Jacob Heilbrunn

The Return of the Radical Left

Bill Clinton must be feeling rather heady. He just came off several days of celebrations that raised money for his foundation and were devoted to celebrating his favorite subject: himself. A $6,500-a-plate dinner at the Palladium in Los Angeles on Friday helped launch the festivities. Then came a big bash at the Hollywood Bowl, where Lady Gaga apparently went gaga over the former president and first lady, now secretary of state. So did Bill: "How cool is it to be 65 and you get Lady Gaga," he announced.

But Clinton is really old hat. The action is elsewhere. Clinton did much to neuter the Left during his presidency. Indeed, he promoted one of the very economists who later, it could be argued, helped create the current mess—Larry Summers. Summers, according to Ron Suskind's new book Confidence Men, stymied any real reform at the outset of the Obama presidency, perhaps even subverted his plans for reforming the banks, which are "too big to fail" now to a greater extent than they were before.

Might it be that their true legacy is to have assisted in reviving the Left from a comatose state? "The indignants," as they are known, seem to be everywhere. In Rome they went on a wild melee, causing over $1 million in damage, according to press reports. In London they are camping out in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. And here in the United States there is no shortage of demonstrators. Zuccotti Park seems to have become a kind of permanent art installation, if you will. The longer the demonstrators stay, the harder it will become to dislodge them. They may become a permanent fixture.

In downtown Denver on Saturday night, I got a whiff of what the demonstrators are like. About five hundred people marched down the street accompanied by a phalanx of police motorcycles and SUVs. "You can't ignore us!," one rather beserk-looking man screamed at me. "Well, who's trying to ignore you?" I wondered. The truth is, nothing is more chic than railing against capitalism. Press coverage is almost guaranteed. The demands in Denver, if that term can be applied, were inchoate and diffuse. It wasn't clear what they wanted other than to blow off some steam. As I watched the demonstration, I was reminded that people like to be part of a "happening," to use the 1960s term. It makes them feel virtuous and important to be marching, bellowing, demanding.

As Gordon Crovitz reports in the Wall Street Journal,

"Kids have come from all over the country for a big party in our park, and Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg has given them diplomatic immunity," half-joked Ro Sheffe, a member of the city's Community Board 1, representing lower Manhattan.

Will the basically irenic mood of the Left last? Historically, it usually curdles into violence or is hijacked by a fringe. That could certainly happen in America. But the real precipitant in the 1960s was the belief that America was the heart of darkness, a militaristic empire waging a criminal war in Vietnam. That war, it was alleged, justified violent action to overthrow the regime back in Washington. The war in Afghanistan appears to be winding down under a Democratic president. If a Republican is elected, America could see the rise of a much more vociferous Left.

Indignation is in. Passivity is out. It could be a rough ride—in The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gassett gloomily observed, "The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select"—leading to confrontations between Right and Left as despair and outrage over the economy exacerbate the sense that avaricious financial and political elites have gamed the system for their own benefit. Whether the protests will lead anywhere satisfactory is another matter.  But as the acrimony increases, even Lady Gaga may no longer be enough of a diversion from America and the world's woes.