Sean Wilentz, Nader and the early 1960s
Source Louis Proyect
Date 04/03/08/15:11

After reading Princeton professor's Sean Wilentz ideological fatwa
( against Ralph
Nader in yesterday's NY Times Magazine section (appropriately enough,
facing a full-page ad for Grand Marnier), it dawned on me that Dissent
Magazine has filled a vacuum once occupied by SDUSA.

SDUSA was basically a repackaging of Max Shachtman's SP whose members
served as ministers without portfolio for the Democratic Party
rightwing. Many were gathered around the 1972 presidential campaign of
Washington State Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who was dubbed the
Senator from Boeing for obvious reasons.

In the 1980s many SDUSA figures lurched even further to the right and
became Reaganites. Joshua Muravchik is typical. He started political
life as a leader of YPSL, the SDUSA's "youth" group, but now writes for
the National Review. In between he was associated with the "Coalition
for a Democratic Majority" that was chaired by Jackson and whose
politics anticipated the DLC.

Now that the Democratic Party has become recast in the "Scoop" Jackson
mold, it provides an opportunity for intellectuals like Wilentz to play
the same role once played by people like Muravchik. Mostly this consists
of lashing out at any initiatives to the left of the Democratic Party,
including the Nader campaign and the antiwar movement. Although this is
the first time that the NY Times Magazine has drawn on Wilentz's dubious
talents, it has published fellow Dissent editor George Packer on several
occasions, including a piece promoting the warmongering views of fellow
Dissenters Paul Berman and Kanan Makiya.

As a guest panelist on David Horowitz's FrontPage website, Wilentz had
this exchange with the creepy redbaiter:

Horowitz: What exactly does it mean that a North Korean-adoring
Communist sect is running the "peace" movement? Does this matter?

Wilentz: It means that, as ever, Communist sects are extremely diligent
and clever at mobilizing large numbers people to march in demonstrations
by exploiting those peoples' concerns and hiding their own politics.

Clever? Diligent? One wonders why Wilentz did not describe the
Communists as "masters of deceit" since that word would have captured
his true intentions. When you read this sort of thing, it makes you want
to take a long, hot shower with disinfectant soap.

As tedious as Wilentz's attack on Nader is, it does raise some
interesting questions about American history and electoral politics that
are worth addressing. The purpose of his article is to review how new
parties emerge. Except for the Republican Party, efforts such as the
Bull Moose or Progressive Parties tend to disappear after their purpose
is exhausted.

Wilentz writes:

 >>But Nader will never be a Lincoln -- for we are not living in a
latter-day equivalent of the 1850's. Although specific abuses cause
considerable agitation among liberals and Democrats, the nation is not
as riven over "corporate power," Nader's diffusely projected target, as
it once was over slavery.<<

Actually, the nation was not exactly "riven" over slavery. It was
instead riven over whether it should be allowed in the western
territories. Lincoln was only prompted to abolish slavery when the
exigencies of the Civil War required it. In fact, it was direct action
by the slaves that took the form of a mass exodus to the North and
service to the Union Army either as soldiers or laborers that led to
their emancipation. It is not surprising that a committed Democratic
Party ideologist would exaggerate the commitment of the Republicans to
the abolitionist cause. Moreover, within a dozen years following the
war, the Republicans were content to sell out the black population of
the South as worries about general labor unrest mounted.

Furthermore, even though there is as not mass consciousness about
"corporate power" as one would like, it is obvious that the American
people are its victims just as much as black people were victims of the
plantation system in the 1800s. Although abolitionists got even less of
a hearing in the 1830s than the Greens get today, there is little doubt
that the issues they raised were genuine. Wilentz seems to subscribe to
a popularity contest understanding of politics. If less than 5 percent
of the population thinks that corporations are exploiting workers
mercilessly, polluting the planet and producing unsafe products, then
why bother to run independent election campaigns against the two parties
that are virtually defined by the word corporation?

Wilentz thinks that "liberal Democrats" are saying the same things about
corporate greed and domination as Nader. One wonders which candidates he
would be speaking about. I doubt that given his subservience to the
centrist wing of the party, he could be talking about somebody like
Dennis Kuchinich.

Since Wilentz has stated publicly that President Clinton "led the way in
salvaging American liberalism, particularly the Democratic liberal
spirit of the early 1960s", it is entirely possible that we simply have
different understandings of what liberalism is and whether socialists
have any business supporting it. The Democratic liberal spirit of the
1960s is a reference obviously to JFK who invaded Cuba and inspired
Clinton's sizzle without steak image and style

After CORE launched its famous "Freedom Rides" in 1961, JFK became
furious at the nuisance they were creating. He told his civil rights
adviser Harris Wofford "Can't you get your friends off those goddamned

As the rides continued, both JFK and RFK grew more and more upset by
what they felt were the "giant-pain-in-the-asses" at CORE. Finally the
"liberal" president and his brother, the attorney general, came to agree
with J. Edgar Hoover that Martin Luther King Jr. needed to be wiretapped
because of suspected Communist ties. Both JFK and RFK met with King
urging him to purge the reds from his staff. To his credit, King
refused. After reading Wilentz's disgusting cracks about the "clever"
and "diligent" Commies in the peace movement, it should come as no
surprise that he would idolize the Kennedys.

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