Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part III: Sleeping giant

Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part III: Sleeping giant

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on January, 2009)

I

Consider the following description of the Democratic Party by ZZ Packer, a regular contributor to Huffington Post. The article in question is “ZZPacker Takes on Geraldine Ferraro,” March 15, 2008 (updated March 25, 2011), and the context, the immediate aftermath of Ms. Ferraro’s notorious remarks concerning Mr. Obama’s qualifications.

The Democratic Party is a loosely held federation of voters whose concerns range far and wide; there are working-class whites who would otherwise be Republicans if they weren’t in unions; there are Catholics and other religious voters who believe in peace and social justice issues despite being wooed by the right’s pro-life extremists; there are the progressive East and West Coast middle and upper-middle-class whites, Latinos in Texas and California and Arizona. 

There are gay and gay families who believe the Democrats’ championing of civil rights is their best hope as a safeguard against bigotry. There are socially conservative African-Americans in the cities like Detroit and Chicago, and New York, but also in the ‘Solid South,’ a region whose support is absolutely necessary for any party’s nominee to win the presidency. The party is a sort of connective tissue for various issue voters; a loss of one constituent threatens the viability of the entire organism.

II

Whether we agree with Mr. Altschul on some or most of the details is less important than recognizing that he’s onto something. The Democratic Party is “a loosely held federation of voters” and “a connective tissue [of sorts] for various issue voters.” Understand, further, that by “the party,” Mr. Atschul doesn’t simply mean the politicians or their appointees. Nor does he (necessarily) mean registered Democrats, only those who, when in the ballot box and faced with the moment of truth, will vote the Democratic ticket because of the issues!

III

III

Fair enough. So we’re dealing here with a fairly comprehensive definition of the Democratic Party; let’s state this at the outset. There are, besides, many elements in the said definition that apply to the Left. One thinks here, for instance, of the kind of core values around which the Left tends to coalesce or the very fact that it is a coalition. 

Even so, I’d like to argue that Mr. Atschul’s definition fails to describe the Left. And further, that understanding how his definition is defective is the first step to understanding the Left. It is, in effect, to understand how it differs from the conventional meaning(s) attached to such traditional institutions or constructs such as “political party,” “voting bloc,” and the like.

IV

By all reasonable calculations, the Left should have petered out by the mid-’70s. Whether for lack of our political will or the wherewithal, the Vietnam conflict was over. With little or no resistance, the North Vietnamese had entered Saigon on April 30, 1975, and the Thiệu government collapsed. 

To beat the impeachment charges, Nixon resigned (Gerald Ford serving the remainder of the term), and the concept of transparency in government was more or less restored. The Civil Rights have been won, and the radical element of the Black Power movement lay dormant. Jimmy Carter was in, and the hippie movement has given way to the yuppies. 

Even Reagan’s two-term presidency didn’t raise much of a stink except for the Iran-Contra affair and “letting out the homeless” by denying funding to state hospitals and institutions. . Likewise with the first of the Bushes and the First Gulf War. And then, there were the Clinton years, surely the Left’s panacea (or so everyone thought).

In short, the Left had won its significant victories, and, by all reasonable accounts, it should have faded away in glory. The fact that it didn’t, that it kept on resurfacing off and on, time and again, is a testimonial to its staying power. 

It also tells of its nature.

V

Perhaps the clearest sign of the Left’s enduring power and influence is when it’s for something, not against it. The US (and NATO’s) interference in Kosovo is a case in point. 

At one time, I couldn’t understand why there was virtually no opposition to our bombing of Belgrade and former Yugoslavia. True, there were some staunch Republicans, Newt Gingrich, in particular, who had questioned our involvement. Still, there was virtually no opposition from the Democrats. Now I do. 

The Left was behind it!

VI

If you think for a moment that George Dubya’s use of the term “coalition” — to refer to the allied forces which had invaded and are still occupying Iraq — passes the litmus test, think again! Compared to the current effort, the Clinton initiative was never in question. The entire world was behind it and united. 

Witness Gen. Wesley Clark’s exuberant statements, for instance, concerning the future of NATO in the area of diplomacy and enforcement in the fragile and unstable world. 

That’s the power of the Left!

VII

At last, I think we’re in a position to improve on Mr. Altschul’s definition, to ferret out those elements which are apt to be misleading and lead us astray. He enumerates, for one thing, values that are important and appealing to the various segments of the Democratic Party: peace, social justice, civil rights, and generally speaking, “a progressive outlook on life.” And then he lists the constituencies: working-class whites, African-Americans and other minorities, East and West Coast progressives, Catholics, gays; but you get the i

VIII

Let’s shelve for the moment the second-mentioned aspect of Mr. Altschult’s definition and focus on the first. Which values, in particular, are most accurate to characterize the Left?

“All of ’em,” is the most likely answer, and in a sense, you’d be right. However, if one had to pick and choose, justice or social justice would probably end up at the very top. 

And this brings us to the main problem with Mr. Altschul’s definition: it’s devoid of any kind of ordering. Instead, it lists all values as though they were of equal weight. But if anything does distinguish the Left from any other political construct, such as the “Democratic Party” or a “voting bloc,” it’s a very rigid ordering, a hierarchy of sorts. 

There’s a definite center – a core value, if you will! And then, they’re other values that happen to coalesce around the center, somewhat secondary or derivative by comparison — as if by accretion or a gravitational pull of sorts. 

The classic representation of an atom, with a nucleus at the center and electrons circling about in orbits, is one way of picturing “the Left” and its pull. 

IX

What are the core values of the Left? 

It’s justice first and foremost, and social justice by extension. 

Don’t forget that the Left was born out of moral protest! The protest was directed at first against the US government for what it perceived as an act of aggression. Thus, it was outward in its original reach and intent, encompassing all nations and nation-states under its fold. Eventually, it had spilled over to include social justice and all the inter-societal relations. It had come to include all matters appertaining to the freedom of choice, the freedom of speech, race relations, gay rights, and a whole bunch of other justice-related issues. 

Indeed, if there is anything like the Left’s manifesto, the creed it adheres to, it would have to be A Theory of Justice by John Rawls.

X

And so, the Left owes its continued existence to a kind of worldview, a weltanschauung to which it subscribes. And it has to do mainly with justice, with fairness, and the spirit of goodwill –towards all things, animate or inanimate. And it includes the environment, any cause for that matter which champions the disadvantaged, the disabled, and the underdog. It’s not restricted, besides, to inter-societal relations: the entire world is the stage. So it’s a religion and a moral stance as well. And like all religions, it’s highly intolerant of dissenting views. Those who disagree are heretics. 

There is no middle groun

XI

There are splinters, of course, issues and causes which have become separate, movements unto themselves: the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, ACLU, Planned Parenthood; and one could include PETA here, I suppose, or the World Wildlife Fund. The list is by no means exhaustive, and examples abound. 

All these are the different arms of the Left, so to speak, its many tentacles. But the core value from which each of these emanates, like rays from the sun, is justice and self-righteousness. 

The Left is a religion. You had better believe it!

XII

Perhaps the clearest example of the Left’s recent re-awakening was the dispute over 2004 Florida election results. It may have seemed that the initiative had come from the Democratic Party. Still, the entire effort (including the arguments before the US Supreme Court by Lawrence Tribe) was energized by the Left. 

Of course, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the tipping point. It wasn’t the politicians who were dead-set against the administration’s questionable action: it was the Left. Which goes a long way to explain what some still can’t understand “the unreasonable hatred of George W. Bush.” In the Left’s mind’s eye, the outgoing president was a symbol of everything it was against, the worst kind of example possible, the epitome of “evil incarnate.” 

George W. was anathema!

XIII

The Left is a sleeping giant. Except for causes and issues already streamlined — canalized by way of nonprofits and countless organizations which serve as watchdogs against all manner of real or perceived abuses — it tends to lay low and in waiting. Don’t mistake, however, its apparent inaction for impassivity: our interference in the Kosovo War is a case in point. But when the Left gets truly energized and up in arms, it’s when it perceives its own government as engaging in acts of unlawful aggression against any country or nation. 

Again, the traces of Vietnam!

XIV

I think we’re finally in a position to understand the underhanded nature of Mr. Prager’s argument (see the introduction to this series). In effect, Mr. Prager asks Mr. Dershowitz to switch his allegiance on account of a disagreement on a single issue: Israel’s right to defend itself. 

“The Christian Right,” Mr. Prager maintains, “support Israel, no less than you do, so why don’t you abandon the Left, Alan, and join the right wing? Then you’ll truly belong.”

But Mr. Dershowitz cannot do that, and Mr. Prager knows it full-well. And so, he employs the old Jesuit trick, asking the heretic to recant. But even the Inquisition methods were kinder, gentler in spirit, and more humane by comparison: the accused party could always join the true church and avoid burning at stake.

XV

As things stand, however, there’s nowhere for Mr. Dershowitz to go. His position is, rather, not unlike that of a true believer who happens to disagree only with the corrupt practices of his or her church, not the faith itself! It’s comparable, in fact, to that of Martin Luther, for one, who had argued only against indulgences and other abuses by the Church, the institution, not the true faith.

 So what, in effect, Mr. Prager is asking Mr. Dershowitz to do is impossible: not to convert to another faith but to become an apostate. An unthinkable proposition by any stretch of the term, given Mr. Dershowitz’s expressed or unexpressed desire to purify the existing practices and return his beloved institution to what he thinks it ought to be, to its pure and virginal state, to make a difference!  

I apologize to the reader for resorting to these arcane analogies and perhaps offending his or her sensibility, but none fit better.

XVI

All of which only underscores what I consider the main point — there is no discussion between the Right and the Left, no common ground to speak of. It’s a clash of values, plain and simple. And the last I checked, the fact-value distinction still stands, despite valiant efforts by some moral philosophers, Phillipa Foot, most notably, to make it disappear. 

But these are finer nuances, reserved best for another time and place. 

XVII

This isn’t to say that there can’t be a meaningful dialogue between the notable exponents of the divergent modes of thought. The good ol’ Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. comes to mind, especially when hosting the likes of Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Noam Chomsky. The point rather is that insofar as the man in the street is concerned, it will all fall on deaf ears. For the truth of the matter is, each regards the other as their mortal enemy. 

From the Left’s point of view, the Right is morally defective. What the Right thinks of us, God only knows!

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