The Political Marriage of Todd Gitlin and Bill Kristol

Todd Gitln and Bill Kristol on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show.

Whenever there was a new Todd Gitlin sighting in the media, Alex Cockburn used to call up and ask with a wicked chuckle, “Is your hate still pure?”  He dubbed Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, “the Official Historian of the 1960s.” The object of his sarcasm rose to the rank of Professor of “Journalism, Sociology and Communications” at Columbia University. And there he was on MSNBC the other night, having co-authored “An Open Letter in Defense of Democracy” with neo-con pundit William Kristol. They and their co-signers contend that “liberal democracy itself is in serious danger. Liberal democracy depends on free and fair elections, respect for the rights of others, the rule of law, a commitment to truth and tolerance in our public discourse. All of these are now in serious danger. The primary source of this danger is one of our two major national parties, the Republican Party, which remains under the sway of Donald Trump and Trumpist authoritarianism…”

It was disappointing but not totally shocking to see Noam Chomsky’s name among the signers. Our present situation, according to Chomsky, is analogous to Germany in the early ’30s, when the Reds and Social Democrats didn’t unite against the Nazis. In an exchange on Reddit last year, Chomsky wrote “In the early 1930s in Germany, the Communist Party, following the Stalinist line at the time, took the position that everybody but us is a social fascist. So there’s no difference between the social democrats and the Nazis. So therefore we’re not going to join with the social democrats to stop the Nazi plague. We know where that led.”

But the progressive Democrats are not Communists and the Bush-Cheney Republicans —who prefer to call themselves “Never Trumpers”— are not social democrats.  They stole Florida from hapless Al Gore in 2000 by deploying Roger Stone (!) and employing all the voter-suppression tactics now being implemented across the US, from keeping Blacks off the rolls to physically terrorizing civic-minded vote counters. Florida 2000 was the real steal and it didn’t get stopped. The tragic scenario was reported in detail by Jeffrey Toobin in a book called “Too Close to Call.” The Florida Supreme Court had given Gore a “smashing victory” on November 21 by extending the recount deadline to November 26, Toobin wrote.  “For the first time since Election Day, it now looked as if Gore might win the presidency.” The Democrats called on lawyers to come to Florida “to take affidavits, organize court cases, and do whatever was necessary. At Gore’s express directive, however, the shock troops of the Democratic Party —civil rights, union, and other activists were instructed to stay away. The vice president saw the recount as a legal, not political, process.

“The Republicans had plenty of lawyers, too, of course, but they also had a pipeline of operatives heading south, conforming with the Bush strategy of using protest as well as litigation to send its message. Some of the people arriving in Florida were well-known, like Roger Stone, but also in the group were many young and determined Congressional aides who had come to Washington since the House went Republican in 1994. Nearly 100 of them made their way to the Clark Center shortly after dawn on Wednesday…”   Thus a generation of Republican politicos came to understand that the Florida 2000 playbook contained the winning formula, the only one that would keep them in power. And here we are 21 years later, watching Florida 2000 unfold across the United States in slow motion.

The Bush-Cheney Republicans are rightwing Frankensteins who created the monster they now have good reason to fear. Kristol worked in the Reagan Administration under William Bennett and in the first Bush Administration for Dan Quayle (he was the veep’s chief of staff). When Clinton was President in the ’90s Kristol led the opposition to healthcare reform. As soon as W. got in in 2000 he began clamoring for the invasion of Iraq.  In 2007 he got the political hots for Sarah Palin and successfully promoted her as John McCain’s running mate. (Kristol’s role in Palin’s rise was vividly described by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker).  Kristol claims to have seen the error of his ways, and the letter co-signed by Gitlin  gives him cover as a reformed sinner. What good does it do for our side?

The wording of the letter is almost ludicrous. Free and fair elections? When the US Supreme Court allowed unlimited corporate spending to sway elections it was 2010, John Roberts was Chief Justice, and there wasn’t a single Trump appointee on the bench. Ditto in 2013, when the Supremes eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. Trump was a product of the Never Trumpers.

And there was Gitlin again in the NY Times Book Review Nov. 14 giving thumbs up to “Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy” by a man named Michael Levitin.

Gitlin himself has written a book praising the Occupy Movement. He agrees with Levitin that Occupy Wall Street was “the beginning of the beginning” of some major Progressive surge. “Hundreds of replicas sprouted across the country,” Gitlin gushes in his review. “These activists were ‘horizontalist.’  They disdained the idea of making specific demands, or rather they proliferated them, including ‘Tax Wall Street Transactions’ and ‘Bring back Glass-Steagall’…”  (Which was it, professor, disdained or proliferated?

The pretentious writing isn’t that important; what matters is his misleading political analysis. The key line is “Hundreds of replicas sprouted across the country… Perhaps 300,000 people became involved with the movement at its height.”

“Hundreds of replicas” of Occupy Wall Street made zero sense because there’s only one Wall Street where the Masters of the Universe make their plans, and it’s in lower Manhattan. “Occupy” encampments at venues like the plaza adjoining Oakland’s City Hall had no purpose and were doomed to fritter out.  I went over to that plaza a couple of times, listened to the speeches, ran into people I knew, went on a march along with many OPD cops in plainclothes getting overtime pay. Self-styled anarchists in pre-covid masks impressed their girlfriends by breaking plate-glass windows and spray-painting the facades of buildings, forever alienating the small business owners whose insurance undoubtedly went up. Scott Olsen, a beautiful young man who had deployed twice to Iraq as a Marine and was checking out the scene in the plaza with some friends, got hit in the eye by a lead-filled beanbag fired from close range by a shotgun-wielding OPD officer who was never identified. Olsen’s skull and a vertebrae were fractured; a brain hemorrhage almost killed him. I visited him in Highland Hospital exactly 20 years after I’d visited Judi Bari there.

Gitlin makes a huge stretch to support his claim that Occupy Wall St. was “the beginning of the beginning” of something significant. “The impacts reverberated through the culture… Occupy activists went to the aid of victims of Hurricane Sandy; helped block the Keystone XL pipeline; joined the Lakota Sioux to resist another oil pipeline at Standing Rock; and threw themselves into all manner of climate-change campaigns. Horizontalism proved to be more than a fringe taste, as Occupy veterans joined union organizers in a ‘Fight for $15’ campaign that swept the fast-food industry and inspired minimum wage referendums and laws throughout the country, even in red states.”

In other words, despite being demoralized by Occupy actions that accomplished little or nothing in 2011, many well-intentioned people soldiered on.

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at