So swollen with contempt and pride is our current political body that it is fairly assured, if the Democrats pointed out that the sun rises in the east, the Republicans would instantly counter that it actually rises in the West, and accuse the left of Chinese Communist sympathies for their disgraceful pro-eaastern propaganda. Equally common, and equally false, is the belief that both sides (our disabled political system having provided only two sides worth paying attention to) are ‘equally to blame’ for this poisoned atmosphere; but while it is true, and has always been true, that the greatest amount of vitriol has been hurled by the right, those of us on the other end of the argument about how society should be organized will too often miss the truth in the opposition’s arguments.
This has particularly come to light in the last week, with the coincidence of Labor Day and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s civil rights march on Washington. Though coincidence is not the right word; Dr. King intended his program to encompass issues of labor as well as racial discrimination. This particular aspect is largely ignored or minimized by the right, which is now obligated to venerate King as the American hero he is, but cannot be seen to admit to how fundamentally opposed he was to many of their foundational principles. Thus their attempt to paint King as inherently and undeniably conservative, focusing on his religious faith and his belief in the law, and glossing over his opposition to the Vietnam War and his deep interest in economic justice.
Still, it is the coming together of two issues — civil rights and worker’s rights — on which the right has always been on the wrong side of progress, on the ugly end of history, and they must at least try to self-rehabilitate rather than cop to the fact that they lost a major battle, and think their fellow Americans made a terribly wrong decision by letting black people vote and yanking 10-year-olds out of coal mines. This is accomplished in a lot of different ways; revisionist history is a popular approach these days, often in the pretense that the conservative movement opposed civil rights because they were afraid of federalist encroachment on state’s rights, instead of because they hated Negroes. But the evergreen ploy is simply to point out the negative consequences of this or that progressive endeavor, and then to sit on their hands as if one unintended consequence scuttles the entire basis of liberal politics.
As noted when we began, the problem for liberals is that these criticisms are not always wrong. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the greatest leader America ever had, and his determination and foresight moved us to the forefront of the 20th century, brought us out of the greatest economic disaster the world had ever seen, and helped seize victory in the most terrible war in history. But his detractors do not lie when they say he played fast and loose with the Constitution in order to achieve those indisputably noble and necessary goals. They are right, too, that a significant number of American leftists were altogether too enamored of totalitarian mass murderers like Stalin and Mao; that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program did create economic and social problems that it did not foresee, and contributed to what would become the ruin of our inner cities; that the depth, scale and application of the bailouts were poorly thought out and undemocratic; that deficit spending really is a problem (even if it’s not quite the problem they make it out to be) and that unions have become corrupt, corporatized, and too often deaf to the desires of their rank-and-file membership.
In our partisan rush to defend our own, to keep the greater of two evils from getting its hands on the controls of state, and in a helpless acceptance of the fact that we are given pathetically little by way of choice in the voting booth, we too often forget these things. We ignore the fact that our house frequently needs cleaning, and that political corruption knows now party. We accept things with Barack Obama in the White House, most particularly in the areas of foreign adventurism and the expansion of the security state, but also in areas of economic opportunity and corporate oversight, that we would not tolerate from a Republican administration. We ignore evidence that our approach to gun control is flawed and unreasonable when it comes from the right; we dismiss state’s rights as a dog whistle for racism, but we embrace it when it crosses our own moral boundaries, as when we opposed the Defense of Marriage Act and supported the states’ rights to regulate gay marriage, or claimed the power to legalize marijuana lay with the states and that the federal prohibition against controlled substances should not be enforced in those states.
All these things and more we have done, and it has often caused us to turn a blind eye to the internal contradictions in the Democratic party, to the growing tension between “liberals” and “the left”, to the inadequacies of progressive politics to cope with a dynamic shift towards technocracy, centrism, and globalism. What makes it worse is that these are often the areas of greatest concern to the voters, who often feel as if they are being left behind by those they trust to represent them, and despair at the sight of the liberal party turning the wrong way on the war, on austerity, on privacy issues. The great threat is that, if there is not substantial internal reform and the system as currently built continues to disallow the formation of a robust third-party alternatives, these voters will begin paying attention to the legitimate criticisms of the left by the right and, given only two options, will make the choice to switch sides and join the questioners, rather than stay with the vacillations of the answerer. If we want to keep those voters, the left must come up with better answers and stop provoking easy attacks.
But here is something we must never forget. Words, as we are often reminded, mean things. And while it’s easy to dismiss the bigger, more complicated words as meaningless jargon, the truth is that large and complicated words are often the easiest ones to understand; they usually have simple and very specific meaning, while smaller words that we think of as simple and easy are thorny and often impossible to pin down. As Neil Postman wisely observed, “A word like ‘participle’ or ‘mutation’ or ‘centrifugal’, or, for that matter, ‘apartheid’ or ‘proletariat’ rarely raises serious problems in understanding. The range of situations in which such a word might appear is limited and does not tangle us in ambiguity. The troublesome words are those whose meanings appear to be simple, like ‘true’, ‘false’, ‘fact’, ‘law’, ‘good’, and ‘bad’.”
Thus we must always remember that the forces of opposition have chosen their names to a purpose, and we must never lose sight of what that purpose is. “Conservative” means to conserve, to keep still, to arrest movement and progress; a better word, even, might be “preservative”, in the sense of sealing in amber, of making sure nothing ever changes. It is this instinct that keeps the right forever in resistance to any notion of expanding civil rights to the previously hidden and unprotected, that causes them to fulminate against “new” rights given to “new” groups, as if gays have only just now appeared on this planet, as if we are asking for them to have anything other than the normal protections granted to any other American citizen by law, and as if extending the protection of society to all its members would be the worst thing in the world. And “reactionary” means to react, not to act, to respond only to agitation — to do nothing unless provoked, to never look forward until after one has collided with something.
This is why, even when they are right about the sins of the left — and they are not often right, but they are not always wrong — we must not let it be believed that to admit to their accusations is to believe that their program is the superior one. Because in all these cases, they have no answers, only attacks. They are the least constructively critical movement in American politics. In every situation we have discussed here, their answer to the question “If our plan is as flawed as you say, what should we do instead?” is a simple one: nothing. If labor unions become corrupt and lose sight of their purpose, the answer is not reform; it is eradication. If economic reform goes awry, the answer is not better planning; it is no reform at all. If gun control is incoherent, the answer is not coherence; it is no gun control whatsoever. If the New Deal stepped on too many toes, the answer was not a better New Deal; it was no New Deal. If civil rights legislation has unintended consequences, the answer is not dealing intelligently with those consequences; it is not passing civil rights legislation in the first place. If social programs are too costly, the answer is not in managing those costs; it is in eliminating social programs altogether.
That approach is not programmatic; it is not even merely oppositional. It is willful blindness. It is not a theory of governance; it is an abdication of governance. It is the embodiment in law the corrosive idea that power must always be preserved, that only force or fortune should be allowed to define the circumstances of all human life, that doing nothing is always better than doing anything. It cannot aid human rights, the labor movement, or the idea of democratic government; it can only hasten their destruction. It is the absolute opposite of the great beliefs on which America was founded, and on this holiday and every other, it should be treated as such.