Tucson, Piven, and the Left’s Strategic Blunder

by Stanley Kurtz

Peter Dreier is the latest entrant into the roiling controversy over conservative criticism of leftist strategist Frances Fox Piven. He is also clearly trying to use the Piven controversy to discredit my book, which contains many revelations about Dreier’s own radicalism (a fact of which Dreier makes no mention when he attacks me).

Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He is also a leading figure in the development of modern American socialism, an influential theorist of community organizing, and the most prominent public defender of ACORN. Dreier was an advisor to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and embodies the continuing influence of the world of socialist community organizing on the president. That’s why Dreier is an important character in Radical-in-Chief.

As much as anyone, Dreier has made the case that community organizing is a quiet and slow-motion way to move America toward socialism. Dreier also adapted Frances Fox Piven’s targeted “crisis” theories to a wider political milieu. He was one of the first to float the idea that flirting with a general fiscal crisis through a steady but politically irreversible expansion of America’s entitlement system would be the smart path to socialism in the United States. Along with his colleague John Atlas, Dreier has positioned himself as a sympathetic academic outsider inclined to defend ACORN from criticism by conservatives. In fact, as I show in Radical-in-Chief, Atlas and Dreier worked with ACORN behind the scenes to influence housing policy in the Clinton administration, so their outsider status is open to question. Obama may well have encountered Dreier at the Socialist Scholars Conferences he attended in the mid-eighties, but I argue in the book that regardless of that, Dreier’s theories have had a seminal influence on the world of socialist community organizing and, through that world, on Obama. That Obama chose Dreier as an advisor in 2008 only drives home the point.

Now that the Left has decided to use the Tuscon shootings as a way to ban criticism from conservatives, Dreier is out with a piece at the Huffington Post following up on the strategy. The latest scheme is to use threats and hate-mail directed at Dreier’s leftist colleague, Frances Fox Piven, to pull Glenn Beck’s show off the air and shut down Piven critics (and Dreier critics) like me and Ron Radosh. Dreier is clearly using the Piven controversy to try to discredit my book, with its many revelations about his own problematic activities.

Since Dreier apparently has no substantive reply to my treatment of either Piven or himself in Radical-in-Chief, he settles for calling Ron Radosh and me lunatics and dashing off two-sentence summaries designed to make our writings seem as silly as possible. Dreier’s aim is not to offer a serious reply, but to wrap his critics around the rantings of a few unhinged reader comments on a conservative blog. Over at Powerline, John Hinderaker has nicely dissected the latest turn in the Left’s post-Tucson strategy. Ron Radosh comments on the controversy here.

Dreier’s defense of Piven is completely at odds with the upshot of her writings, which lovingly chronicle efforts by community organizers to intensify riots and violent protests. I explain Piven’s strategy on NRO’s homepage today in “Frances Fox Piven’s Violent Agenda.” Dreier’s efforts to turn Piven into a latter-day incarnation of Martin Luther King are absurd. Piven looks forward to rioting and urges community organizers not to waste time channeling violent protests into conventional politics but to escalate disruptions for maximum leverage. Dreier’s defense of Piven’s latest controversial editorial in The Nation leaves out the crucial passage where she calls for Euro-style protest riots in the United States.

The hope of silencing Beck in the wake of Tucson has lured the Left into a strategic blunder. They’ve decided to turn Piven into a martyr. Yet in doing so the Left has tied itself to Piven’s wild writings and over-the-top radicalism. Dreier acts as though Piven’s scholarly work is somehow different from the calls for rioting, crisis, and polarization in her two notorious Nation articles. Actually, Piven’s scholarly writings are worse. Read Poor People’s Movements and you’ll see what I mean. The Left could and should have disowned Piven’s extremism long ago. Jack Beatty’s 1977 review of Poor People’s Movements in the Nation was actually negative, calling Piven to account for her counterproductive and intentionally polarizing tactics. A quarter century later The Nation has embraced Piven’s call for Euro-style rioting in America, allowing her to speak with the magazine’s editorial voice. It’s not Beck who’s tarring the Left with the Brush of Piven’s radicalism. They’re doing it to themselves.