There's this friend of mine who's a liberal. For years now, he's been
trying to persuade me that I (and conservatives in general) have a
fundamentally skewed picture of the American political scene. We are wrong
in particular, he thinks, about the state of the political left.
From his perspective, conservatives are caught in a kind of time warp.
They don't see the present clearly because they are still focused on the
past: they haven't, in short, gotten over the 1960s. Visions of a Mc
Governized liberalism dance in their heads, a liberalism that, in their
view, caved in to radicalism when it wasn't simply indistinguishable from
it. My friend thinks that what went on in the sixties is more complicated
than that, but in any case, he insists, it has nothing to do with the
present. Sure there are crazies on the left, he concedes, but they have
next to no real influence. They are isolated in obscure corners of the
academy where they carry on a pointless dialogue of the deaf.
In fact, my friend continues, the most interesting intellectual work going
on today is among thinkers who are for the most part postideological and
whose discourse cannot plausibly be made sense of under traditional
categories of right and left. They know that Marx is dead and they have no
interest in attempting to resurrect him. Similarly, they are largely
indifferent to the radical feminists or postmodernists. They don't take the
radicals on in pitched battle because they think any such conflicts would
be neither interesting nor significant. The radicals get exaggerated
attention paid to them, my friend thinks, largely because conservatives are
so noisily frightened of them. If conservatives would calm down, he says,
they would see that radicalism is not at all the looming danger they
suppose it to be.
I don't simply dismiss my friend's arguments out of hand. He's right to
note that some conservatives sometimes talk as if this were still, say,
1968, and that this intellectual time lag can result in distorted political
judgments. I remember a dinner conversation a while back at a conservative
gathering where my three table partners, all of them intelligent and
learned scholars, could not understand my failure to agree with them that
Bill Clinton is, at heart, a socialist. Bill Clinton is, in my view, many
dubious things, but a socialist? I frequently find myself arguing with
fellow conservatives, usually to little effect, that things have changed a
lot since the sixties, more of them in our favor than most on the right,
for whatever reason, want to acknowledge.
It is also the case that intellectual life is less obsessively politicized
than it was in the sixties and seventies. To put it in shorthand terms,
compare the New York Review of Books then and now. You don't these days
find diagrams for Molotov cocktails on NYRB's cover, and the prose inside
is correspondingly less febrile than it used to be. The political articles
are not nearly so over the top as they once were, and there are many more
articles today that aren't about politics at all.
But I can't in the end accept my friend's "beyondist" as in beyond left and
right, argument. I was reminded why by a recent piece in the New Republic
by Senior Editor John B. Judis ("Bad Trip," November 13, 2000). Back in the
sixties and early seventies, Judis was a radical, a founding member of the
socialist New American Movement. But he came to realize, as he puts it,
that "I inhabited a political universe that bore no relation to American
reality." So he gave up on socialism, though he still considers himself
"part of the broader labor and Democratic Party left."
Just before the election, Judis was invited to participate in a conference
in New York City on globalization and independent politics, and the
experience provided a flashback to his days as a radical. The conference,
he reports, overflowed with hysterical rhetoric about the desperate state
of American politics and its endemic racism, sexism, and neoimperialism.
Judis says of the panel discussion he moderated, "All in all, you could
have held a more intelligent and respectful discussion of American politics
and society in the sitting room of your local mental hospital." Of the
conference in general, he concludes that for the most part "reality was not
on the agenda."
Now my friend would insist that Judis' experience at the conference proves
nothing about the general state of the American left; it merely confirms
that, as has always been the case, you will find a lot of flaky characters
on the fringes of academia. But this was not necessarily a fringe occasion.
The conference's sponsors included, in addition to the Nation Institute,
the Carnegie Foundation, Barnard College, Columbia University, the City
University of New York (CUNY), and George Soros' Open Society Institute.
That's more like the establishment than the fringe. And Judis reports that
among the five hundred attendees he noted "quite a few well-known academics
For Judis, the conference revealed that there are "two American lefts," and
that they inhabit different worlds. "The reformist, democratic left of the
AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP is
not moribund; in fact, it may even be on the rebound. But the cultural
left, housed in universities like Duke, CUNY, and UC Santa Cruz, still
lives, amazingly, in the bygone world of capitalist pigs, power to the
people, and Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."
That last may be somewhat exaggerated, but it seems clear that there aren't
a lot of beyondists in Judis' "cultural left." Indeed, many of his
"reformists"leaders of NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP, could themselves not
unjustly be characterized as radicals. They aren't headed for the
barricades, but the rhetoric they employ and the proposals they put forward
are considerably more militant than, say, the platform of the Democratic Party.
Be that as it may, I'm convinced that what Judis encountered at the
conference in New York is far more prevalent in the intellectual world than
my friend wants to admit. And intellectuals, as we all know, have influence
over public opinion vastly disproportionate to their incidence in the
population. Remember the years between the two World Wars: there were not
many actual Marxists in America, but the Marxist influence was everywhere.
My friend dreams of a new End of Ideology, and I can readily join him in
wishing for its advent. It would be a great blessing if the nation could
once again establish the broad consensus on issues of politics, economics,
and culture that it enjoyed during the Eisenhower era. But that, to put it
mildly, is an unlikely prospect. Like it or not, the war of ideas continues
to rage, and though my irenic friend thinks otherwise, the right can hardly
be faulted for recognizing and engaging that reality.
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