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September 27, 2004

Turn from the Sunken Foes Toward the Battle Ahead

You've probably seen it, but if you haven't read VDH's piece on the fall of the "bankrupt generation," go do so; if you've read it, read it again. For those who've read it twice already, here are the parts relevant to this entry's point:

Commentators have envisioned Rather's fall as symbolic of a "paradigm shift" and the "end of the era" — an event that has crystallized the much larger and ongoing demise of the old establishment media. Allegories from the French Revolution and the emperor without any clothes to the curtain scene in The Wizard of Oz have been evoked to illustrate Rather's dilemma and the hypocrisy of all that went before. We have come a long way since the 1960s: The once-revolutionary pigs taking over the manor are now bloated and strutting on two legs as they feast on silver inside the farmhouse. ...

But the regime is crumbling on campuses as well. Too many university professors in the humanities dropped long ago their allegiance to the disinterested search for truth, or to teaching students facts and methods. ...

The U.N. also seems to be going the way of CBS. Only a little over a quarter of our citizenry feels that the organization reflects American values. ...

Those who profess to be Democrats are reaching historically low numbers. Many prominent Democrats are hypocrites... Being rich and a lawyer helps too. Most prominent Democrats and their enablers are either lawyers or multimillionaires, and now often both.

Although I'm loath to turn from a vicious foe while he still has more power than he does lucidity, and although I wouldn't declare the fight over, it's increasingly clear that the Left is sinking. As it does so, it will drag our culture painfully toward the vortex, but the heat of battle is over; now we need only survive the fallout.

But history does not end here. There are plenty of swimmers in the water, and plenty of ideological dinghies have pulled away. Those with certain sympathies with the Right — whether military, economic, or broadly intellectual — have switched sides and have long been working to defeat their mutiny-ridden former vessels. Some of them, to be sure, have fully integrated, helping to evolve conservative thinking along the way.

Despite it all — all the confusion and the anticlimactic struggle — it behooves those of us who emphasize religion in our lives and who are socially conservative to look toward the new battle. How much longer we'll have more in common than in difference with the libertarians among us, we cannot know. However, I'd suggest that the redefinition of the sides will come more quickly than we expect, and that we'd do well to begin laying the groundwork for defense. For, by our natures, we will surely continue to be motivated more to guard what's good than to destroy what's evil — as much as the two overlap.

Some of our most effective and generally persuasive arguments will be split in two, and we must consider, beforehand, why the more viscerally pleasing half is a dangerous totem when severed from the more spiritually fulfilling half.

Posted by Justin Katz at September 27, 2004 5:22 PM

The Repuiblican National Committee claims Democrats want to ban the Bible. On that score, I'm inclined to believe that Republicans are lying, demagogic, vicious foes, the enemy of truth, the promoter of hate, the god of all meanness.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at September 27, 2004 5:35 PM

Well, Joel,

I was talking more about the Left than the Democrats, but even so, I direct you to Eugene Volokh:

If the literal meaning is clearly extremely implausible (such as that the liberals would actually criminalize private possession and distribution of Bibles), then people are more likely to recognize the alternative meaning. And this is especially so if the usage is in a medium that's known for hyperbole (such as political mailers), then I suspect that people will discount it in some measure. This is why, having read both the cover separately and the cover and the insides together, it seems to me that the flyer is likely to be understood as making a plausible allegation — that liberals are seeking to ban the Bible from public schools (at least in most contexts) and from government-run displays — rather than a wildly implausible one (that they're seeking a total outlawing of the Bible).

But other than noting Volokh, I'll return to my usual conclusion: that we clearly have yet another instance in which it would be futile to engage in debate, you and I.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 27, 2004 5:59 PM


Republicans didn't claim the Left wants to ban the Bible, it claimed that Democrats do.

As for not engaging me, that's fine. It's your blog. I'll stop commenting, but I won't stop reading.

Posted by: Joel Thomas at September 27, 2004 6:17 PM

Your comments are welcome, Joel, and perhaps my tone didn't convey my meaning: I've extremely limited time, just now, and I think we'd just wind up going around in circles. However, other readers have appeared either to appreciate or to have interest in responding to your comments, so feel at liberty to speak your mind.

Just know that I mightn't take up the challenge of tracing our differences.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 27, 2004 6:23 PM

"The Repuiblican National Committee claims Democrats want to ban the Bible. On that score, I'm inclined to believe that Republicans are lying, demagogic, vicious foes, the enemy of truth, the promoter of hate, the god of all meanness."

What kind of response were you expecting to that post, Joel?

Posted by: Ben Bateman at September 27, 2004 7:27 PM

Are you saying that once the left is defeated, the right will be left to splinter and fight amongst itself? Atheist fiscal conservatives vs. Believing social conservatives? That's what i gathered from the post, but these "ban the bible" comments are throwing me offtrack.

Posted by: Marty at September 28, 2004 12:14 AM


You've got it. Although, rather than "splinter," I'd characterize it as a redefinition of the range of views.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 28, 2004 6:15 AM

You can kind of feel the "redefinition of the range of views" happening right now, though the metaphor of the Left "sinking" is more colorful. As the angry Left is dissipated or marginalized, the mass that is the Right probably will split. It's the nature of our first-past-the-post kind of voting system, which generally supports having two sides, but really no more or less. And I think the split will be along libertarian and conservative lines. As it is now, I feel that the alliance between the two is currently pretty uneasy. For myself, I often feel as little in common with libertarians as with leftists, since outside of a general keep-taxes-low mentality, my conservatism is most strongly found in social and moral issues.

Posted by: Kimberly at September 28, 2004 4:14 PM

To the extent you can generalize about libertarians, they seem to me to be fairly hawkish, which is the most obvious area of agreement with conservatives right now (in addition to the smaller government/lower taxes area). Just as the Cold War tended to cover up lesser areas of disagreement, the war on Islamic terrorism might have some of the same effects.

I also think it might take some time for the left to fully lose it's power, and, as Justin intimates, it can still do a great deal of damage on its way down.

There was a post awhile back on the Belmont Club, commenting on Norman Podhoretz's WWIV piece in Commentary, where Wretchard made some comment to the effect of "until Western nihilism is overcome, there will always be some anti-Western movement for it to attach itself to." That doesn't really do it justice - I'll try to track down the post. But the point is is that there is probably going to continue to be a strong strain of leftism around for quite some time.

Posted by: Mike S. at September 28, 2004 6:05 PM

There's so much of interest in this thread, but one thing for now:

The Left is moribund, and a Democratic Party loss this year will yield an enormous upheavel in the party.

But as for the Republican Party, and the various conservative alliances already in place there, we already see some new fortresses.

Buckley was, by his own description, an "enlightened conservative", but today we have neo-cons and the "paleoconservatives" of Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and others. Add in libertarians, and the stew becomes pretty rich. I think, for now, the paleoconservatives are the troublemakers; the ones to watch.

Posted by: Rhod at September 28, 2004 7:34 PM


What did you think of Podhoretz' Commentary article?

Posted by: Rhod at September 28, 2004 7:36 PM


Try as I might, I just can't make the paleos the out segment, of the three that you list. Inasmuch as neocons are defined by their understanding of America's rightful use of its military power abroad, and some libertarians agree with them, I suppose there's an argument to be made. However, my understanding is that the neocons also are characterized by a similar belief in the government's rightful (if limited) involvement in morality domestically. In that respect, they are much closer to the paleos than to the libertarians. My sense is that there's a large correlation between neocons and social conservatives and religious conservatives.

Depending how the issues fall out, the segments will overlap in different ways. But it seems to me that paleocons and neocons are more compatible in broader, ultimately more decisive areas. With many of the issues to come — abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cells, cloning, and so on — the libertarians will clearly be the out group.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 28, 2004 8:10 PM

Are we so absolutely certain that the liberal side will not re-make itself into something more palatable? I don't think it was too very long ago that the conservative side was thought to have slid beyond repair. Given the "right" set of circumstances, it could be very possible that libertarians would be seen to reform their ranks with the left. I see it a lot in their punditry. So many of them seem to be willing to give useful advice toward the election of Kerry.

Posted by: smmtheory at September 28, 2004 8:34 PM


I hadn't concluded that the neocon's willingness to use military power amounts to an identity. I think it amounts to a willingness, and that's all. They're closer to the Kennedy Doctrine (JFK), if Kennedy's internationalism rises to that level.

If they also believe in a government role in sustaining a degree of public morality, this probably separates them from pure libertarians, but connects them to most other conservatives of any kind. Including paleos.

Paleos seem more nativist and, yes, reactionary and isolationist, and there is certainly no love for neocons among paleo polemicists. Almost anti-Semitic in some ways, and definitely anti-immigration under the guise of assimilationism.

This post is a thicket of "isms" and distinctions, I know, and maybe some stereotypes. I suppose we'll find out in the coming years who is who.

Posted by: Rhod at September 28, 2004 10:10 PM

On splintering and range of views, I predict a political realignment along a new, yet-unspecified axis. Decades ago they had burning political issues that strike us today as bafflingly irrelevant: gold versus silver, a national bank, remember the Maine, Seward's Folly, Teapot Dome, Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Perhaps today's political issues will seem equally irrelevant to students of history a hundred years from now. And perhaps the future's political issues--if we knew them today--would strike us as petty and boring.

A related question is whether the realignment will destroy the Democratic party. We have precedent. I expect to hear more in the coming years about the Whig Party, which was a major early American party that simply dissolved in the middle of the 19th century because it refused to acknowledge that slavery was the dominant political issue of the day. The Republican Party formed itself from the debris.

It's quite possible that the Democratic Party will adapt and re-make itself along one of the emerging divisions in American thought. But note how the Clintons are relentlessly solidifying power within the party, even at Kerry's expense. Whether the party survives the coming realignment may be entirely up to Bill and Hillary---and which of the them has more power. If Bill is in charge, then the party will shamelessly morph itself to meet the new political landscape. But if Hillary has the power, then the whole party could simply die---bitterly insisting on viewing every modern political question through the lens of the 1960s.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at September 28, 2004 11:54 PM

Here's the link to the Belmont Club post (and here's a subsequent discussion on the definitions of nihilism and antinomianism. The quote I was paraphrasing is,

It will eliminate the threat until the nihilism of the West creates yet another. Surely it is fair to ask, whether the Left, having taken down the poster of Che Guevara and replaced it with Osama will not find yet another false idol to worship the moment he is dead. The greatest tragedy would be to find that after the last Islamist has been destroyed, and one hundred thousand illiterate men annihilated by the greatest fighting force on earth, that yet another new "destroyer" anointed by the Left is in its stead. Podhoretz knows that:

... because that threat cannot be eliminated without "draining the swamps" in which it breeds, victory will also entail the liberation of another group of countries from another species of totalitarian tyranny.

Therefore it is necessary, but not enough, to win another victory against oppressors in other countries; it also past the time for the West to triumph against the dark recesses of its own soul.

Overall I thought the WWIV piece was very good. I can't think of any specific points it made to bring up right now - the thing that stuck in my mind the most was this post about how the biggest threat to the West was internal, not external.

Posted by: Mike S. at September 29, 2004 11:00 AM

"Are we so absolutely certain that the liberal side will not re-make itself into something more palatable?"

I've tried to envision this myself - i.e., what would a reformed Democratic party look like, and I can't do it. Part of the reason the party is in the state it is in is due to in part to the fact that Clinton had no overarching vision for it - his policies & positions were based solely on his own short-term political calculations. I cannot imagine he and Hilary being able to fashion the party around any long-term coherent principles (Hilary's principles being largely discredited by the majority of Americans). They can only gain personal political power through the party, not offer any long-term roadmap for it.

But I also have a hard time imagining the total disintegration of the Democratic party, as Ben mentions. I guess I'll just have to wait and see how the cookie crumbles...

Posted by: Mike S. at September 29, 2004 12:22 PM
Are we so absolutely certain that the liberal side will not re-make itself into something more palatable?

I've meant to comment on this question more in-depth, but let me throw something out there quickly. One of the reasons I'm skeptical that the paleos will be the "odd conservatives out" is that I suspect that libertarians will flock [back] to the Democrats as soon as the party collapses to such an extent that its leaders are willing to reformulate their platform so as to make it sufficiently acceptable to libertarians. Heck, some prominent folks among the liberts (e.g., Glenn Reynolds) would rush to the party were it to adopt a more realistic — a more sane — approach to foreign policy. Others (e.g., Andrew Sullivan) need no more than vague hints of hawkletish promises.

That's what I'd look for, anyway: a more libertarian Democratic party. My sense is that libertarians would rather make peace with folks who want to ban smoking and offer universal government healthcare than folks who think belief in God entails behaving as if He is real.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 29, 2004 3:41 PM

Is it true that The Left and the Democratic Party are the same thing? Certainly the party is the bus that carries them around. One hopes that the Democratic Party will remain viable; we need a solid two party system. We haven't one now, because whatever the faults of the Republicans under Bush, the party called The Democratic Party is almost terminally infantilized and silly.

It is so, I think, because the "ideology" of The Left is simply an expression of the imbecilities and comforts of the upper middle class and the prejudices and myths that accompany it. It isn't really an ideology, with a consistent set of principles that apply over time. It's impulsive and non-objective, for the most part, and fatuous where it isn't just stupid.

I think it was Podhoretz who noted, in another column, that the calcified "establishment" of the 60's put up very little resistance to the putative revolutionaries of that time. It fell pretty easily. The thing I'm calling The Left might be the same, as weak as it is transparent, and could topple fairly easily leaving the thinkers (if there are any) in the Dem Party to clean house and try something new.

Posted by: Rhod at September 29, 2004 3:47 PM

"Is it true that The Left and the Democratic Party are the same thing?"

No, but currently The Left of the Democratic Party is dominant, while the more grown-up elements are quiet, or supressed, or ignored.

Posted by: Mike S. at September 29, 2004 7:44 PM

Mike S. said:
Part of the reason the party is in the state it is in is due to in part to the fact that Clinton had no overarching vision for it - his policies & positions were based solely on his own short-term political calculations. I cannot imagine he and Hilary being able to fashion the party around any long-term coherent principles (Hilary's principles being largely discredited by the majority of Americans). They can only gain personal political power through the party, not offer any long-term roadmap for it."

The key to all of this is of course that last sentence. Political capital has no basis in tangible asset. If a ground swell of common sense asserted itself into the party thought (or would group-think be a better term?) and left the crackpots out in the cold. Now, if the Clintonistas truly know where all the "dead bodies" lie, then the common sense movement would have to originate from some charismatic newer members. That would necessitate quite a few older members willing to give credence to some relative unknown, though. I'm not sure how likely that is.

Maybe I'm dating myself, but I remember a time when libertarians were for the most part the crackpots. Maybe it's only that today's libertarians just like to call themselves that for lack of a better term, but they don't want to have anything to do with the core Libertarian party. Is today's true democrat only a democrat in name because they don't want to have anything to do with the crackpots at the core of the party? Do they hold a more democratic outlook than the far left? Would they be recognizably different from libertarians?

Posted by: smmtheory at September 29, 2004 10:34 PM


You've made a very interesting side point here about party affiliation. Can we trust self-identification? Over the years I've known some "libertarians" who were clueless about what libertarianism would mean in terms of national policy.

Here in the northeast I still hear echoes of the old Democratic Party saws that Democrats are "for the common people", one of the most overworked and tired expressions ever. An idea, BTW, that Rand (I'm not a Randian) rightly called one of the most pernicious ideas of the 20th century. The idea that ANY person is common, is the first intellectual leap to self-limitation and willing subjugation.

Naderism has nothing to do with Ralph Nader the man. It's a cultish kind of anti-socialism, an "I was here first, you go away" compulsion to exclude people less fortunate than you from sharing your inheritance. An "after me, the deluge" selfishness.

Conservativism has no snob appeal because it is a non-ideology; it doesn't confer any immediate status or glamor on the claimant like liberalism or libertarianism. liberalism gives you a heart and libertarianism confers some spurious open-mindedness. If you claim to be a conservative, you get so little social reward that you MUST be serious about it.

(Clinton appealed to the same vanities that John Kennedy exploited, the same Andy Hardy "we'll put on a show" exhibitionism in pursuit of the future...with the same laziness and blinkered willingness to distort the present. Is it possible to be a Clintonista today?)

Who are we? I don't really know.

Posted by: Rhod at September 30, 2004 7:49 AM

More evidence that the Democratic Party has nowhere to go, and no plan for getting there.

Posted by: Mike S. at September 30, 2004 3:03 PM

In this discussion, our vocabulary presupposes distinctions and groupings that are becoming irrelevant. We don't yet have the words we need to discuss what American politics will look like in 20 years.

In the Cold War, the conservatives wanted to fight and the liberals wanted to surrender. They still wish they could surrender to the USSR, but Al Qaeda is the best available. Kerry may go down as the last Cold War liberal presidential candidate. (Though I wouldn't mind seeing Hillary take that honor in 2008.)

Some idle speculation: Perhaps the best historical analogy is to the pre-WWI era. Civil War bitterness was still fresh, and it dominated American politics. But people couldn't hold onto it forever. I see Bush as comparable to Teddy Roosevelt: charismatic, energetic manly-man who unifies a deeply divided country with bold and largely successful adventures. He's non-ideological and forward-looking. He doesn't want to re-open the painful wounds of the past.

If the analogy holds, those who follow Bush will be low-energy seat-warmers. Politics will become relatively dull, because people will largely agree with each other. Or more precisely, a solid majority will unify against those who are ardently holding onto the bitter past. We will elect presidents who carefully demonstrate that they are not obsessed with yesterday's ideological war. We'll get some Wilson/Coolidge/Harding/Hoover types. They'll be boring and maybe not particularly capable---but comfortable.

(I'm no American history expert, but didn't a contingent of southern democrats stage a filibuster that kept us out of WWI for an extra year? If I'm remembering the story right, it sounds like this sort of "bitter past versus practical present" dynamic. If anyone knows more about that, please share.)

Posted by: Ben Bateman at September 30, 2004 4:18 PM