New Left

In the 1930s and through the 1950s, a political movement known later as the "Old Left" emerged in American politics. A liberal group of predominantly northern intellectuals, the Old Left shared a fascination with labor problems and frequently maintained an interest in communism as a solution to

America's economic troubles. The New Left, the successor to the Old Left, emerged in the 1960s and was heavily influenced by the early accomplishments of the civil rights movement. The New Left included many different groups, and was often dominated by middle-class college students disillusioned with life in America. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged as the best known of these groups, and pressed for a more democratic government, nuclear arms reduction, an end to the war in Vietnam, and better living conditions for the urban poor.

The New Left, in its widespread critique of American society, also included environmental and pollution reform in its agenda. Many New Left activists focused on the dangers of increased industrial production and increased consumption, leading to waste and pollution. One influence of the New Left was the development of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day was originally planned by New Left activists as a teach-in and sit-in at university campuses, similar to earlier civil rights and antiwar activities to protest environmental degradation. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson developed and changed the idea for the event, hoping to organize a peaceful mass demonstration without the negative lawless image that public protest had acquired over the course of the turbulent 1960s. Approximately ten million people across the country participated in the original Earth Day, with even local and national polluters professing their support. Overall, though, the concept of Earth Day initiated by the New Left as a protest to industrial production bore little resemblance to the actual event, which was supported by the very polluters the New Left stood against.

New Left protest influenced the overall awareness of environmental issues, and helped lead to legislation, including the Clean Air Act in 1970. By the early 1970s, however, the New Left counterculture had become increasingly interested in the use of violence and associated with drug use and "free sex." This use of violence appeared in a small group of New Left-ers called the Weathermen, or the Weather Underground, who advocated armed revolution against "American Imperialism," usually in the form of random bomb explosions. Other acts of New Left violence included the "liberation" of areas for public park space.

By the late 1970s, New Right conservatism had catapulted Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and before long a powerful backlash against many of the accomplishments of the New Left, the civil rights movement, and the 1960s in general took hold throughout the United States. see also Activism; Earth Day; Environmental Movement; Politics; Public Participation; Public Policy Decision Making.

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