Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Old Left, New Left

by Gleaves Whitney

How could Gerald Ford, a fiscally conservative Republican, work with the liberal Democrats of his generation led by John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Tip O’Neill? Why didn’t they hate him? Why didn’t he hate them? 

The philosopher Richard Rorty provided one answer in his book, Achieving Our Country, in which he contrasted the New Left of the 1960s with the Old Left of the 1930s. Rorty was himself one of America’s great leftist thinkers. He argued that the first wave of New Leftists on campus in the 1960s inspired a generation of students to get involved. These activists were prompted by the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and environmental destruction. 

But as the sixties turned into the seventies and as students were exposed to subsequent waves of New Left teaching, its dark message began to sink in: America was a terrible country—racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, imperialistic, colonialist, warmongering, and evil. Given such an assault on their country, students’ civic instincts waned. They volunteered, served in the military, and ran for public office in diminishing numbers. After years of internalizing this relentless criticism of the U.S.—think of Howard Zinn teaching American history—many students became cynical and alienated from the American promise. Our youth turned from idealistic citizens to jaded spectators. This development, argued Rorty, was in sharp contrast with the Old Left back in the New Deal era of the 1930s, when union members and urban Catholics were muscular reformers, eager to achieve the nation’s potential and redeem America as a land of hope. 

President Ford saw this sea change from the Old to the New Left. He believed that the great progressive tradition in America would do well to spurn the hopeless New Left and recall the patriotic Old Left, the left of the New Deal. The Old Left at least prepared young Americans for robust citizenship rather than contemptuous spectatorship.

Gerald Ford respected the Old Left. In Congress and in the White House, Ford got along with an older generation of Democrats who were patriots and veterans, citizens and reformers. They loved their country and were eager to join in dialogue with Ford and fellow Republicans to improve the American project for all. It was not a golden age, but it was a hopeful time, an era of relative consensus between left and right, and it’s what our country needs to thrive again.

Discussion Questions:

Rorty calls the Old Left the “Progressive Left” and the New Left the “Cultural Left.” Why is the distinction important, do you think?

What caused the New Left to become anti-American?

Why could Ford work with liberals in the Old Left but not radicals in the New Left?

Can you think of any right-wing anti-American groups that Ford would have had trouble with?

*Photo by David Hume Kennerly


Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

2 thoughts on “Old Left, New Left”

  1. John H. Scott

    Is it possible that there is a New Right that in some ways is as anti-American as the New Left? The assault on our election system and the capitol it seems to me is fundamentally anti-America, certainly anti-constitution. Often one movement will spawn another. As the liberal wing of American politics moves left, so the conservative wing moves right and becomes more radical. The American Revolution was a conservative revolution in that it aimed at independence rather than radical cultural/political change. The New Right, like the New Left is all about cultural change. We all realize that when a revolution happens, there is no guarantee that the results will be an improvement.

    1. Excellent point, John. You perfectly capture the animating spirit of the American Revolution (as opposed to the French cultural revolutionaries who fought against the ancient regime’s throne and altar). Today there is crazy thinking and acting out by ideologues at both extremes. Gerald Ford would not be happy with either.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: