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.
The Students for a Democratic Society, a radical campus activist group, provides a case in point. This group of angry young people gave up on proletarian-based Marxism-Leninism and embraced race and gender politics along with a strong anti-colonial and anti-Western platform. Groups like the SDS supported the North Vietnamese against U.S.-backed Southern Vietnam, and later supported any anti-U.S. countries or movements, often murderously totalitarian ones, while claiming to favor democracy. SDS manipulation of racial grievance and determination to weaken the U.S. role in the world (while strengthening America’s enemies because of their anti-colonialist stance) became, forty years later, primary aspects of the Democratic Party and its current president.
What were once heretical ideas (that protecting national borders is racist; that supporting traditional marriage is hateful) were seamlessly mainstreamed through the indoctrination of youth in schools and the promotion of divisive multiculturalism. The public was convinced to view all such changes as necessary and right because of the new definition of America the Third Left so relentlessly manufactured. According to the Leftist viewpoint, American success came about through plunder and oppression of others, not because there was anything of value in the American system. Therefore a compassionate person was obliged to seek a world in which American power was reduced and American economic growth tempered.
By becoming “willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends,” as Van Jones put it, the radicals adopted a practical, patient, and far-reaching approach, taking control of the main opinion-making institutions of their country and stressing the need for permanent changes to redress past and present injustice. Over time, they built a conception of America as a bad, not a good, country, and made that idea appear not only laudable but the only opinion a decent, high-status individual could hold.
The Third Left was brilliant in using certain Marxian ideas — about the selfishness of capitalists, for example — while turning others — about the centrality of productive work — inside-out. They abandoned the universalism of class and the celebration of manufacturing advances, focusing instead on such issues as saving the environment or making the military safe for the transgendered. While Marxists had hated the capitalist state and wanted to destroy it wholesale, the Third Left saw it as another institution to be transformed from within, turned into the benevolent friend of the poor and the downtrodden.
All this and much more Rubin illuminates powerfully. Through a masterful analysis of government programs, policy changes, and rhetorical legerdemain, Rubin shows how under the guise of protecting and extending the American way, the Obama administration and Third Left minions have carried out a far-reaching revision to fundamental American principles, excoriating the failures of capitalism in order to justify the consolidation of a huge managerial apparatus, stifling debate in favor of rigid ideological uniformity, and buying off ethnic, racial, and gender groups with special rights and privileges that guarantee dependency and resentment.
The chapter covering Obama’s teachers at Occidental College (all virulently anti-American activists) makes an inarguable case about the normalization of radicalism at universities across the country; in consequence, as Rubin shows, everything that Obama came to imagine about his life — his portrayal of himself as a victim, his romantic championing of Islam, his obsession with race, his alienation from (rather than gratitude toward) his country — were standard Third Left narratives fed to him by the malcontented mentors he never renounced or outgrew. Similarly, as Rubin demonstrates, the policies of Obama’s administration always posit a racially divided and fundamentally unfair America that can only be saved by vesting more and more power in the state. Rubin’s final chapters show conclusively how Third Left ideology has produced the bitter fruit of an America-hating presidency.
Ultimately, Rubin is not sanguine about the likelihood that the Third Left will be routed by true liberalism any time soon: the Left’s hegemonic control of correct opinion and its ability to punish dissenters are well-entrenched, and it is unlikely that an economic disaster of the necessary proportions (as opposed to a slow, unalterable decline) will jolt the populace out of its variously well-intentioned, calculating, or timorous assent. Still, Rubin’s book is written in the hope that the old liberal America — the nation of cherished freedoms, self-reliance, open debate, patriotic reform, and admiration for initiative and hard work — can make a comeback, however much he fears that the inroads of the Left on American ideals have been too corrosive to admit recovery. The book is a riveting lament for that lost country.