that progressives should not — must not — earn their subjective feelings of righteousness on the anvil political purity. The stakes, including the very viability and future of democracy hang in the balance.
This does not mean giving up on one's ultimate vision or goals, Utopian or otherwise. But ends themselves do not mandate the specific means by which to achieve them.
I maintain that moving ahead politically involves a nuanced and calibrated pragmatism. At times militancy will be required; at other times, labored compromise with others on the progressive spectrum who may hold to a somewhat different vision of ultimate goals. Failure to compromise, when reality requires it, risks tipping the boat and opens the door again for conservatism to enter and gain a foothold.
Anathematizing and marginalizing those on the progressive spectrum with whom we may disagree, may be tempting, but we shouldn't go there.
Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Let's not splinter and divide over issues of purity.
The dangers of doing so are too great.
This is a propitious moment, and we need to build on it: The future is too promising.
Dr. Joseph Chuman recently retired after 46 years as the clergy leader for Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County in New Jersey. He is also professor of Human Rights at Columbia University.