Something Mark said recently got me thinking. The suggestion was that it was the militant left, the direct action groups who did not limit themselves to electoral means to achieve what they wanted, during the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement that pressured politicians into accepting this liberal movements.
I thought that was worth considering. I don’t believe it, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. On closer consideration, Mark has a point, but with limitations.
First – some of the most celebrated direct actions in recent times – such as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 – had the effect of giving more political power to their opponents. Though loud, attention-grabbing, and in many ways justified, the opponents of the Vietnam War nonetheless alienated most Americans because they weren’t acting through established mechanisms for achieving political change. The result? An expansion of the hated war, followed only much later by a clumsy, bloody withdrawal, with a presidency worth of attacks on Democracy for an encore.
As to Mark’s other example, the New Deal – it does seem very likely that FDR, or his more recalcitrant party mates were encouraged to support more liberal policies for fear of getting facing something worse from Huey Long or Father Coughlin. On the other hand, their bravery was probably also bolstered by the fact that they picked up another nine seats in the Senate in 1934, despite the fact that the unemployment rate was still above 20%. It was their electoral strength that made their continued progressive agenda possible, not merely fear of punishment or insurrection.
So, perhaps Mark has something of a point – activists unconcerned with the welfare of the Democratic party may be able to goad politicians into being more responsive and faster-acting than they are wont to be. However, they can also have the opposite effect in the event that they alienate the American people or sabotage the electoral position of the politicians more sympathetic to their cause.