A Vision of Our Own

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.

Short of replacing the American electorate with the Canadian one, the left needs three things if it is to have any chance of wresting power back from the right: ideas, money and organization. Thanks to Bush, it has begun to get the latter two. Dubya’s face not only launched a thousand attack books, it helped spawn such marvelous fund-raising engines as MoveOn and prompted the Democrats to stage a smoothly organized campaign. The left is more structurally sound than it’s been in years, although it badly needs some well-funded think tanks. (I suspect it’s easier for MoveOn to raise $250,000 for an anti-Gonzales commercial than seed money for a left-wing Heritage Foundation. Over to you, Mr. Soros.)

Of course, money and organization can only take any political movement so far. In the wake of Kerry’s defeat, you often heard it argued that the candidate himself was the problem, that he lacked the charisma to put across ideas that most of America would agree with. Now, if only Barack . . .

Yet Kerry, too, is a symptomatic figure. Voters couldn’t tell what vision of America he stood for. And his vagueness was his party’s vagueness — indeed, the whole left’s vagueness — in a hypercapitalist world in which socialism can no longer be used as a threat or a promise.

What the left lacks is not a galvanizing messenger but a positive message, a set of energizing ideas and values. It’s not enough to oppose the invasion of Iraq or Bush’s plans for Social Security. That’s merely to react against someone else’s agenda. We must reverse the great (and startling) historical flip-flop in our political iconography. Forty years ago, the left represented the future — it crackled with pleasurable possibility — while the right symbolized the repressive past, clinging to dead traditions like shards of a wrecked ship. Change means movement, said the great organizer Saul Alinsky, and during the ’60s, the political counterculture had the passion to get things moving.

These days, all that has been stood on its head: In the wake of September 11, the right claims it wants to free oppressed people — why, democracy is on the march! — while the left is too often caught saying "I told you so" about the mess in Iraq, even as that country speeds toward an election that any decent human being should hope goes well. In 1968, who would have believed it possible that the left would be home to the dreary old "realists" while the right would be full of utopians?

For this to change, the left needs to do what the right did. It needs to define what it stands for. And it must be willing to fight for what it believes over the long haul, even if it means losing some elections. In particular, it must begin to take back four things that it has ceded to the right.

1. It must reclaim virtue. After the election, you heard endless talk about how Bush won on "values." This wasn’t true — the so-called values vote was no more powerful in 2004 than in earlier years. But what is true is that conservatives are scarily comfortable talking about morality, while the left (still influenced by "scientific" socialism) is made nervous by moral language. Because of this, our political culture’s idea of virtue has been whittled into a sad, mingy thing, a question of private behavior. Yet one historic strength of the left was its belief that morality is also a matter of public virtue — justice, equality, generosity, tolerance. The loss of this idea has been catastrophic. While Republicans rouse their troops by attacking Clinton’s immorality or gay marriage, Democrats couldn’t make hay from the moral outrage of corporate executives (who make 1,000 times their employees’ wages) selling off stock options for top dollar while letting pension funds collapse. Morality should be our issue, not theirs. Where’s The Book of Liberal Virtues?

2. It must reclaim freedom. One of the left’s glories has been its tradition of heroic internationalism, still alive in the anti-globalization movement’s insistence on workers’ rights around the world. (Typically, though, "anti-globalization" sounds negative rather than positive.) But when it comes to foreign policy these days, the left appears lost. I get depressed hearing friends sound like paleocon isolationists or watching them reflexively assume that there’s something inherently tyrannical about the use of American power. It’s not enough to mock Norman Podhoretz’s insistence that the battle with Islamic terrorism is World War IV. Just as the left lacked a coherent position on what to do with murderous despots such as Milosevic and Saddam — it won’t do to say, "They’re bad, but . . ." The left now needs a position on how best to battle a Muslim ideology that, at bottom, despises all the freedoms we should be defending. America should be actively promoting the freedom of everyone on the planet, and the key question is, how would the left do it differently from the Bush administration?

3. It must reclaim pleasure. For the last 30 years, the right’s been having fun — Lee Atwater playing the blues, Rush Limbaugh giving that strangulated laugh, The Weekly Standard running those mocking covers — while the left has been good for you, like eating a big, dry bowl of muesli. This isn’t simply because leftists can be humorless (a quality shared with righteous evangelicals), but because, over the years, they’ve gone from being associated with free love and rock & roll to seeming like yuppified puritans; hence the Gore-Lieberman ticket talked about censoring video games and brainy leftist Thomas Frank tirelessly debunks the pleasure of those who buy anything Cool or find Madonna meaningful. (Clinton was an exception — he enjoyed a Big Mac and an intern as much as the hero of a beer commercial — and he was the one Democrat in recent years that most average Americans really liked.) While the left is correct in talking about the gas-guzzling horror of SUVs, it’s a losing cause to tell a nation full of proud drivers that they should feel guilty about the car they love. Rather than coming off as anti-consumerist puritans in a consumerist culture, the left should be fighting on the side of freedom and pleasure — for instance, arguing that ordinary people should have more time off from the endless hours of work that increasingly devour our souls. This is the kind of idea we should own — and force the right to argue against.

4. Finally, and above all, it must try to reclaim utopia. Back during the horrors of mid-20th-century Germany, the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote, "This is not a time to be without wishes." He knew that any successful political action had to begin in hope and dreams. The same is true as we enter the second Bush administration. The right controls the machinery of government and isn’t shy about using it to change the world to make it fit the twin religions that drive it — Christianity and untrammeled free-market economics. To fight such a radical, all-encompassing vision, we need an equally big countervision of our own. I’m not talking about some mad fantasy of heaven on earth (those usually lead to death camps), but a dream bigger than hopes that the Democratic Party will come back into power four years from now. To create the world we want, we have to regain the hopeful belief that we are trying to create a world thrillingly better than the one we now live in. Promising more prescription drugs for seniors just won’t cut it.


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