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New Left Review I/155, January-February 1986


Mike Davis

The Lesser Evil? The Left and the Democratic Party

In the summer before the 1984 presidential elections, Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, in a widely noted interview in the New York Times Magazine, boasted that ‘by now practically everyone on the left agrees that the Democratic Party, with all its faults, must be our main political arena’. [1] New York Times Sunday Magazine, 17 June 1981, p. 24. In recent historical context there was a peculiar irony in this assertion, with its smug self-limitation of the ‘Left’. During the 1960s, American social democracy had been debilitated, almost discredited, by its advocacy of reform through the Democratic Party. The right wing of the old Thomasite Socialist Party, ‘Social Democrats, usa’, had broken away to become courtiers of Scoop Jackson and lobbyists for military victory in Vietnam. Meanwhile, a centrist current led by Harrington and Howe formed a small circle around Dissent with negligible influence on a burgeoning New Left which spurned their faith in the transformability of the Democratic Party. Indeed, the key radical organizations of the 1960s, sncc and sds, understandably regarded the Cold War liberalism incarnated by the Humphrey/Jackson wing of the Democratic Party (to which both camps of social democrats oriented) as the enemy, primarily responsible for genocidal imperialism in Southeast Asia as well as for the repression of the Black liberation movement at home.

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