Social Justice and the Radical Left

An interview with the co-author of Takeover: How the Left Corrupted Liberalism in the Pursuit of Social Justice

Donald T. Critchlow is the Barry Goldwater Chair of American Institutions at Arizona State University, editor of the Journal of Policy History and general editor for Cambridge Essential Histories (CUP). His new book, Takeover: How the Left Corrupted Liberalism in the Pursuit of Social Justice (co-authored with William Rorabaugh, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012), is an indictment of the leftist radicalism that persists in American politics today. For Critchlow, this radicalism has led to unprecedented attacks on religious liberties, a looming financial crisis, abortion on demand, and a redefining of freedom. Recently, in late 2012, CWR contributor Christopher White spoke with Critchlow about the political and cultural challenges that will significantly shape the future of the United States—and why Catholics should be both aware and concerned.

CWR: In Takeover, you refer frequently to the “New Progressives.” Who are the New Progressives and how did they emerge?

Donald T. Critchlow: Takeover: How the Left Corrupted Liberalism in the Pursuit of Social Justice answers an important question that many Americans began asking with the ascent of Barack Obama to the White House:  How did the Democratic Party become so radical? Takeover shows that liberalism underwent a profound transformation with the rise in the late 1960s and the early 1970s of a radical political formation the authors describe as the New Progressives.

By the early 1970s, the New Left’s anti-Vietnam War protests and other street activism had faded away. But the radicalism remained. The activists simply changed their tactics for remaking American society. After fighting against the establishment, radical leaders discovered that they could achieve much more by working within the system. They learned to harness politics and the courts to pursue what they thought of as social justice. Becoming lawyers, professors, journalists, consumer advocates, union leaders, community organizers, and even politicians, left-wing activists morphed into a new movement—the “New Progressives.” Takeover examines how the New Progressives colonized many areas of American life in creative and powerful ways.

CWR: You note that the civil rights revolution introduced “moral politics.” What do you mean by moral politics—and do you consider this a positive or negative development?

Critchlow: The struggle for black civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War inspired the generation of radicals who came out of the 1960s. Yet while the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. sought racial integration and equal opportunity for all Americans, radicals sought a revolutionary transformation of society. At first these radicals were hostile to electoral politics.  Liberalism and the Democratic Party were seen as enemies. 

Left-wing activists wanted to radically transform American society—by pursuing militant environmentalism; tearing down corporate power; crusading for population control, abortion, and euthanasia; pushing for nationalized health insurance; and more. They brought to these movements a moral fervor of the earlier civil rights movement, but their moral passion was translated into a vision—often based more on sentiment than a coherent philosophy—to remake American society through the expansion of the federal government to control, through sheer political power, and through the courts.

CWR: Social justice is a frequently used phrase—what do you interpret it to mean? 

Critchlow: New Progressives seek to control American consumption from health care, energy use, the cars we drive, the light bulbs we use, to what we eat and drink.  All in the name of social justice. Their vision of social justice is not based on a systematic ideology; or a well-developed doctrine of social justice found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It based on sentiment and rhetoric. Their use of the term social justice is ill-defined intellectually.  It is no less radical and transformative—and illusive politically. At issue is an understanding that Americans are confronting something never witnessed before in our history—a direct challenge that seeks to transform the political and economic order.  This is an unprecedented threat to the free-market economy and to those who believe in constitutional government, a balance between federal and state power, individual rights, and freedom itself.

Radicals have never defined the exact meaning of “social justice.” The concept appeals to the heart and to good intentions. It has allowed New Progressives to form alliances, at various times, with concerned Americans who would resist being called radicals. Even some activists drawn to the New Progressive banner have been well-intentioned reformers who sought answers to legitimate problems related to poverty, environmental pollution, health care, and corporate abuse.

The reliance on governmental power, the faith in elites to be able to determine the collective good, and the suspicion of free markets are all the New Progressives. Takeover does not dismiss the importance of moral passion, either in religion or politics. What we—my co-author William Rorabaugh and I—criticize is moral passion based on a single goal of gaining political power to serve elite and special interests.

CWR: Can you describe the origins of the “rights” movement, and specifically, the “right to choose”?

Critchlow: The “rights” movement came out of the earlier (and justified) civil rights movement. Coinciding with the black civil rights movement there emerged movements for women’s, Native American, Asian, and gay rights. Identity politics emerged full-blown by the early 1970s, reinforced by the implementation of federal affirmative action under the Nixon administration.

The feminist and pro-abortion movement seized upon the term “right to choose” as essential to their call for abortion on demand. Actually, Roe v. Wade limited constitutionally the absolute “right to choose” by women by declaring that in the last two trimesters of pregnancy that physicians and the government had a say in when a pregnancy could be terminated.

CWR: How did the new progressives use the language of individual freedom to promote their involvement in family planning and international population control?

Critchlow: The origins of family planning, as your readers know, had historical roots in the eugenics and population control movement. The Nazis gave eugenics a bad name, but even after the Second World War when John D. Rockefeller III established the Population Council, with the goal of controlling global population growth, he wanted to include in its mission a eugenics statement. He was talked out of this by his advisers. The rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s and the environmental movement in the late 1960s advanced the language of individual freedom related to family planning. Sarah Weddington, who argued Roe v Wade before the Supreme Court in 1971, was closely associated with the women’s liberation movement in Austin, Texas. These feminists were strong advocates of population control. Her then husband, Ron, was a fervent advocate of population control. He was not alone. Many of the leading advocates of abortion saw this as an instrument to control population growth. Harriet Pilpel, a skilled lawyer who worked for Planned Parenthood, saw abortion as a women’s right and as a means of population control. She declared that to cut down on population growth abortion should be made easy and safe, while developing other methods of family limitation. She was joined by many others who feared an approaching population crisis.

The euthanasia movement also took up the rhetoric of rights. This language of rights was used in the passage of assisted suicide in Oregon in 1994. Advocates of euthanasia, such as Derek Humphrey, the founder of the Hemlock Society, used the rhetoric of individual freedom to promote assisted suicide. The forces behind the Oregon law effectively used the language of individual choice, contrasting it with the “unique” theology of the Roman Catholic Church, to win public approval for the passage of the first state assisted suicide act in American history. The appeal to individual rights argument ultimately functioned, in effect, to advance elite goals of controlling demographic outcomes. In this way individuals are offered apparent choice, while elite-controlled government extends its powers to manage individual lives.

 CWR: How did Planned Parenthood acquire its untouchable status that is has today?

Critchlow: Planned Parenthood’s “untouchable” status became apparent in this last presidential election.  Any answer to this involved question needs to begin with the vast cultural changes we have seen since the 1960s’ sexual revolution. That many women believe the right to contraception means a right to have the federal government fund contraceptives, without distinction to income or ability to pay, is an extraordinary extension of the rights argument. It comes at a time when the nation is in debt to the tune of $16 trillion and the government is running an annual deficit of $1 trillion. It’s another entitlement at a time when Medicare and Social Security are going broke. Yet any attack on Planned Parenthood, a major proponent of free conception on demand, or Obama’s executive order extending free contraception, was seen as part of a “war on women.” In a secular age, calls to protect religious freedom, however justified, simply did not persuade many unmarried women. It might be added that the contraception revolution has coincided with an out-of-wedlock birth rate today of over 40 percent. This is hardly healthy for a nation.

CWR: What are the historical origins of Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act? 

Critchlow: The New Progressive agenda to control American consumption finds its fullest expression in national health insurance. When Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of March 23, 2010, he fulfilled the long-term dream of progressives to move the nation away from private insurance into a government-regulated and government-controlled national health care system. The dream was not fully realized—it was not socialized medicine per se—but a major advance toward it. Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress enacted a national health insurance system mandating that all Americans carry insurance through their employers, state-run health insurance exchanges, or Medicaid.

Takeover reiterates the costs and fiscal damage ObamaCare will cause the nation once fully implemented. We explore exactly how the New Progressives mobilized unions, hospital associations, and big health insurance to support ObamaCare. Unions such as the United Automobile Workers Union and the Service Employees International Union proved critical in this mobilization. By 2007, the SEIU had formed an alliance with the Kaiser Foundation, Kaiser Hospitals, and Catholic Health Care West to promote health care entitlements.

While labor was organizing its troops, other activists were rallying the base in support of nationalized health care. Especially important was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a grassroots radical group closely aligned with SEIU. In Chicago, SEIU Local 880 was ACORN. They shared the same office and same staff. Although ACORN received national notoriety after Obama’s election—and ultimately would be forced into bankruptcy—the importance of this organization in the New Progressive agenda should not be underestimated. Formed in 1970, by former New Leftist and welfare rights organizer Wade Rathke, ACORN grew into a major activist organization. It became a major advocate of national health insurance. 

Following Obama’s election in 2008, ACORN launched a vigorous campaign on behalf of national health insurance. Tamecka Pierce, a member of ACORN’s national board, was the leader in the national Health Care for America. This 46-state coalition was supported by more than a thousand organizations. Included in this coalition were progressive unions, community activists, civil rights groups, feminists, pro-choice groups, health activists, church groups, and physician and nursing organizations. Following the election, this alliance rallied to fulfill the long-sought dream of progressives: national health insurance—that is, the federal government’s takeover of the nation’s health.

CWR: What is likely to be on the progressive second term agenda for the Obama administration? 

Critchlow: Obama Democrats have proclaimed the results of the 2012 election a mandate to go forward with their agenda.  Two things stand in the way of fulfilling this agenda. No, not the 48 percent of Americans who voted for Romney or the Republican-controlled House. The two things are a financial crisis and the potential of a foreign affairs crisis. The financial crisis this country confronts means, whatever else, that federal spending is going to have to be cut. This means addressing entitlement programs—including Medicare, Social Security, Obamacare, welfare costs, student loans—and many, many other programs.

Already “stakeholders” in these entitlement programs are demanding that cuts not be made. SEIU and AARP have been running television commercials not to cut entitlements until a full national conversation can be held. Cuts in spending threaten to divide congressional Democrats, special interests such as Democratic-aligned unions, and constituent groups from the administration. The Obama coalition is loose and fragile.

Obama began his 2008 campaign as an anti-Iraq War candidate. In his reelection, he claimed to have ended Bush’s wars. The United States is still keeping 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Obama might wish a world of peace—but given the world financial crisis, the rise of our enemies, this next four years won’t be tranquil. We should pray for peace and world understanding between peoples, leaders, and nations, while preparing for the worst. 

CWR: For advocates of religious freedom, what do you predict will be the future of the now infamous HHS mandate?

Critchlow: This is a tough question, especially knowing that the majority of Roman Catholics voted for Obama. We can dismiss these voters as not regular church-goers, but their votes reveal the weakness of Catholic vote. In the end, the Church needs to stand on principle, not just political expediency. In an age of growing secularism, religious arguments have less power. In the end, however, the Church is answerable to God, not public opinion. We can only hope that in the meantime standing on principle will maintain the respect of the faithful and ultimately win over those repulsed by the language of religious belief.

Opponents of HHS faced immense media hostility in this last election. Nonetheless, the Catholic vote went up for Romney in the last election from 2008. It was not enough to win the election, but it’s a positive sign. The US Supreme Court recently ordered the Fourth Circuit Court to review arguments for the exclusion of religious organizations from the ObamaCare mandate in a case involving Liberty University. The fate of this mandate and other federal mandates remains uncertain at this point.

CWR: What is the likely future of the New Progressives? How can conservatives compete with them? 

Critchlow: We are historians, so it’s easier for us to predict that past than the future. We can say that our study of American political history shows that one party cannot maintain power forever. Republicans and conservatives need to develop a language of freedom and liberty that appeals to a larger electorate. This is especially true for young voters and ethnic voters. Yet political rhetoric and public policy can only go so far. In the end, many political issues are cultural issues, and it is here that we are most concerned. We need a spiritual reformation at this point in our history. It has occurred in our nation’s past, so it’s not wishful thinking to believe that it can occur again.

There is room for optimism in these difficult financial and political times. We are experiencing an unprecedented threat to our constitutional government, a balance between federal and state power, individual rights, and freedom itself. It is a challenge to preserve what our founders created and our forbearers fought and died to protect.  We must be no less heroic and equally determined to ensure our experiment in democracy is continued for our generation and for future generations of Americans to come.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.