A Usable Past Is Prerequisite to a Better Future

Clintonites Need to Realize the Left Won the Debates of the 1960s
By James Livingston

Last time out on this limb, I ended by saying that the Obama campaign performs a political sensibility—an attitude toward history—that adjourns the culture wars by assuming the Left won the struggles conducted in, or inherited from, the 1960s. This campaign assumes, in other words, that the New Left has become the mainstream of American politics. It assumes accordingly that the New Right has always been a marginal, insurgent movement destined to fail with an electorate that has increasingly insisted on—or rather just acted out—equality across lines of race, gender, sexual preference, and national origin.

As the culture at large moved rapidly left after 1965, the New Right chose political means to slow or stop the process. And once in a while, for example in 1994, it succeeded, although its intellectual purchase on the culture kept slipping, and its political toehold was always insecure at best—as witness the elections of 1998 and 2000, when Democrats won decisively.

Yes, George W. Bush was named the president by a radical junta convened at the Supreme Court. But his domestic agenda was “No Child Left Behind,” which, regardless of its bureaucratic intricacies, was, and is, a measure fully consistent with the welfare state—his Senatorial comrade in arms, remember, was Teddy Kennedy.

It was only in late 2001, after 9/11, that the zealots of the New Right were able to seize the time, in a kind of coup d’etat that featured all the hysterical symptoms of 20th-century fascist movements (and I use the adjective advisedly, based on my reading of Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism). Their instant magnification of executive power was designed to destroy any balance between the branches of government, and to refit the White House as a bunker from which to launch two wars in two years, each in the name of “an end to evil.” As late as the summer of 2007, they were planning to bomb Iran and happily acknowledged their insane intentions. War was, in principle, the health of the state they imagined.

But they failed. The “war on terror” has become a joke, except when journalists or politicians equate Al Qaeda in Iraq with the real thing. The zealots of the New Right—Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Feith, Addington, Perle, Frum, et al.—and their idiot enablers in the executive branch—Bush, Yoo, Gonzalez, Libby, Rice, Powell, et al.—are now in jail or in exile or in disgrace or in denial. The American people would not legitimate their attempted coup.

The people have made it plain, by this refusal, that they want a return to the rule of law, not of men. They’ve also made it plain that they favor Democrats on issues, from health care to the economy to the Iraq war, but also on values, including a woman’s right to choose and gay rights. Don’t take my word for it, consult the National Opinion Research Center or USA Today or the Pew Center polls. Everywhere you look, the results are the same: the New Right can no longer use political means to contain the consequences of the 1960s.

In short, the American people, young and old, have made it plain that they’re increasingly liberal. That liberal trend stopped the New Right in its tracks, just when it thought it finally had a grip on power in Washington.

Now these people typically don’t call themselves liberals. They don’t call themselves feminists or socialists, either. Nonetheless, liberalism, feminism, and socialism are constituent elements of our culture, our politics, and our society. That is why, when polled, most so-called conservatives say they want more government spending on health and education. That is why, when asked, men and women who refuse the label of “feminist” always insist they favor equal opportunity for males and females, and, when pressed, usually acknowledge that gender differences are mostly matters of historically determined cultural conventions.

And that is why, when prompted, even the hapless Bush administration is pushing a fiscal stimulus package to address the subprime mortgage mess, as meanwhile the Federal Reserve frantically drives real interest rates toward zero: everyone, from Left to Right, assumes that market forces are economic means to social and political ends—they are supposed to be manipulated in the name of the general welfare—not anonymous externalities beyond the intellectual grasp and social control of human beings.

Look at it another way. The transformation of liberalism in the late-20th century made it an approximation of what we used to call social democracy. And that interesting transformation makes sense of the New Right’s fear of liberalism—that is, its ferocious, yet mostly inarticulate conflation of liberalism and socialism.

Irving Kristol, the founding father, by all accounts, of neo-conservatism, explained this political process in 1978: “To begin with, the institutions which conservatives wish to preserve are, and for two centuries were called, liberal institutions, i.e., institutions which maximize personal liberty vis a vis a state, a church, or an official ideology. On the other hand, the severest critics of these institutions—those who wish to enlarge the scope of government authority indefinitely, so as to achieve ever greater equality at the expense of liberty—are today commonly called ‘liberals.’ It would certainly help to clarify matters if they were called, with greater propriety and accuracy, ‘socialists’ or ‘neo-socialists.”

This was, once upon a time, a complaint. What if we read it as a prophecy? What if Henry Kaufman, the Wall Street guru of the 1970s, was right in 1980 when he announced that the majority of the American people was committed to “an unaffordable egalitarian sharing of production,” that is, to some kind of unspoken socialism?

One way to answer the question is to notice the dizzying range of regulatory agencies, federal statutes, and executive orders, which, then as now, limit the reach of market forces in the name of purposes that have no prices. A laundry list of such agencies, statutes, and orders would merely begin with . . . FRS, FDA, FTC, SEC, FDIC, FCC, FAA, OSHA, EPA, EEOC, NWS, FEMA, NIH, CDC, NSF, NEA, NEH. . . And so on, unto acronymical infinity.

To this incomplete laundry list we should add the post-Vietnam armed services—the “all-volunteer army” that now serves as a job-training program and a portal to higher education for working-class kids of every color. These armed services are a social program that still lives up to the egalitarian ideals of the 1960s, in part because it addresses the problem of race and the promise of diversity with the attitudes of affirmative action.

Another, more prosaic way to answer the question about an unspoken socialism passing for politics as usual is to measure the growth of transfer payments in the late-20th century, when the liberal/welfare state was supposedly collapsing.

Transfer payments represent income received by households and individuals for which no contribution to current output of goods and services has been required. By supply-side standards, they are immoral at best and criminal at worst because they represent reward without effort, income without work. But they were the fastest growing component of income in the late-20th century, amounting, by 1999, to 20% of all labor income.

From 1959 to 1999, transfer payments grew by 10% annually, more than any other source of labor income, including wages and salaries. By the end of the 20th century, one of every eight dollars earned by those who were contributing to the production of goods and service was transferred to others who were not making any such contribution.

The detachment of income from work—the essence of socialism—abides, then, just as unobtrusively, but just as steadfastly, as The Dude, who unwittingly foiled the venal designs of that outspoken neo-conservative, the Big Lebowski.

Why, then, does the academic left keep crying wolf? Why do lefties keep portraying themselves as losers in the culture wars and in the larger political battles we’re fighting today? Why do they keep bemoaning “the collapse of the liberal state” or keep defending a welfare state that shows no sign of impending expiration? Why can’t they see that we won?

Why, in sum, does the Left agree with right-wing blockheads like Ross Douthat? He’s the guy who concludes his Sunday New York Times (2/10/08) op-ed as follows: “Precisely because the right has won so many battles—on taxes, welfare, crime and the cold war—in the decades since it squared off against Gerald Ford and Jacob Javits, the greatest danger facing the contemporary Republican party is ideological sclerosis, rather than insufficient orthodoxy.”

Hello? The supply-siders themselves have admitted, over and over, that the Reagan Revolution was a bust—because he couldn’t cut federal spending, and indeed increased it significantly in the 1980s. He also raised taxes, fled Lebanon after a terrorist attack on US Marines, sold illegal arms to Iran, and negotiated with the leader of the “evil empire” then resident in the Soviet Union.

An avowed liberal ended welfare as we knew it, and in doing so he permitted greater labor force participation by women. Violent crime rates have plummeted because the proportion of young single males in the general population has fallen—not because we’ve jailed more drug users and dealers. And the Cold War was fought (and “won,” if that is the right word) by a cross-class, bipartisan coalition that included many avowed Marxists, socialists, and liberals.

But the consensus across the Left/Right intellectual divide says that Douthat is correct—that the conservatives have been winning all along, or at least since the sainted Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. Both sides believe that the electorate bought into supply-side economics, the Contract for America, the values of the religious right, and the “war on terror.” Both sides are wrong.

The Left is more wrong, however, because its pose as a marginalized movement with no real voice in the political debates of our time reenacts and reinforces a passivity that is at the very least a mistake. This pose enables abstention, not action. It makes us mere spectators on the history of our time; it depicts us as beautiful souls who can’t bear the corrupting burdens of the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be. It promotes purity.

As a case in point that will draw us back to Obamarama, I offer in evidence the incendiary essay by the esteemed feminist Robin Morgan, who, like Paulie (“the Hitman”) Krugman, sees nothing but “celebrity,” “hero worship,” and a “cult of personality” in the unreasonable and quite possibly misogynistic attitudes of Barack’s deluded supporters (see Krugman’s column of 2/11/08 in the NYT).

Morgan is nothing if not reasonable, so she is a true believer in the false consciousness of those who disagree with her. Unqualified and uneducated voters here worship at the shrine of “celebrity-culture mania” erected by Obama supporters. Among them are “young women eager to win male approval by showing they’re not feminists”—presumably by favoring Obama. She quotes Harriet Tubman to equate such women with slaves who did not even know they were enslaved: “When asked how she managed to save hundreds of enslaved African-Americans during [sic] the Civil War, she replied bitterly, ‘I could have saved thousands –if only I’d been able to convince them they were slaves.’”

I get it. If only we were able to convince Obama’s female supporters that they’re, uh, slaves to male supremacy, we could save them from their false consciousness and deliver them unto Hillary. Because of course “She’s better qualified” than Obama. It is self-evident. You can tell because this dubious statement about the candidates’ qualifications is followed by Homeric diction: “(D’uh.)”

But the pivot of the piece is the rhetorical series of questions through which Morgan announces the return of the repressed 1960s: “How dare anyone unilaterally decide to turn the page on history [that would be the 1960s], papering over real inequities and suffering constituencies [these would be the insignia of our benighted present], in the promise of a feel-good campaign? How dare anyone claim to unify while dividing, or think that to rouse U.S. youth from torpor it’s useful to triage the single largest demographic in this country’s history: the boomer generation—the majority of which is female?”

So Morgan wants us to believe that us Obama supporters are practically misogynists because we assume that the boomers of the Left won the battles begun in the 1960s and don’t want to fight them all over again. Like the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, who also raises the rhetorical stakes by asking “How dare he?”, Morgan wants us to believe that in making this crucial assumption—by acting as if the culture wars are over—we blind themselves to the inequities and suffering that, now as then, and always already, disfigure our country. Like Voltaire’s Pangloss, we have begun to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. In our happy ignorance, we forget the atrocities of the past and begin to believe, stupidly, in a better future.

To which there can be only one response: we need a usable past if we are to shape a better future. We need to know that this is our country. If our ethical principles do not reside in and flow from the historical circumstances we study—if our most cherished values do not somehow intersect with the dreary facts of our everyday lives and the disheartening facts of our country’s past—we have no choice except to retreat from the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, and then curse it as the obvious cause of our righteous anger.

Here is how John Dewey explained the dilemma of those who would act as if their principles can never be derived from, or embodied in, historical circumstances, including the political movements and institutions of the present: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”

Yes, it is a mere pious wish, a waking dream that will keep you pure, and only pure—undefiled by compromise and engagement with the world as it exists, a world full of illiberal Democrats and surly Republicans, plus many other unruly political species at home and abroad. That wish, that dream, will let you believe that false consciousness is the affliction of all those others who have misinterpreted their own interests—you already know what is right for them, and you mean to do it, no matter what they might say. Or you know that they’ll never get it, so you congratulate yourself as you say “Goodbye.”

To shed our piety, to wake from our dream of purity, we must “turn the page” on the “boomer generation” of the 1960s without forgetting or repudiating it, just as Obama asks us to. That means we take its achievements for granted. We assume we won, and get on with the changes we can still believe in.

Mr. Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He’s finishing a book called The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. He blogs at politicsandletters.com.

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