Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Liberals, stop whining and do something

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Mon October 14, 2013
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
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
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
>
>>
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
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT