The Washington Times
The left is back. I don’t say this in relation to the Democratic convention in Boston, where, of course, in their heart of hearts, many of the delegates do indeed wish that their party could be more explicitly progressive in its appeal to American voters. The point of the Democratic convention will be to inject as much progressivism into the debate as the party’s wise men and women think is prudent in relation to appealing to an electorate that is not especially left-wing in outlook.
Which is to say, what is going on in Boston is an exercise in seeming to be mainstream. And as any serious left-winger will tell you, seeming to be mainstream is most easily accomplished by being mainstream – in other words by selling out progressive principle.
No, the left that is back is the snarling, Michael Moore left. This is a left that hates poverty, war and injustice in general, and Republicans, oil companies, corporate fat cats and defense contractors in particular. America is a great country in principle, but in practice, which is to say under the thumb of those just listed, it is a corrupt system of cronyism in which the rich and well-connected rig the game to their own benefit, leaving everyone else out. In the left’s America, politicians – especially Republican politicians – send young Americans off to die in wars whose real purpose is to win lucrative contracts for those who finance the careers of politicians. These wars, moreover, are invariably imperialist in character, bent on imposing American colonial will on subject peoples. American foreign policy can therefore be seen as imperial subjugation to serve the business interests of favored American corporations.
The preceding paragraph was actually somewhat difficult to write. I have had occasion to try to characterize left-wing thinking in America before, but not recently, and certainly not since I started writing this column eight years ago. I’m out of practice.
The reason is simply that the left has been gone, out of the picture, invisible, marginal. Oh, if you looked for it, you could find it, in the pages of the Nation, in politico-literary circles, among the European cultural elite. But as far as American national politics has been concerned – which is to say, insofar as we are talking about issues that have actually come before Congress, for example – this left has been simply irrelevant.
What happened to the left? Where did it go? Why the marginalization? And what brought it back? One probably has to start with the end of the Cold War on terms favorable to the United States and the steady generation-long march of democratization and liberalization (in the classical sense) around the globe. This narrative, which in my view has going for it the virtue of truth, just does not comport with the left-wing diagnosis of corrupt, anti-democratic imperialism. Everybody could more or less see that – or rather, it takes a huge dose of ideology to become blind to it.
As well, I think the administration of Bill Clinton had something to do with the eclipse of the left. Mr. Clinton himself ran as a “New Democrat” centrist, in contrast to the “old Democrat,” liberal wing of the party. But that’s not the essential point, since the left-wing politics we are talking about is well to the left of the “old Democrats.” The Democratic Party, for reasons stated, is not a left-wing party in the radical sense. But of the two parties, it is the leftward one. And when the left-leaning party is in power, it almost certainly complicates the left-wing critique, at least to the extent that the left feels an affinity with the political fortunes of the party.
The left-leaning party has for three years now been less in power than ever, what with a Republican Congress and George W. Bush in the White House. When, from the left’s point of view, Americans were electing Bill Clinton, one could not readily dismiss the proposition that America was at least a democratic country, albeit one forced by illicit circumstance into choosing a centrist Democrat rather than a true progressive. But with Mr. Bush’s ascendancy to the White House via the Supreme Court, for the left the anti-democratic critique became viable again. Add as well Mr. Bush’s audacity in promoting his agenda, especially after September 11, and the correlation of forces perhaps worked to the advantage of a left-wing resurgence.
I have heard people say of Mr. Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “it makes you think.” OK, and what it makes you think about is the possibility that the left-wing critique of a corrupt militarist, imperialist, anti-democratic America is true. And this is, to put it mildly, deranged. Now, derangement is not necessarily fatal to the American body politic. Far from it. But that’s provided it remains fairly marginalized, confined to such precincts as Hollywood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan and major university campuses.
The real test is how Democratic officialdom deals with the resurgent left. Do they distance themselves from it? Or do they embrace it? Or do they try to do both?