Opinion: Todd Gitlin and the radicalism of small-d democracy
Sociologist and media scholar Todd Gitlin died on Feb. 5. (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star/Getty Images) Opinion by E.J. Dionne Jr. February 10 at 7:20 am Taiwan Time When my conservative friends — thank goodness I still have some — think of “the New Left” and the Sixties, their minds usually turn to flag burning, antiwar riots, pot-smoking (how quaint!) and all manner of attacks on “American values.” My view, by contrast, is shaped more by the New Left’s origins as a movement that preached “participatory democracy,” an idea deeply embedded in the American tradition. The words come from the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the pioneer organization of the New Left. Its vision of such a democracy was based on two central aims: “that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.” Yes, I notice the gendered language and a hard-to-operationalize vagueness. Still, if the early student left, inspired by the civil rights movement, was radical, it was radical about democracy. It took our country’s democratic promise and the Cold War claims we made about ourselves more seriously than many who repeated them by rote. These reflections are stirred by the death this past weekend of Todd Gitlin, one of the world’s truly good, thoughtful and committed people. Gitlin was president of SDS from 1963 to 1964 and wrote the best account of the era in which he played an important role. “The Sixties,” published in 1987, captured a kaleidoscopic time in rich detail, but it was also great because Gitlin was so honest, self-reflective and self-critical. Gitlin never regretted being a radical. But neither did he flinch from describing the moral, strategic and tactical failings of the movement he helped build. Over the years, his worries about his own side always drew on his (small-d) democratic convictions: It was not doing enough to build majorities, to find arguments that appealed to broadly shared sentiments — including patriotism — and to avoid a deadening sectarianism. I particularly loved his swipe at an inward-looking academic left: “While the Right has been busy taking the White House,” he wrote in “The Twilight of Common Dreams” in 1995, “the Left has been marching on the English department.” Being a rationalist and a defender of the Enlightenment (this got him into arguments, too), Gitlin saw mistakes as an opportunity for instruction. In a lovely symposium about his life in Dissent magazine, his friend Mitchell Cohen wrote: “Todd Gitlin believed in a left that learns.” Maybe that’s a revolutionary idea all by itself. In good Gitlin fashion, I have written mostly analytically and historically, so I should confess that I loved the guy. I read him long before I knew him, and discovered later that he was as warm as he was insightful. For more than three decades, I turned to him for sharp cultural and media criticism as well as political encouragement. When I spoke with him by phone a few weeks ago, he was, at 79, still full of energy, ideas and plans, anxious about the state of our country but still determined to find new strategies forward. His final public project, an “Open Letter in Defense of Democracy,” was released in October. Organized with Bill Kristol, the prominent anti-Trump conservative, and Jeffrey Isaac, an Indiana University political scientist, it warned that liberal democracy faced “serious danger.” It declared flatly: “The primary source of this danger is one of our two major national parties, the Republican Party, which remains under the sway of Donald Trump and Trumpist authoritarianism.” The Republican National Committee effectively ratified this claim this past week when it voted — the day before Gitlin died — for the already-infamous resolution describing the violent rampage at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as “legitimate political discourse.” A teacher for many years, Gitlin drew hope from his engagement with students, and he never locked himself into a crotchety insistence that older people (including older leftists) always knew better. He did not pander to the young. He respected them enough to argue when he disagreed. But he listened, too. Older people of every ideology should emulate his balance. In 2003, he wrote “Letters to a Young Activist,” a book of advice for those following in his path of political engagement. At the outset, he cheerfully acknowledged the difficulty of cross-generational dialogue: “Let’s both try to think our way out of our skins.” He also expressed gratitude. “For joining the activist camp in the face of an immensity of pain and crime, congratulations and thank you,” he wrote. “You’ve departed from the path of least resistance — a clue to good character and the promise of a life well spent.” I can’t think of a better description of Gitlin himself.