Ed Driscoll

The Reactionary Left

In the Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti asks, “What happened to the American left’s utopianism, its sense of adventure, its fearless derring-do? Today’s liberals say conservatives are radicals who want to overturn the American political tradition (as liberals understand it). What remains of the liberal confidence in progress seems to be restricted to the culture, where Americans continue to perform occasional experiments of living. But even the cultural left seems withered, exhausted, ready to go to that big Oneida community in the sky. So what’s a Rousseau to do? Ruminate on his glory days, and pretend that Occupy Wall Street is something more than it is:”

You cannot have the economy of the 1950s without the society of the 1950s. Ozzie and Harriet were married. They could pool resources in ways today’s single parents and twentysomethings cannot. They did not have to worry about an influx of day laborers from Latin America or a flood of cheap goods from China. They lived in a society a portion of which systematically oppressed a minority race. Their government focused almost the sum total of its resources on defense and Social Security. There was no Medicare or Medicaid or war on poverty. It was the age of the “organization man,” the “lonely crowd,” of alienation and monopoly and “conformity.” All of these factors​—​not just high levels of unionization and a punishing top marginal tax rate​—​went into making 1950s America a “middle-class society.” Is this a tradeoff Americans would be willing to make?

The wistful left reaches back farther when it mimics the class politics of the 1930s. The “99 percent” versus the “1 percent,” Warren Buffett’s secretary versus Warren Buffett, Obama’s attacks on nameless “millionaires and billionaires” are echoes of the rhetoric of Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and Franklin Roosevelt. What is puzzling is that the strategy of division and resentment has not had a good track record. To be sure, it worked for FDR. But Roosevelt had 25 percent unemployment, a minuscule federal government, and a sunny disposition. Since LBJ, the spokesmen for American liberalism have been dour and passive and condescending. Their populism has lacked bite because it is a pose. The public has seen through their attempt to rehash the old formula for what it is: “the shield and slogan of the cunning who will rule in the name of equality,” as Martin Diamond once put it.

The longing for the culture of the ’60s, the economy of the ’50s, and the politics of the ’30s is evidence of the left’s failure. No longer able to inspire with a utopian vision of the future, the left has been forced to return to its past. The left’s failure, then, is the right’s victory, because a return to the past is what we’ve been calling for all along.

But which past? Certainly not the left’s. But neither should conservatives indulge in their own nostalgias. What Americans should be trying to recapture is not any particular set of historical social, economic, or cultural conditions but a lost philosophy of government, a missing understanding of politics. In this understanding, the equality that matters is the equal protection of natural rights. The government that levels inequalities of property or condition necessarily intrudes on those rights. Lucky for us, this view of government depends on self-evident truths that are the same in every time and every place.

Nostalgia? Reminiscences? Schmaltz? No thanks. Leave them for the progressives.

Indeed. But the Left have been stuck in reactionary mode since at least the late 1990s, for multiple reasons: one is that Rousseauianism is by its very nature nostalgic for a more primitive time; I hate to haul out this quote by Pete Seeger once again, but it really does sum up this mindset perfectly:

I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.

Additionally, one can argue that the American left has accomplished all of its goals; as Jonah Goldberg noted a decade ago:

What does liberalism want that it doesn’t already have today? More insured people? Yawn. Better pay for teachers? Wahoo. Better prescription-drug coverage for….><Sgdyip9eyu97362jjxx///////////////////……… Whoops, sorry. My forehead plunked onto the keyboard because I passed out from the inevitable boredom of these arguments.

I’m not saying there aren’t important fights to be had over these issues but, face it, liberalism is here. With the possible exception of gay marriage, there is no ideologically exciting prize for liberals to even keep their eyes on.

Liberalism is on defense, because it basically has everything it wants. The language of the Clinton Democrats is inherently, small-”c,” conservative. Bill Clinton wanted to “save Social Security.” Al Gore promised to put anything not nailed down in a “lock box.” Environmentalists want to “preserve” the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, abortion zealots wanted “protect a woman’s right to choose.” Even lefty radicals want to “Stop” globalization, capitalism, corporate stigma against the unwashed etc.

But if you disagree with that assumption, what’s the ultimate endgame? That’s the topic of Steven Den Beste’s “Unified theory of left-wing causes:”

Isn’t it interesting that no matter what the current global crisis is, according to leftists, the solution is always the same: a benevolent world dictatorship of the enlightened elite, and mass transfer of wealth from rich nations to poor nations.

That’s what they want to do about global warming. It’s what they wanted to do about overpopulation. It’s what they wanted to do about endangered species.

And how does that ultimately work out in the end? See also: 1945, 1989, Europe’s fiscal convulsions today, etc., which also helps to create a sense of nostalgia, such as the gray-haired ponytailed fella who made the video rounds at the start of the month wearing an East German uniform, and singing the praises of the Soviet Union at OWS.

We’ve posted a few times about the academic left’s infatuation with what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “The Black Armband School of History.” Pretty much every seminal (if I can still use that male-centric word) event in the history of the West is a stain on mankind (see previous parenthetical comment), not the least of which were Columbus’s arrival to the new world, and the founding of America. Columbus introduced civilization to the happy peaceful (uh-huh) noble savages he discovered, and America is inherently evil for being founded on the original sin of slavery.

And yet, note that it’s the Occupy Wall Street gang that has gone to war with the homeless — the left’s modern-day equivalent of the pure and innocent noble savage — who had previous inhabited Zuccotti Park. And they’re using language such as this, as cheerfully repeated by CBS:

Anti-Wall Street protesters around the U.S. who are vowing to stand their ground against the police and politicians are also digging in against a different kind of adversary: cold weather.

With the temperature dropping, they are stockpiling donated coats, blankets and scarves, trying to secure cots and military-grade tents, and getting survival tips from the homeless people who have joined their encampments.

“Everyone’s been calling it our Valley Forge moment,” said Michael McCarthy, a former Navy medic in Providence. “Everybody thought that George Washington couldn’t possibly survive in the Northeast.” Valley Forge in Pennsylvania was the site of the Continental Army’s winter camp during the Revolutionary War.

OK, I suppose I can see the Mike Bloomberg/Obama/King George comparison. But compared to Mayor Mike or King Barack, George III was much more of a libertarian-minded fella.  “As Mark Steyn wrote in After America, “Say what you like about George III, but he didn’t prosecute the Boston Tea Party for unlicensed handling of beverage ingredients in a public place,” nor did he tax your bagels depending upon whether or not they were eat-in or take-out.

Hey, I’m happy to see the original G.W. and the founding of America are both cool once again; but how long will the Republic stand? Let’s ask this Occupying Occupier:

What he thinks the outcome of the protests will be: “We succeed and we create a new system of governance that allows for true democracy where corporation voices are not seen as people and we have direct control over our government.”

“If we fail, this civilization that is known as America will collapse. It will turn into a police state and I will flee back to Australia and live in my little community in Tasmania and hope that it doesn’t reach over there.”

So it’s necessary to destroy the system for the system to survive? No wonder the left is nostalgic and reactionary, if that’s the future, or the lack thereof that they foresee.

In the second and concluding volume of The Age of Reagan, Steven Hayward wrote:

The paradox of Reagan was what might be called his old-fashioned futurism. As Lou Cannon put it, “Reagan spoke to the future with the accents of the past;” George Will’s equally serviceable formula was “He does not want to return to the past; he wants to return to the past’s way of facing the future.” Reagan’s variety of future-oriented optimism rooted in historical attachment has become almost unrecognizable in the age of a postmodernism that is openly contemptuous of history and historical experience.

That seems like a good lesson for the left to learn — but then, they would cease to exist in their current form if they ever did.