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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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