Two big and important American social movements, both pioneered by the left, are heading in opposite directions. In recent years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists have scored one victory after another. Homosexuals now serve openly in the U.S. military and can legally marry in at least 19 states and the District of Columbia, and discrimination against them in other areas of public life is rapidly diminishing. At the same time, organized labor -- another (at least former) pillar of left-wing politics -- seems trapped in a downward spiral. Private-sector labor unions are struggling to survive, and organized public workers have become the villains of choice for numerous governors and state legislators. Understanding why the fates of these two great movements have diverged so dramatically reveals a great deal about the real influence of the left on American society today -- and the limits of that influence, as well.
Since its earliest incarnations appeared nearly 200 years ago, the American left has pursued two overarching goals: expanding individual rights for people in historically subordinate roles (such as women, African Americans, and recent immigrants) and creating a new economic and political order based on an equality of outcomes and motivated by a spirit of social solidarity. Leftists, or radicals -- the two are historically synonymous -- have striven, in short, to realize the promise of both liberty and equality, two of the holiest concepts in the American political tradition. With the help of reformist politicians (often known as progressives or liberals) and, at times, a sympathetic media environment, they have achieved some success in both spheres.
But most of the left’s greatest and most lasting victories have come in the first of these two areas of reform: individual freedom and dignity. Radicals played a vital role in the movements to abolish slavery, gain women the vote, legalize birth control, win civil rights for blacks and Latinos, and affirm the identity of racial minorities. Such now iconic figures as Frederick Douglass, Margaret
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