I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat. – Will Rogers
Last week Warren Beatty’s Reds was on Turner Classic Movies. I don’t think I’ve seen it since the 80s. I do remember seeing it in a theater during its first run. It truly is an exceptional film, an epic with an extraordinary amount of heft. Particularly interesting are the “Witnesses”, radicals from back in the day who remember the movement, who knew the principals, and had their hearts broken.
I find one part of the film a perfect example of how the American Left functions. Beatty’s character John Reed attends the 1919 convention of the US National Socialists. The convention turn riotous, splitting dissenters into the Communist Labor Party of America and the Communist Party of America. Or in terms a Monty Python fan would understand: the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. Yep, that’s pretty much the American Left as I know it.
There is an episode of The West Wing where Toby was dispatched to a demonstration against the World Bank. He’s accompanied by the Capital police just to make sure he’s not torn to pieces. As I remember it he assures the police that nothing is going to happen. He takes a newspaper, walks to the center of the stage, and tells them to pick a spokesperson. Chaos ensues and Toby takes to a folding chair where he reads a newspaper, uninterrupted.
Sometime in the early 80s my wife and I were regulars at North Dakota Farmers Union conventions. The Farmers Union had some pretty radical roots back in my grandparents’ time but it had soothed a bit by the 80s. Still, these were big affairs, bringing in thousands of earnest farmers to Bismarck or Fargo or Minot, eager to see friends and talk. And argue.
The debates over the platform were the source of any contention. The platform of the NDFU was always a bit of a windmill tilt. They could muscle through agricultural reform in the state legislature but anything beyond that didn’t stand the chance of an ice cube in Hell. Nonetheless, each platform plank was pursued with a progressive vigor that would have pleased Roosevelt (either one). This one particular year I remember a heated debate about getting a plank in the platform asking for a Palestinian homeland. That was pretty far out there. But then came the abortion plank fight. This was when the anti-abortion movement was really getting moving, when hypocrites like Jerry Falwell began beating the drum. And somehow, it stirred up enough Catholic farmers that we were staring at a “life begins at conception” plank in the platform.
For a full hour this thing got beat around and finally there was an emotional surge to get it on the platform. And fifteen minutes later an emotional surge took it off. My wife wondered aloud why this was even part of the platform when farms were being auctioned off right and left. You were correct my dear. We fight, we bicker, we splinter, we have the message discipline of a kindergarten class.
I suspect it is because when you get to the outside of either the right or left, you get to the idealists. Now until recently, the Republicans ran a pretty good job of exploiting the idealists. They’d allow crazy shit into their national platform, make occasional legislative nods to their agenda (but nothing so severe that the Democrats would rise in revolt). The plan was always use the fundamentalists to get elected and then go back to serving the interests of the oligarchs and corporations.
Now of course the far right has finally figured it out and rejected the establishment candidates in favor of an outsider. He’s an outsider that will sell his own followers down the river in a heartbeat, a con man who is only in it for his own brand. If you think he cares one wit about guns or babies you’re fooling yourselves yet again. But once again, the right is marching in lockstep.
The left is, as always, screwing itself. The candidate is admittedly less than spectacular, less charismatic than her predecessors and often shooting herself in the foot (though not as prone to as the traffic cone with a comb-over she’s running against). But the Feel-the-Bern millennials and others on the left are twisting their panties with a passion not seen since McGovern. I loved George McGovern but he didn’t have a chance in hell. Maybe that was the campaign that made me a young pragmatist. But regardless of that, idealists bore the daylights out of me.
They talk of protest votes, they talk of principles, they talk of feelings. Just like in the movie Reds.
We’re looking at the most dangerous candidate we have seen in modern history. And still principled idealists talk about being butthurt at the Democratic convention and maybe it’s better that Trump were elected so the system can burn down and then rebuilt. No. I heard that argument made for Nader in 2000 and look where that narcissist’s futile campaign led us.
I wish that the progressives in America would take a disciplined stand. We did in North Dakota back in the early part of the last century. My grandparents were part of that movement. The Bank of North Dakota and the ND State Mill still exist; socialist landmarks in a red state. It can be done.
But it won’t. And that’s why the most second most tragic moment of Reds is the convention of 1919. Will Rogers will never be proven wrong.