Thursday, March 7, 2013

Barack Obama, the Democrats, and the Mainstreaming of Socialism

I have only a few quibbles with Tod Linberg's outstanding essay at Policy Review, "Left 3.0: Obama and the Emergence of a New Left."

Lindberg refuses to identify what he calls the "newer left" with what by all accounts is a 21st century, culturally Marxist-infused democratic socialism.

In a strange comment, Lindberg suggests that folks like communist and unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers are now the "pets" of the Democrat Party establishment rather than its "vanguard," and he gets the facts blatantly wrong regarding the left's motivating tendency toward political violence today (see here and here, for starters). From the essay:
Though largely unspoken, the Left’s implicit acceptance of limiting principles for its egalitarianism now constitutes one of its key strengths and is the first element that distinguishes Left 3.0 from its progenitors. The acceptance of limiting principles allows the Left to avoid the temptation of radicalism. It keeps the Left in “the system.” The Left’s ambition is to obtain majority political support — no more, no less. The Revolution has been canceled. “The system is the solution.” The Democratic Party is the sole legitimate representative of the aspirations of Left 3.0.

There are, no doubt, a few aging radicals who still dream of sweeping the whole capitalist system away and starting over. But never in the history of the Left have such views been so marginal. Once the vanguard of the Left, the radicals are now its pets.

Violence on the Left seems largely confined to scuffles during demonstrations, and indeed, the Left is now heavily vested in the proposition that the real danger of political violence comes from the extreme right. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, casts a longer shadow now than any remnant of the Weather Underground. The last thing Left 3.0 would wish to be thought is dangerous.
For the most part, though, I think Lindberg nails it here:
The Democratic Party’s oneness with Left 3.0 is a new phenomenon. Political scientists tell the story of the great “sorting” of the political parties. There used to be such creatures as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats; considered as a whole, the parties were less ideological. That in turn meant accommodating diverse interests, which led to dissatisfaction on both Left and Right. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton staked his political fortunes on his claim to be a “New Democrat,” by which he meant: not a left-wing Democrat. Although everyone on the Left loves him now, it’s not because he continues to draw a distinction between himself and his party’s left wing. On the contrary, in 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination promising to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” — an explicit repudiation of Clinton’s “Third Way” centrism and triangulation between the gop-controlled Congress and old-school liberal Democrats. Running for president in 2007–08, Hillary Clinton was certainly not representing herself as “New Democrat” redux. When she lost to Barack Obama anyway, whatever remained of the “New Democrat” sensibility dissolved harmlessly into the mainstream of the party. Obama’s appointment of her as his secretary of state was (among other things) an insurance policy against a “New Democrat” resurgence around the figure of outsider Hillary Clinton.

The disappearance of a powerful, avowedly centrist element was essential in making the party congenial to Left 3.0. Conservatives have long claimed that the United States is a center-right country, and for many years, many Democrats believed them. Efforts to reach the center of the electorate often alienated the Left, giving rise to such phenomena as Ralph Nader’s 2000 third-party candidacy for president — which arguably cost Al Gore the election in Florida. When the party in 2004 nominated John Kerry, a candidate sufficiently congenial to the Left to avoid consequential defections from the Democratic cause, he came up short in the center.

The notion of an invincibly center-right electorate was anathema to the emerging Left 3.0. A key moment in its reconciliation with the Democratic Party was the latter’s abandonment of policies designed with a center-right electorate in mind. For the foreseeable future, the party would lay claim to the center not on the basis of adopting positions to appease moderates and independents, but on the basis of winning more than 50 percent of the vote on election day for candidates congenial to Left 3.0 and garnering majority public support for positions congenial to Left 3.0.

The role of Barack Obama in this transformation can hardly be overstated. His 2008 campaign was intentionally vague, promising post-partisan transformation and renewal in a time of economic crisis highly conducive to the hopes of a challenger to the incumbent party in the White House. But in the primaries, he was also the candidate untainted by the whiff of anything “New Democrat.” He was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and his voting record in the Senate, though short, did nothing of consequence to displease “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” And if there was not much content to his 2008 message, neither did he give the Left any particular reason to worry about his intentions.
Lindberg, writing at a mainstream policy journal, naturally has a huge incentive to eschew the polarizing language of the hardline, grassroots conservative opposition to President Obama, his administration, and his socialist allies in the Democrat Party. But his hesitant, oblique discussion of the left's ideological transformation can't hide the larger significance of his argument: Obama is the leader of a newly rejuvenated ideological party apparatus that seeks a fundamental reshaping of American society in the image of the radical egalitarians of socialist history. It can't be a vanguard revolutionary agenda because this is America and Americans are too steeped in the classical liberalism of the founding. What the left has done extremely well since the 1960s, however, is to push its Gramscian program of "boring from within" society's institutions to bring about radical change in politics and culture. One of the biggest indicators of current ideological shifts is the percentage of the Millennial Generation who explicitly advocate radical socialist policies. (Recall the report at Pew Research from 2011 in which 49 percent of those 18-29 evinced a favorable view of socialism and 47 percent viewed capitalism negatively.)

Lindberg rightly notes that ideological and partisan trends could see a reversal, that the current hegemony of far-left politics could well be reversed in a couple of election cycles. But he's clear that we're currently eperiencing an Obama-led era of radical equality-obsessed partisanship. Note too that the left's coalition is extremely unified, to the deep consternation of conservatives and the GOP.

As I always say, those on the right have their work cut out for them. The fight to restore traditional American values must be fought economically, politically, and culturally. And we're already seeing signs of progressive overstretch and popular push-back. But patriots can't get cocky. This is the long game, decades of work educating up-and-coming generations on the blessings and moral superiority of free markets and limited government --- the foundations of American society that the left has come this close to destroying.