Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rectification Part III: Jumping the Shark

All this rectification business came to a head for me in the wake of the ACORN fiasco as politicians of all stripes fell over one another to denounce the organization because a couple of its most junior employees in a couple of its offices said some dumb things. Serial killers caught red handed are granted the courtesy title “alleged” even on Fox News, but no judge or jury was necessary in the face of a few minutes of handheld video of a guy in a pimp suit. One understands that for the Republicans, the real crime of ACORN was not a crime at all, but the organization’s success in registering the wrong kind of voters—most of the Conservatives I know would love to limit the franchise to the right kind of people. The interesting thing has been how eagerly the Democrats have gone along with the Republicans in the ritual denunciation of ACORN and even supported a clearly unconstitutional Bill of Attainder against the organization in Congress. The teabaggers may believe that the Democrats are a bunch of reds; but to judge from their overt behavior, the Democrats are as eager to distance themselves from any underclass effort to organize as any member of the Chamber of Commerce.

I don’t know a great deal about ACORN, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if some of its chapters engage in dealings I’d disapprove of. The outfit is very loosely organized, after all, and its membership doesn’t have the social connections and cultural finish that allow other pressure groups to flaunt the law without upsetting anybody who matters. Thing is, I do know that far more credible allegations of far more heinous behavior have been lodged against Hallilburton and Blackwater without giving the pundits a case of the vapors. ACORN hasn’t stolen billions or killed and raped hundreds, but they obviously just aren’t our kind of people. The law was never meant to be applied equally in these cases just as a deal’s a deal when it comes to the compensation of higher management in a bailed-out bank, but not when the ones who lose what they were promised don’t have any political or social clout. A contract with a union, in particular, has pretty much the same force as a 19th Century treaty with a tribe of Indians.

The Republicans and the Democrats have genuine differences, but they are both what an old lefty would call bourgeois parties. When Obama is done being a Communist/Socialist/Fascist/Nazi/Muslim or whatever, he is as dedicated to capitalism as anybody else. There just isn’t any major group in this country eager to nationalize the toilet paper factories. There aren’t even a great many of what one could reasonably call social democrats about; and that brand of socialism, let us remember, isn’t very revolutionary even in places like Sweden where, right wing propaganda aside, the bulk of the economy remains in the hands of private firms and people do their sweating in saunas, not concentration camps. In not recognizing the notable absence of would-be commissars in this country, the neocons and their less erudite allies are simply stuck in a time warp, still trying to understand our politics as if the same groupings were at war now that were fighting it out in the 1930s. They aren’t. The Democrats still draw some strength from what’s left of organized labor, but the dynamism of the party comes from the knowledge industries and the professional classes, groups and businesses that want government to help them make money and grow the country by promoting better education, regularizing our national finances, fixing the health care mess, and subsidizing research and development. Their program isn’t radical: in terms of American history, it’s rather similar to the ideology of the early 19th Century Whigs who were similarly committed to national improvement and skeptical of imperial adventures. There’s a lot more John Quincy Adams than Karl Marx about Barack Obama. Indeed, it is not completely inaccurate to claim that as the Republicans have gradually turned into Dixiecrats, if not full-blown 1840-style Jacksonian democrats, the Democrats have gradually become the Party of Lincoln. As for leftist radicals in the U.S., hay no moros in la costa.
Rectification Redux

If we’re really going to use more accurate names for the political tendencies of our time, perhaps we should consider going back a little further in history for inspiration. I’m not talking about reverting to the Plebs and the Patricians or even the Optimates and the Populares. Our politics, a struggle between elites, has no room for anything like a people’s party. I’m thinking more about the Tories and Whigs of 18th Century Britain. Especially in foreign policy, their George the Third had much in common with our George the Least. As Brendon Simms exhaustively documents in his recent book Three Victories and a Defeat, the English, mostly under Whig leadership, had been very careful to cultivate alliances in their long struggle with the French right up to the triumphant climax of the Seven Year’s War—what we call the French and Indian War. The Tories, on the other hand, didn’t have any use for diplomacy or the continent. Their sovereign, the first king from the House of Hannover who didn’t have a German accent, simply posited that England was the greatest nation on earth and didn’t need or much appreciate anybody’s help in ruling the world or keeping her colonies. Which is why when the Revolution came, England, faced by a continent full of determined enemies and hostile neutrals, was utterly alone, overmatched, and finally defeated. If you read the political pamphlets of the time, the clueless Tories even sound like American neocons and share a similarly impractical program of world domination. Pointing out that England was, after all, a rather small country was regarded as unpatriotic, just as our tub-thumpers regard any acknowledgement of the limits of our power as craven defeatism.
The Rectification of Names

Democrats often avoid the term liberal in favor of the supposedly more marketable label progressive. The desire to rebrand is understandable granted the effects of thirty or forty years of the vilification of liberalism, and it may even be advisable from a pragmatic point of view, but observers with some knowledge of American history will take issue with it. Actual progressivism, the attitudes and policies of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, differed in very important ways from contemporary liberalism. One can argue with some justification, in fact, that its real heirs are the big government nationalists who call the shots in the Republican Party. It’s not just that TR was an unabashed imperialist. The Progressives were almost as cavalier about civil rights as Bush or Chaney. The tender concern for free speech and dissent that we associate with the left of our day was then notably absent. The Progressives also resemble modern Conservatives in their willingness to use government power to enforce their own cultural values: The war on drugs began in 1914 with the passage of the Harrison Act. And let us not forget Prohibition.

Of course many features of the Progressive program were and remain anathema to rightists and are favored by the left along with most of the population of the country: the trust busting, the progressive income tax and the estate tax, and vigorous government action to protect the environment. The liberalism of the 20th Century nevertheless represented a repudiation of much of what Progressivism stood for. What is ironic is that the secession of the liberals from Progressivism took them in a libertarian, Jeffersonian direction. It’s the liberals who actively oppose the expansion of executive power and stand up for the other 90% of the Bill of Rights. The statist elements of the Progressive agenda have been taken up by others. Which is why I prefer to be called a liberal.