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A Vision of Our Own 

Four ideas for the left to redefine itself

Thursday, Jan 20 2005
Illustration by Mr. Fish

In The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, Joe Klein tells the story of Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, listening to a pre-Monica State of the Union address. As the Man From Hope effortlessly dominated the chamber — in part by appropriating conservative ideas as a cannibal might eat the biceps of his strongest rival — Gingrich found himself thinking, "We’re dead. There’s no way we’re going to beat this guy."

It’s become easy to feel the same about George W. Bush. As he begins his fifth — fifth! — year in office, nearly half the country is still struggling to accept that he won a second term, much less that his re-election confirms him as the dominant political figure of our time. (Slick who?) Despite occasional noises about wanting to represent all the people, no president has been less shy about saying things guaranteed to get his opponents’ goat. When the Washington Post recently asked him why nobody in his administration was held accountable for the botched occupation of Iraq, Bush replied, "We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections. The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me." So, there.

Within minutes of the Post story hitting the wires, my Outlook Express was flooded with teeth-gnashing e-mails noting that winning the presidency by a disputed nose in Ohio doesn’t exactly mean America thinks Rummy’s work in Iraq is just swell. I agreed with their point, but I also found it faintly depressing that so many on the left are still obsessed with anger at Bush. It’s time to get over it. Loathing the guy may have filled Kerry’s campaign coffers — and fattened Michael Moore’s wallet — but it wasn’t enough to beat him. In fact, it may have even cost the Democrats the election. Growing fixated on one man is bad politics.

I know it’s hard to give up hating Bush. I myself enjoyed bristling when Bush said the election gave him "political capital," the same MBA-inflected lingo that led him to dub NASA astronauts "space entrepreneurs" (this last word obviously being his highest accolade). But if George W. Bush disappeared tomorrow, kidnapped by Alan Colmes in a Che Guevara beret, everything awful about his presidency would still be in place. Oil entrepreneur Dick Cheney would simply change offices (if not roles). Pest-control entrepreneur Tom DeLay would still be infesting the House. Medical entrepreneur Dr. Bill Frist would still be running the Senate like some ghastly HMO asylum in which sensible conservatives like Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel enjoy less favor than loony morality entrepreneur Rick Santorum. And war entrepreneur Rumsfeld would still be fondling his big stick in front of the whole world. True, Alberto "Quaint Electrodes" Gonzales might not be nominated for attorney general, but I doubt Cheney would nominate anyone less scary.

Put simply, George W. Bush is more a symptom than a one-man juggernaut. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in their zesty book, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, the Bush administration’s radicalism is actually a kind of culmination. It was born of the right’s deliberate act of reinvention in the ’50s and ’60s, a long, slow process of arguing, thinking, fund-raising and organizing that, after years of defeat, has finally produced what some movement enthusiasts call "the conservative New Deal" — no matter that FDR had a mandate and Bush doesn’t. Whether it’s rewriting the tax code or privatizing Social Security to solve an imaginary "crisis," the right has become the agent of change.

In contrast, the left has become — there’s no other word for it — reactionary.

Still unable to accept that the right has dominated our national life for the last quarter-century, the left hasn’t done the hard, slow work of thinking through what it means to be progressive during an era of ultraglobalized capitalism in which the only successful Democratic president in the last 35 years, Bill Clinton, followed policies that even he compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s. Far from proposing bold new ideas that might seize the popular imagination, the left now plays the kind of small-ball that Dubya disdains. Even worse, it’s become the side that’s forever saying "No."

To be fair, if any party has ever given one reason to shriek "Stop!" it’s Bush’s Republicans. But today’s left remains mired in a reflexive, defeatist negativity that became obvious after the election. The Nation’s subscribers sent letters calling Bush voters racists, homophobes, warmongers and yahoos. Peter Beinart wrote a much-bruited New Republic piece saying that the Democrats needed to purge polarizing figures like Michael Moore (as if Karl Rove didn’t thank God, er, Beelzebub, every single day for the presence of right-wing firebrands like Rush and Sean). Meanwhile, the blogosphere was filled with "Fuck the South" e-mails and lazy ruminations on the "red states," a cliché that manages to insult one's intelligence and the people it supposedly describes. Much of this was rhetorically disastrous, smacking of contempt for the very people the left is hoping to persuade. Reading such things, I was often reminded of that famous old Brecht poem, "The Solution," in which he slyly suggests that if the East German government is unhappy with its citizens’ behavior, it ought to dissolve the people and elect another.

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