THE BULLDOZER AND THE BIG TENT: BLIND REPUBLICANS, LAME DEMOCRATS, AND THE RECOVERY OF AMERICAN IDEALS
By Todd Gitlin
Wiley, 327 pages, $25.95
I want to be upfront here: I’m a political junkie, and I was in the next precinct voting Democratic when Todd Gitlin poll-watched in our upstate district last fall. So I knew a lot of the story already, and I was prepared to like The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, but I didn’t know I’d laugh out loud (and cry) while reading it, and bore my friends by quoting it endlessly.
True, much of it has appeared in Mr. Gitlin’s other writings. Being blown up from newspaper and magazine articles, it’s repetitious, sometimes inadequate to the seriousness of the subject matter, and reads like it was edited with a foot. Lines about right-wing “think” tanks not being about thinking and how you go to elections with the party you have (thanks, Rummy) seem to appear at least once in every chapter. But the analysis is often revelatory, and Mr. Gitlin’s full-throated prose is a force of nature.
By far the best part is about the Republicans. (Isn’t Satan the most interesting character in Paradise Lost?) Mr. Gitlin describes the Republicans’ success as an alliance of an ideologically fueled movement and a conventional political party. His most important insight is that the resulting Republican bulldozer became simultaneously “a right-wing steamroller and an apparatus of power. It existed to rule.” “The entrepreneurs of the contemporary right have never—at least not since 1964, their foundational moment—doubted their will to win power.” That will, already soaring, took its final boost from religious zeal, “the high octane in the Republican base,” whose ultimate candidate, George W. Bush, fortuitously (or providentially) born again, “felt … like an extension—even the completion of their religious mission.”
And here’s how Mr. Gitlin thinks people should feel about it: “Bush’s truest believers invested him, or some idealized version of him they carried in their hearts, with their powers of judgment. The president was not only their president but their shaman, their designated teller of truth. … Because Bush spent months maintaining that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to war, his most devoted followers were not only prepared to maintain that Saddam had them, they were inclined to think that they had been found. … The best-educated Republicans, those holding more than a college degree, were more likely to believe this than were the least-educated Democrats, those with high school degrees or less. If the words willful and delusional are not suitable for describing such beliefs, when are they suitable?”
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, BY CONTRAST, along with the Vietnam War it had produced, was rejected by the left-wing movements of the 60’s. Party and movement hung separately. Probably because the subject is so depressing, Mr. Gitlin’s prose loses much of its glitter.
What is to be done? The best part of Mr. Gitlin’s analysis of the liberals is his tough-mindedness. Here’s what he has to say to those who keep thinking The New York Times is going to save the nation: “[J]ournalists are not obliged to be a political opposition … when political life at large falls afoul of public neglect and ignorance. … It would be astounding if large commercial organizations converted themselves into battalions of resistance.” And to the Clintonistas: “[E]ven those with the American gift for keeping on the sunny side of the street will be hard pressed to deny the obvious: neither a strong Democratic Party nor a vital liberal movement survived the end of Bill Clinton’s terms.”
Thus, his upbeat conclusion about the Democrats’ disastrous 2004 election—it was simply a referendum on terrorism—is puzzling and leads him to speculate that the Democrats’ victory in 2006, rather than being a gift to Democrats from the Iraqi insurgents and the pedophiliac congressman, reflected broad trends: “[T]he Republican movement-party relationship came unstuck,” he suggests, and “the demographics suggest that the time is nigh for the ‘emerging Democratic majority.’”
He urges liberal movements to embrace the Democratic Party as their own, not just as “an empty shell” to be “lobbied,” and to unite around certain universal programs, particularly health care and environmental/energy programs.
Although it’s useful to have all the plans for the Democratic future gathered in one place, his prescriptions are the least sure-footed portion of the book. Indeed, I wonder if Todd Gitlin, the committed liberal, was holding his fire because the Democrats were gathered in a circle. Well, that would be a change.
Linda Hirshman is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking).