I was rereading John Dewey’s “Democracy is Radical” last week in preparation for a lecture, and the opening lines are haunting me:
There is comparatively little difference among the groups at the left as to the social ends to be reached. There is a great deal of difference as to the means by which these ends should be reached and by which they can be reached.
He goes on to contrast various Marxist and National Socialist projects with democratically-minded leftists in the United States.
Obviously internal contrasts within the post-USSR Left are somewhat less dramatic. The number of Americans who believe that class conflict or national cultural purification are paths to a better future is at an all-time low. Most leftists are securely invested in democratic institutions and procedures. All serious leftists are so committed.
But if we think about this in terms of policy, rather than political systems, the picture is murkier. Do most American leftists agree on “the social ends“ they’d like to pursue? Is there anything like a common consensus on just what sort of world modern liberals/progressives/other leftists/etc are trying to enact?
The answer is pretty clearly no. Indeed, the lack of terminological consensus is indicative of the problem. The Left, broadly understood, consists of all of the following: 1) liberals who aim at a restoration of broad tolerance for lifestyle choices ranging from drugs to sex to art and more, 2) progressives who believe that it is our duty to build a fairer and better political community than the one we currently have, 3) a crowd of others who are defined by nothing so much as their inchoate frustration with the country’s general direction. There’s certainly some overlap between these groups’ various objectives, but it’s difficult to see it as anything more than incidental.
I’ve asked before. I’ll ask again: If you’re a leftist (of any type), why do you believe what you do? What are your justifications for being a liberal, or a progressive, or a social democrat, or whatever such thing?
It’s not enough to say, for example, “I’m a progressive because I want to make sure that all women have access to contraception.” That’s a lateral move—stating a policy preference isn’t a compelling way to convince anyone to share your preference, let alone become a leftist. It’s akin to saying, “I’m a vegetarian because I want to stop the eating of animals!” It begs the questions we’re really asking: Why should all women have access to contraception? Why should we stop eating animals? Why should I, or anyone, share your mind or join your cause? Do you have a reason?
Leftists need a more coherent, well-defined account of the constellation of social ends they’d like to pursue, but they also need to work on stronger reasons why anyone ought to join them in pursuing these. They need some better rhetorical material. If the Left could articulate a compelling view of how our political community ought to look, they’d be well on their way.
They need a publicly-presentable view of the Ideal, what Walt Whitman described in his “Song of the Universal.” Here’s a few representative lines:
Over the mountain-growths disease and sorrow,
An uncaught bird is ever hovering, hovering,
High in the purer, happier air.
From imperfection’s murkiest cloud,
Darts always forth one ray of perfect light,
One flash of heaven’s glory.
To fashion’s, custom’s discord,
To the mad Babel-din, the deafening orgies,
Soothing each lull a strain is heard, just heard,
From some far shore the final chorus sounding.
O the blest eyes, the happy hearts,
That see, that know the guiding thread so fine,
Along the mighty labyrinth.
In this messy, dissatisfying world, this imperfect, cloudy place, we need a “guiding thread” to indicate the way forth. We need a view of the possible—the Ideal—to cleave through the chaos of the actual.
In other words, the Left needs to project a view of the world as they would remake it. Their conservative opponents have long since constructed theirs, and they’ve been selling it for years. That’s why so many Americans can be easily convinced that tax cuts pay for themselves, or that wars are free, or that our relatively paltry foreign aid budget is the primary cause of our fiscal troubles. Though there’s
little nothing in the way of empirical evidence to sustain any of these claims, they’ve been offered a crisp moral vision that unites all of them in clear, obvious terms. Still, part of the reason that the conservative moral vision for the country holds such sway because it’s unopposed on the field of public discourse.
So, leftists…what do you believe?