Some worry lack of energy has taken its toll on liberal movement
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 6:30 PM
Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University, has studied political activism for decades. But two years ago, he thought he was participating in a unique political movement, one not organized against an idea or a war - like most he has seen or been involved with - but in support of a specific candidate: Barack Obama.
Kazin volunteered for the Obama campaign during the primaries, canvassing voters in Indiana. In an essay soon after the election, in the liberal-leaning Dissent magazine, which he edits, Kazin wrote enthusiastically of a new political force that he believed would endure after the election.
"There is, of course, a danger that, having achieved their immediate goal, these activists will now take a break from politics, cheering or finding fault with the new president and his congressional majority but doing so from the sidelines," he wrote. "I think this is unlikely."
But Kazin, like many other liberal activists who once shared that view, says he may have been too optimistic. As conservatives, led by talk show host Glenn Beck, prepare for a rally in Washington on Saturday - another sign of the increased activism on the right since Obama's election - some liberals say the energy of the campaign on their side has dissipated and is not matching the energy and passion "tea party" activists have captured on the right.
In an interview, Kazin said, "I was a bit optimistic in the glow of victory," adding that "the campaign had the aura of a movement, but in the light of day it was not a movement."
The lack of organized energy on the left, many liberals say, has helped lead to such defeats as the failure to secure a government insurance option in the health-care bill. And it has meant liberals have been unable to push Obama and a Democratic Congress to the left the way civil rights organizers did President Lyndon B. Johnson and Democratic majorities in the 1960s, they say.
"You make change by going out there and persuading people to look at the world differently," said Marshall Ganz, a liberal activist who advised Obama aides on organizing during the campaign. "Obama did that during the campaign." But since the election, Ganz said, "the tea party has been far more effective."
Jonathan Tasini, a longtime labor activist who is running for Congress in New York, said, "I get a lot of people saying they are disappointed in Barack Obama."
"And my answer is, the real question is why is there not a movement to move the president and the party the way you want them to go?" he said.
Some liberals dispute this idea. They cite a variety of examples of an organized, engaged left: the support of the health-care bill from unions and groups such as Organizing for America and MoveOn.org, the primary challenges from the left of incumbent senators such as Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln (D) and the large rallies across the country for immigration reform. They argue that the news media, particularly Fox News, have inflated the influence of the tea party and portrayed it as a more powerful force in politics than it is.
"There have been rallies all across the country" pushing a more liberal agenda on job creation, said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, which is helping to organize a large Washington event for left-leaning groups on Oct. 2.
Others say Obama has been broadly effective in pushing through policies, such as the economic stimulus, that include provisions the left has long championed and the right has opposed, giving liberals little reason to attend rallies and conservatives much to vent about.