This is an angry, sorrowing book, and Barry Rubin’s indefatigability in completing it while facing what he knew to be his final illness (the respected historian and Middle East analyst died of cancer in early February of this year) indicates to some extent the measure of the thinker who has gone. Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance brims with insight and evidence; if one could read only one book this summer on the revolution that has occurred in American politics, this should be it.
Passages of incredulity punctuate the otherwise controlled, effectively developed arguments the author presents about the “fundamental transformation” of America that had already taken place by the time Barack Obama proclaimed it, just prior to his election. That is Rubin’s core thesis: that it was not Obama himself who changed America, or even the leftist ideologues and czars he appointed to carry out his socialist vision — though the effects of their policies have been profound — but legions of true believers, many working independently and without centralized direction, who have remade the culture in a remarkably short time. Together, they laid the groundwork for the most radical and culturally alien president in American history to present himself credibly, and with almost no concerted opposition, as a mere modernizer of traditional American practices. This movement also enabled millions of mainstream Americans to buy into assumptions and programs that guarantee the end of American exceptionalism.
How could such a monumental cultural shift have occurred with so little general recognition, let alone organized dissent? How was it possible that so many people accepted as “liberal” ideas and policies that would, just a few decades earlier, have been immediately identified (and denounced) as radically anti-American and anti-liberal? To answer such questions, a review of twentieth-century American Leftist history and especially of the phenomenon of the 1960s New Left underpins Rubin’s analysis of what he calls the “silent revolution” of our time — silent not only because its leaders have taken pains to disguise the true nature of their goals, but also because (and this is the real genius of the movement) many members of the revolutionary army are not themselves fully aware of its radical dimensions.
That movement has involved the co-optation of classic liberalism (now tragically defunct, according to Rubin) by the Left, such that a once-marginal, statist, and anti-capitalist philosophy has claimed the middle ground of American thought that liberalism once honorably occupied. This radical philosophy has argued, successfully though falsely, that the progress achieved under the American free enterprise system — workers’ rights, environmental protections, women’s liberation — was possible only as a result of the far Left of the Democratic Party, and that conservatives would, if returned to power, take it all away.
Conservative criticisms of radical ideas have been effectively sidelined through their demonization. The new hegemony has enabled Obama, in the guise of safeguarding liberal freedoms and opportunities for the middle class, to implement “an unprecedented degree of statism, an imperial presidency that went far beyond Richard Nixon’s dreams, [and] record high levels of government regulation, taxation and debt,” while also presiding over, in universities and the mass media, an ideological straightjacketing of intellectuals that is the very opposite of the classic liberal emphasis on individualism and free exchange.
Rubin calls this hidden movement — an inchoate, uncoordinated, and de-centralized phenomenon — the Third Left. He argues that it grew from the failures of the two previous Left movements: the first under the Communist Party of the 1920-1950s and the second in the form of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. What differentiates the Third Left from the New Left, with which it has many affinities, is the Third Left’s unparalleled mainstreaming of radical ideas. An almost complete infiltration by Third Left cadres of the entertainment industry, mass media, and the entire education system — from kindergarten through university — has normalized what were once shocking ideas, making hatred of capitalism seem natural and desirable, anti-Americanism the only decent response of conscientious citizens, and social inequality a crime for which any level of government control is not only acceptable but necessary.
Rubin’s brief and fascinating history of the Left in America shows how the Third Left learned from the successful strategies and ideas of its predecessors while turning some Leftist tenets upside down. In the early 1920s, with prosperity in America and extremism in the Soviet Union damaging Communists’ ability to win support, Leftists made a move that the 21st century Third Left would duplicate: it disguised itself as Progressive. (In fact, the early twentieth-century Progressives had wanted to save capitalism through reforms rather than destroy it, but the radical Progressives used the name to legitimize a far more absolutist agenda.) By the 1950s and 1960s, when it was increasingly obvious that American capitalism was taking people out of poverty, reforming itself, generating wealth to support expanding social programs, and creating greater opportunities for ever larger numbers of citizens, the almost universal recognition of this truth was undermined by new strategies of mobilization focusing on counter-culture youth and a few simple ideas.