Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Liberals, stop whining and do something

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
October 14, 2013 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed.
HIDE CAPTION
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Liberal complaints about the tactics of the right accomplish nothing
  • He says liberals should be looking for ways to pressure GOP members in their districts
  • If GOP can normalize shutdowns, it will use tactic again and again, he says
  • Zelizer: Moderate Republicans might help push back against conservatives

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Liberals need to stop complaining about the right.

In recent weeks, the chorus of criticism emanating from liberals has been intensifying, focusing on how right-wing Republicans have shut down the government and are threatening the global economy.

Many observers agree with this criticism, including a number of Republicans who are also frustrated with their own party. A recent Pew poll showed that support for the GOP has plummeted since September.

But simply criticizing congressional intransigence never goes very far in Washington politics. Liberals who rail against the right are unlikely to accomplish much. The 40 or so conservative Republicans who have been controlling the House Caucus don't really care what liberals in Washington have to say. Even if some House Republican politicians are listening to their critics, most of the short-term electoral incentives are pushing them in a different direction than Democrats hope.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

If liberals want to bring change and truly alter the political dynamics in Washington, they are going to need to build grass-roots pressure to shape national debate and genuine electoral pressure in the states and districts of Republicans who are not among the hard-core of the right-wing -- still a majority of the GOP.

Political scientist Matthew Green estimates that there are 48 Republicans in the "fearful caucus," who are not in the hard "no" faction but whose primary concern is being at risk in a primary challenge. There are 29 Republicans who are loyal to the House leadership, and 17 more in districts won by President Barack Obama who are interested in a compromise.

Thus far, it has been striking during the federal government shutdown to see the relative inaction of the left in terms of mounting actual grass-roots pressure on legislators to reopen the government, raise the debt ceiling and deal with budgetary disputes through the normal paths of the legislative process.

Obama: Shutdown 'completely unnecessary'
Newt on shutdown: Been there, done that
Will there be a deal?

Although the budgetary process is not an issue that has the same urgency as immigration reform or climate change, the stakes of continuing with this kind of budget politics are enormously consequential.

The more that Republicans can normalize the decision to shut down the federal government, the more comfortable they will be in disputes to do this again.

If they are willing to go to the length of actually sending the government into default over health care, they will use this kind of threat in future policy disputes.

Republicans, to some extent, are comfortable with this outcome. They have been warning about the ills of government for decades, so this kind of breakdown fits well within their broader narrative. Liberals need government to work, as they believe that government is an essential part of a fair and just society.

In the past, liberals have scored their biggest breakthroughs against congressional conservatism through grass-roots pressure. Between the late 1930s and the early 1960s, a conservative alliance of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans held up progress on legislation meant to benefit African-Americans, union members and Americans living in the cities.

Since Southern Democrats chaired many of the major committees, they were able to prevent bills from coming up for a vote or they forced legislation to be so watered down by the time of passage that it was ineffective. In the Senate, they could use the filibuster on bills such as civil rights to ensure that bold measures did not come up for a vote.

During the early 1960s, liberals were finally able to break the hold of this conservative coalition through a massive and dramatic grass-roots mobilization, spearheaded by the civil rights movement. This changed national opinion and created electoral pressure on Midwestern Republicans to break ranks with their Southern counterparts.

During the 1980s, liberals faced similar problems.

After the 1980 election, President Ronald Reagan allied with the newly Republican Senate and an expanded conservative coalition in the House to push through major legislation, such as the historic tax cut of 1981, that took away revenue the federal government badly needed and made the tax code less progressive.

Reagan also obtained a huge increase in the defense budget and undertook an aggressive shift in foreign policy that heightened tensions with the Soviet Union. His team avoided negotiations with the Soviets and insisted on a build-up of intercontinental missiles in Europe. But liberals pushed back.

When Reagan proposed cuts to Social Security in 1981, House Democrats worked with organizations and citizen groups allied with the elderly to stop this in its tracks. During the 1982 midterms, liberals focused on "fairness" in the economy and blamed Reagan's policies for the economic recession.

In 1983 and 1984, the millions of Americans involved in the nuclear freeze movement generated immense support for the need to reduce international tensions and created the framework for negotiations that started in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged on the scene. A new book by historian Michael Foley, "Front Porch Politics," shows how grass-roots activists in this period participated in a wide range of protests on issues such as industrial policies for depressed areas to gay rights.

Liberals have an opportunity to influence the political debate. An unusual alliance is possible.

First, liberals will find support from Republicans who care about the party's national standing and are unhappy with the polls reflecting the public's discontent with House GOP tactics. Second, a growing number of leaders in the business community are starting to consider the possibility of funding primary challengers to hard-right Republicans whose policy demands are threatening the economy.

But liberals will have to be part of the equation of isolating the far right politically by building pressure in swing states, generating support for Democrats who push back against these kinds of tactics, staging protests, holding marches and meeting with constituents in states where Republican politicians will feel pressed to moderate the ways of their party.

Conservatives have been quick to turn to protest politics, such as the recent protests at Washington monuments, so there is no reason liberals should be hesitant to do the same, although they will need to do so on a much larger scale. Without that kind of grass-roots pressure from liberals, the current stalemate is likely to be the new normal.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT