How the New Left Damaged Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s
And why an unchallenged new-New Left is poised to do the same today.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And this reality should frighten Democrats, and all anti-Trump Americans. In the mid-1960s, events radicalized young activists and alienated the intelligentsia. The New Left went over the brink—and took American liberalism and the Democratic Party with it. This spelled doom for the Roosevelt coalition and gave birth to the Age of Reagan. From 1968 through 1988 (excepting the post-Watergate 1976 election), Democrats averaged a puny 41.5 percent of the popular vote and a paltry 76 Electoral College votes.
In 2024, a new-New Left promises a similar outcome. And this time, it is Donald Trump, not the Gipper, leading the GOP.
To avoid this outcome, the anti-Trump coalition should know their usable history—and learn from it. We can stop the nightmare of second Trump presidency. To do so, requires understanding and then reckoning with the new-New Left. Termed “woke,” the “successor ideology,” or in Yascha Mounk’s verbiage the “Identity Thesis,” a constellation of leftist ideas has spawned a political movement that bears remarkable similarities to the New Left of the 1960s.
The origins of the original New Left are not so different from our new-New Left. Prompted by the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray a wave of student protests rocked high schools and colleges in 2014 and 2015. Outraged at police violence, racism, misogyny, and systemic injustice, activists had their moments of rhetorical excess and performative nihilism. But the leftover optimism of the Obama era offered guardrails.
When it comes to radicals and protests, the early 1960s mirrored the late Obama years. New Leftists might have rolled their eyes at John F. Kennedy’s alleged “corporate liberalism,” but they did so in a hopeful and optimistic fashion. In 1963, Kennedy’s support for civil rights and nascent détente with the Soviets delighted them. These developments proved that viable solutions to racism, the Cold War, and poverty existed. Early New Leftists thought of themselves as part of a coalition of labor, middle class liberals, and radicals. Their yearning for change was tempered by faith in America legitimated by concrete results. In the early 1960s, civil rights activists had moved the needle. Kennedy backed civil rights; LBJ launched his Great Society and the War on Poverty. Substantive change through mainstream politics seemed viable.
August 1964 transformed the New Left’s optimism into outraged despair. That month, the Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and liberals negotiated the Atlantic City Compromise. Congress gave LBJ almost unlimited authority for military expansion in Vietnam. At the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, liberals refused to seat the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in place of the Magnolia State’s all-white delegation. Fearing a Southern revolt, LBJ forced a compromise. The MFDP was offered token at-large seats in return for a future ban on segregated delegations.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s iconic response, “We didn't come all this way for no two seats,” exhilarated New Leftists. It also summarized their feelings about liberalism’s half-loaves. To New Leftists, August 1964 proved the “racists” and “warmongers” were one in the same: liberals. To them, American democracy was a system that subjugated and dominated African Americans at home and third world people abroad. Once New Leftists lost faith, they found new heroes in revolutionary thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray as well as actual revolutionaries like Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro. This completed their estrangement from America.
The New Left was amorphous yet real. At its height in 1968, Students for a Democratic Society counted 50,000 members; the Weather Underground, its notoriously violent offshoot, never numbered more than a few hundred. In the 1960s, activists organized at least 900 antiwar marches that enlisted millions. But antiwar fervor should not be confused with popular endorsement of the New Left’s worldview. By the 1980s, the Baby Boomers, the New Left’s generational cohort, backed Ronald Reagan more staunchly than any other single demographic group.
What the New Left lacked in numbers it compensated for with sound, noise, and intellectual heft. Erudite and prolific, in the 1960s New Leftists wrote and published as much as they marched and organized. During the 1970s, they moved into academia, entertainment, journalism, and publishing. Commanding the cultural and academic heights, their views seeped into the political mainstream via New Politics liberalism.
New Leftists were revolutionaries who allied themselves with the Black Panther Party, Castro’s Cuba, and Vietnamese communists. New Politics liberals, by contrast, eschewed the barricades for the suburbs, office parks, and tenure, and by the 1970s they came to define and control the Democratic Party. But they brought with them the New Left’s fundamental alienation from the mainstream.
Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris embodied the New Politics ethos. A political boy wonder who won a Senate seat at age 34, Harris was close to LBJ and was very nearly Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968. By 1971, the 41-year-old Senator and Democratic National Committee Chair had become a New Politics acolyte. Formerly square and squeaky clean, he sported a moustache and hair down to his collar accentuated by long sideburns. His alienated rhetoric matched his appearance: “I think people are damn tired of the wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed politicians they could puke—and so am I.”
In foreign policy, New Politics liberals harbored a deep pessimism regarding America’s role in the world. To them, it was not just Vietnam that was a catastrophic blunder—it was the Cold War itself. Far from carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, New Politics liberals sought, in the words of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign motto, to “Come Home, America.” Paul Warnke, a Dean Acheson protégé turned McGovern aide, summarized the New Politics view in his iconic 1975 Foreign Policy article “Apes on a Treadmill.” In one sense, Warnke rightly tweaked the Pentagon for endless spending on the newest delivery system for nuclear Armageddon. But his clunky metaphor revealed something deeper. Vietnam had convinced New Politics liberals of the moral equivalency between the two “apes on the treadmill.”
New Politics pessimism in foreign policy was mirrored in their deep alienation from the white working class. For a generation, leftists and liberals had placed organized labor and the working class at the center of Democratic priorities. During the 1960s, the New Left came to see the white working class as the reactionary bulwark supporting the war in Vietnam and white supremacy. They invested their revolutionary hopes in anti-colonial movements abroad and Black Power activists at home. New Politics liberals followed this path.
In the 1960s, violent crime soared by 106 percent and more than 750 race riots exploded across the country. At first, New Politics liberals debunked crime statistics as false. When reality punctured that tactic, they reduced all law-and-order concerns to racism. New Politics liberals, Fred Harris and John Lindsay, commandeered the Kerner Commission, chartered by LBJ in 1968 to investigate urban unrest. Their iconic report, blamed institutional racism as the central cause of riots and crime. True as this may have been, the Kerner Commission offered only pie-in-the-sky solutions for crime and disorder. By 1968, voters had zero appetite for yet another anti-poverty program. Working-class whites rightly felt this new-fangled liberalism ignored their concerns.
In 1969, an obscure working-class Democrat, Mario Procaccino, ran against John Lindsay for mayor of New York and coined a new term: “limousine liberals. To Procaccino, limousine liberals were insulated from the consequences of their policy views by their wealth and zip code. Safely distanced from it all, they could afford to opine about crime and riots. Working-class voters, meanwhile, lived with it. In the parlance of our times, limousine liberalism are the “luxury beliefs” of today’s new-New Left.
Luxury beliefs are often fashionable new-New Left dogmas and attitudes that offer prestige for the holder but inflict costs upon the working class. Cultural elites and academics regularly deem monogamy as “oppressive” and defend polyamory. But their personal lives tell another story: upper-class Americans remain wedded to the two-parent, monogamous ideal. Shifting cultural norms on the centrality of two-parent families has dire consequences for the working class. For the lower classes, family dissolution is now the norm, which as Melissa Kearney shows in her powerful new book, The Two Parent Privilege, makes “vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.”
Luxury beliefs and limousine liberalism demonstrate how history and the present can sometimes rhyme. For a generation, the New Politics and limousine liberals drove the Democrats into an electoral ditch. The new-New Left and its luxury beliefs threaten the same outcome.
But there is another path. And we find it in yet another historical rhyme: Barack Obama and “Vital Center” liberalism.
In July 2004, “a skinny kid with a funny name” professed his love for his country. In a nationally televised keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama called his country a “magical place” defined by America’s “true genius” that was located in “the simple dreams of its people.” Rhetorically brilliant, Obama delivered a partisan speech disguised as a political love letter. A clarion call to a fighting faith liberalism, the speech catapulted the obscure Illinois legislator to instant political stardom.
Democrats were hungry. They were exhausted by a generation of GOP attacks on their patriotism. Overnight, Obama made it cool for liberals to love America, again. When Michelle Obama admitted in 2008, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country,” she spoke for millions of progressive-minded Americans. They, too, were surprised by this strange, new pride of country. Riding these patriotic vibes (and an economic meltdown), Barack Obama became the first Democrat in a generation to win a majority of the presidential vote.
Prior to Obama, American liberals had forgotten their patriotic, fighting faith vocabulary. The alienation of the New Left and New Politics liberalism had purged such notions from the liberal mainstream. In 1984, when the neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick termed her old party the “Blame America First Crowd,” she wasn’t wrong.
When it comes to radical politics bleeding into the mainstream, though, everything old eventually becomes new again. In 2024, what had been radical propositions—Ibram X. Kendi-style antiracism, open borders, or (gulp) apologetics for Hamas and the October 7 atrocities—are now given far too respectful hearings by the liberal mainstream. As a result, the Obama coalition is losing normie voters by the droves. Like their predecessors in the 1970s, the normies are fleeing an alienated party. And it is events that are in the saddle and have (yet again) soured elites on their nation’s promise. If Obama were to give his 2004 DNC speech today at his alma mater Harvard Law School, he would likely be charged with a microaggression.
The triple shocks of Donald Trump, Covid, and George Floyd created a new-New Left whose radicalism, like its 1960s predecessor, has been mainstreamed. The crucible that was the Trump presidency radicalized educated liberals and hastened their “Great Awokening.” Events caused the educated middle class to look upon their country with newfound scorn and contempt. This turnabout opened the floodgates to what were radical, niche ideas, which then bled into the liberal mainstream. The new-New Left discovered that Obama’s “magical place” was a mirage. In the words of The Washington Post’s lefty columnist Taylor Lorenz, Americans were, instead, “living in a late-stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w[ith] record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world.”
The essentials of the new-New Left rest upon a series of intersecting ideas best symbolized by fashionable popular versions of postmodernism and Critical Race Theory. Taken in moderation, these ideas can, to some extent, offer a better understanding of a complicated world. But in an ideological “lab leak,” they escaped academia. In the wild, they are misapplied and over-interpreted. Ideas have consequences. In this case, it is an alienated liberal elite.
Inspired by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, among others, postmodernists question the idea of objective truth. Any sophisticated understanding of the world acknowledges that human bias and the fallibility of logic makes all knowledge subjective. But postmodernists go one step further and claim any search for truth simply masks new and inventive ways in which the powerful rule the oppressed.
Young activists and upwardly mobile professionals have rarely if ever engaged in close readings of Jacques Derrida or Jean Baudrillard, but postmodernist insights have nevertheless saturated popular culture. One need to look no further than Oprah Winfrey, the incredibly influential daytime talk show host who made “speaking your truth” into a mantra. On the right, postmodernist “alternative facts” underpin the MAGA media. Outside the bounds of literary studies or academic history, postmodernism inspires a nihilism corrosive to self-government. There are no common creeds. We share no ideals. When all verities are reduced to “your truth” versus “my truth” how can we accomplish any common purpose?
George Floyd’s murder pushed another foundational new-New Left idea, Critical Race Theory (CRT), into the mainstream. As an academic idea, CRT can help us see racism embedded in certain disparities deep within American society. That’s a reality, or something close to it. But CRT thinkers also harbor a deep and abiding pessimism regarding the nation’s past and future capacity to achieve racial justice. This pessimism spawns an intellectual rigidity as it relates to race or almost any reformist hopes on the new-New Left.
Even before Floyd’s murder, historians were brawling over The 1619 Project. Commissioned by The New York Times and authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the sprawling journalistic endeavor sadly reduced the multifaceted American story to one of racism and white supremacy. Hannah-Jones, a trained journalist, also made numerous errors of fact and interpretation in the work. These errors were noted by veritable giants in the field of American history. Normally, this is exactly how scholarship gets improved. A writer receives peer-review and adjusts accordingly. But Hannah-Jones rejected these critiques in toto.
After May 2020, defense of The 1619 Project became a proxy battle over the Floyd murder. It morphed into something more than scholarship: it became a totem, adherence to which demonstrates the new-New Left’s moral outrage at racism, facts be damned. New York Times packages, a best-selling book, and a Hulu mini-series magnified The 1619 Project’s reach—and its pessimism. Racism is real. But liberals now performatively echo the most gloomy and dystopian rhetoric to prove their ideological bona fides.
The new-New Left’s thoroughgoing alienation from the normie mainstream is a far cry from Obama’s fighting faith liberalism. Mainstream Democrats have lost ground to the new-New Left because we don’t appreciate the full nihilism of their ideology—or recognize that we should battle it. We incorrectly assume that anyone to the left of Trump is an ally, that there can be no enemies to our left.
History offers a counter-example. Like the 1960s and today, in the late 1940s radicals and leftists challenged mainstream liberalism. Unlike the 1960s, mainstream liberals pushed back, hard and effectively. Arthur Schlesinger’s 1950 work, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, announced their counter-offensive.
Vital Center liberalism was not a banal, split-the-difference centrism of the likes we see today. Battling fascists on the right and Stalinists on the left, Vital Center liberalism made safeguarding democracy its primary goal. At the same time, they were reformers who, in the words of Vital Center progenitor Reinhold Niebuhr, made sure, “Democracy is on the whole the vital center, but it must be worked so that it doesn’t go to dead center.”
Vital Center liberals understood that, like today, the traditional conservative-liberal spectrum had been scrambled and overturned. The anti-democratic challenges of left and right necessitates a broad coalition of liberals, moderates, and conservatives dedicated to Schlesinger’s “politics of freedom” and reform. In 2020, Biden’s anti-Trump coalition pointed in that direction.
It is no coincidence that Obama cited Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. Obama’s 2004 speech and much of his thinking evinces a sober appreciation for humanity’s limits and the necessity of reform. His was a fighting liberalism that possessed faith in America’s capacity to bend the moral arc of the universe. But Obama did not face the twin dangers of authoritarian populism on the right and a nihilist new-New Left until he was on his way out of office. Threading the needle between these two poles requires an ideological battle against both.
Every poll demonstrates that new-New Left’s outsized influence in the Democratic Party threatens to erode the 2020 anti-Trump coalition. As Sarah Longwell, the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, reminds us, “You can’t roll up your sleeves while wringing your hands.”
It is time that mainstream liberals and traditional leftists renounce the new-New Left. This will free Democrats to return to the unfinished task of 2020—building a new Vital Center founded upon a fighting faith in the American people, the American mission, and a belief that pragmatic politics can achieve our nation’s promise.
Jeff Bloodworth is a professor of history at Gannon University (Erie, PA). Bloodworth holds a Ph.D. in modern United States history from Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. (Twitter: @jhueybloodworth)