How did we arrive at this point?
To understand how we got here, we have to go back to 1948.
The Taft-Hartley Act (called "the slave-labor bill" by President Truman), pushed through by a Republican Congress the year before, severely restricted the power of labor unions.
One key item of Taft-Hartley is that it forces union leaders to denounce the Communist Party. This put the Congress of Industrial Organizations in a bind. Unlike the conservative AFL, the CIO was openly socialist. Also, unlike the AFL, the CIO was much more effective at organizing (including USWA, UMWA, UAW, and ILWU).
Philip Murray refused to sign the required anti-communist affidavit. However, he enthusiastically purged the communists from the CIO, eventually kicking out 11 unions by 1950.
Without the enthusiastic organizational efforts of the communists, the labor movement in America never fully recovered.
It's one thing to risk your neck to achieve the goal of a better world for the working class. It's an entirely different thing to risk your neck for a 50 cent an hour raise.
Around the same time, the House Un-American Activities Committee was investigating Hollywood.
This House committee was first created in 1934 and was called the "Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities". It died out that year without uncovering anything significant, but not before it shifted its focus from fascists to communists.
It was recreated in 1938 under the shorter and more familiar name and was chaired by Martin Dies (known then as the Dies Committee). It's purpose was to investigate German American involvement in Nazi and Ku Klux Klan activity. Shortly after its creation, the HUAC's chief counsel Ernest Adamson announced, "The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe." Committee member John E. Rankin added: "After all, the KKK is an old American institution."
[Note: Dies spoke at several KKK rallies.]
So instead of investigating the Klan, the HUAC decided to investigate communist influence in the Federal Theatre Project. This is very ironic because the Dies committee was co-chaired by Samuel Dickstein, a man who turned out to be on the Soviet payroll.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was actually quite late to this witch-hunt. By the time he arrived at the scene in 1950 the destruction of thousands of people's lives for having unpopular political beliefs was already in full swing.
By the time of McCarthy's downfall in December 1954, the Communist Party in America had largely ceased to exist.
Some people look at Europe today and wonder why we don't have things like universal health care and a real social safety net.
These people often overlook the fact that those nations still have communist and socialist parties.
We destroyed our leftist anarchist groups during the First Red Scare using methods such as "entrapment, police brutality, prolonged incommunicado detention, and violations of due process in court." The government specifically targeted the left-wing, anarchist IWW labor union. We then destroyed the communist and communist-leaning groups 30 years later through methods only slightly less brutal.
Communism didn't die in America because Americans rejected it. It was murdered.
"the IWW was crushed and never revived, similar action at this time would have been as effective against the Communist Party."
- J. Edgar Hoover
It's important to note that both the House and Senate were under Democratic control from 1949 to 1953, during the height of the Second Red Scare. It was a Republican Senate that censured McCarthy.
What made the Second Red Scare so effective was that liberal groups so enthusiastically betrayed their leftist allies to the delight of conservatives.
So what happens to a group political debate when an entire ideology is banned from the debate?
We didn't ban all extremists. Not for a second. "After all, the KKK is an old American institution," and David Duke was still running for president as a Democrat as late as 1988.
It's hard to make a case that the terrorist group Klan is less extreme than communists.
When you cut off the left side of political debate, the center naturally drifts to the right. Moderates will continue to be in the center, but the center had moved.
Besides eliminating any and all left-wing ideas from American politics, it also changes the texture of the debate.
Leon Trotsky once said that communism was the politics of hope, and fascism was the politics of despair. While that was probably an exaggeration, he does have a point.
Communist speakers tend to preach about a better future for humanity, so much so that conservatives accuse them of being utopians.
Extreme conservatives talk about people we should be afraid of.
Communists talk about breaking chains and freedom.
Extreme conservatives talk about fearing God and protecting us from dangerous ideas.
Whether you believe anything that either of them says (and you probably shouldn't), the fact is that Trotsky had a point and you can see that in today's political debates.
Where is the talk about a better world? Where is the talk about more freedom? Not just protecting the freedoms we have, but actually expanding on our freedoms?
Where is the damn hope?
Liberals have been engaged in a fighting retreat against the forces of conservatism for so long that the idea of taking the fight to the enemy isn't even considered anymore.
There is a reason for that: the extremists are always the most vocal and aggressive.
The left-wing purged its extremists more than 60 years ago.
The right-wing, OTOH, has cultivated its extremists until they now threaten to dominate the political spectrum.
The Democrats today are dominated by moderates. What do moderates do? They find a middle ground. That is their nature. As the middle ground shifts to the right, they shift in the same direction.
So when a younger generation gets disgusted with the broken status quo of our political system they will search for something that isn't part of the mainstream. In the past they would discover socialists and communists, but those no longer exist. There is no one left to speak their inspiring (if sometimes misguided) words of a better future (i.e. the exact thing that those kids will want to hear).
Instead they will only hear the voices of despair and distrust from today's American libertarians, and see that reality reflected in today's world.
The political world we have today didn't happen because conservatives made it that way. It happened because liberals looked the other way when leftists were being persecuted for having unpopular beliefs.
We can change that, but liberals will have to show the same tolerance for extreme left-wing ideas that conservatives show for extreme right-wing ideas.
12:15 PM PT: Which party really is the Big Tent?
Sure, the Democrats win the ethnicity debate hands down, but political parties are about politics first and race second.
Doesn't it seem strange that the GOP has more tolerance for unpopular right-wing political ideas than the Democrats have for unpopular left-wing political ideas?
And let's not forget what those unpopular communist ideas used to be: universal health care, 40-hour work weeks, child-labor laws, women's suffrage, and of course, social security.
Both parties fought these ideas tooth-and-nail for decades before FDR.