Thursday , February 29 2024
The Left-Right debate is essentially over values. Can we bridge this gap?

The Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part II

Consider the following description of the Democratic Party by ZZ Packer, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. The article in question is “ZZ Packer Takes on Geraldine Ferraro,” March 15, 2008, 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 to 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.”

Whether we agree with Mr. Altschul on some or most of the details is less important than to recognize 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.

Fair enough, you say. 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 aforementioned definition which could well be applied to the Left, like the kind of core values, for example, around which the Left tends to coalesce, or the fact that it is a coalition, in a manner of speaking. Even so, I’d like to argue that it fails to describe the Left (not that Mr. Altschul had intended for it to do so). And furthermore, that to understand how Mr. Altschul’s definition is defective in the mentioned respect is the first step to understanding the Left and how it differs from the conventional meaning(s) attached to such traditional institutions and terms of political discourse as party, voting bloc, and the like.

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 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 had been won and the radical element of the Black Power movement lay dormant. Jimmy Carter was in, and the hippie movement had given way to the yuppies. Even Ronald 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 (or so the perception was). Likewise with the first of the Bushes and the First Gulf War. And then, there were the Clinton years, surely the Left’s panacea. 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 – and at the least expected of times and places -– is a testimonial to its staying power. It also tells of its nature.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the Left’s enduring power and influence is when it’s for something, not against. The U.S. (and NATO’s) interference in Kosovo is a case in point. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand then 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 questioned our involvement; but there was virtually no opposition from the Democrats. Now I do! The Left was behind it. And 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 present 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!

I think we’re in a position now 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 which 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 idea. Let’s shelve for the moment the second-mentioned aspect and focus on the first. Which values, in particular, are most useful to characterize the Left?

“All of ‘em,” is the likely answer, and in a sense you’d be right. If one had to pick and choose, however, justice or social justice would probably end up on top. Which brings us to the main problem with Mr. Altschul’s definition: it’s devoid of ordering. It lists all values as though they were of equal weight. But if there’s anything which distinguishes the Left from any other political construct, such as the Democratic Party or a voting bloc, it’s a very rigid sense of ordering, a hierarchy of sorts. There is a definite center, a core value, if you will; and then, there are other values which coalesce around the center, somewhat secondary and derivative therefrom, as if by accretion or some gravitational pull. Think of the classic representation of an atom, with a nucleus at the center and electrons circling about in orbits.

What are the core values of the Left, we may ask. I would say it is justice (and social justice by extension). Don’t forget, the Left was born out of moral protest. The protest was initially directed against the U.S. government for what was perceived as an act of aggression. It was outward, therefore, in its original reach and intent, encompassing all nations and nation-states under its fold; eventually, it spilled over to include social justice as well, the inter-societal relations; matters, in short, 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.

The Left, then, owes its continuous existence to a kind of worldview, a weltanschauung to which it subscribes. And it has to do mainly with justice, with fairness, and with the spirit of good will, I suppose, towards all living things, animate or inanimate.  It includes the environment, too; any cause, for that matter, which champions the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the underdog. It’s not restricted, besides, to inter-societal relations. The entire world is the stage. It’s a religion, in a manner of speaking, a moral stance, if you will. And like all religions, it’s extremely intolerant of the dissenting view. Those who disagree are heretics. There is no middle ground.

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 also include PETA here, I suppose, or the World Wildlife Fund. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m certain you could think of examples of your own. 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 (coupled with a sense of self-righteousness). The Left  is a religion, and you had better believe it!

Perhaps the clearest example of the Left’s recent reawakening is the dispute over 2004 Florida election results. It may seem that the initiative came from the Democratic Party; but the entire effort, including the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court by Lawrence Tribe, was, I submit, 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 toward explaining what some still can’t understand as “the unreasonable hatred of George W. Bush.” In the Left’s mind’s eye, our departing president was a symbol of everything it was against; the worst kind of example possible, the epitome of evil incarnate.  George W. Bush was anathema!

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 intervention in the Kosovo conflict was a case in point. But when the Left gets truly energized and up in arms, it is when our own government is perceived as engaging in acts of unlawful aggression against any country or nation. Again, the traces of Vietnam!

I think we’re in a position now to understand the underhanded nature of Mr. Prager’s argument. In effect, Mr. Prager asks Mr. Dershowitz to switch his alliance on account of a disagreement on one single issue: Israel’s right, so maintains Mr. Dershowitz, to defend itself. “The Christian Right,” Mr. Prager argues, “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. He employs the old Jesuit trick, asking the heretic to recant. But even the Inquisition's methods were kinder, gentler in spirit and more humane; for the accused party could always join the true Church. As it stands, however, there’s nowhere for Mr. Dershowitz to go. His position is, rather, not unlike that of a true believer who happens to disagree with the corrupt practices of his or her church, not with the faith itself -– not unlike that of Martin Luther, for instance, who argued against the indulgences. 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 fits better.

All of which underscores what I take to be the main point, that 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 time I looked, 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, perhaps, for another time and place. Which isn’t to say there can be no meaningful dialogue between the notable exponents of the divergent modes of thought – à la the good ol’ Firing Line, William F. Buckley Jr. hosting –- only that, insofar as the man in the street is concerned, it will fall on deaf ears. 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.

PS: I underestimated the amount of work required to expound these concepts. I’ll conclude in Part III.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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