Sean Wilentz, Ralph Nader and the early 1960s


posted to on March 8, 2004


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 term 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 not as much 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 buses?"


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.