There’s this friend of mine who’s a liberal. For years now, he’s been trying to persuade me that I (and conservatives in general) have a fundamentally skewed picture of the American political scene. We are wrong in particular, he thinks, about the state of the political left.
From his perspective, conservatives are caught in a kind of time warp. They don’t see the present clearly because they are still focused on the past: they haven’t, in short, gotten over the 1960s. Visions of a Mc Governized liberalism dance in their heads—a liberalism that, in their view, caved in to radicalism when it wasn’t simply indistinguishable from it. My friend thinks that what went on in the sixties is more complicated than that, but in any case, he insists, it has nothing to do with the present. Sure there are crazies on the left, he concedes, but they have next to no real influence. They are isolated in obscure corners of the academy where they carry on a pointless dialogue of the deaf.
In fact, my friend continues, the most interesting intellectual work going on today is among thinkers who are for the most part post–ideological and whose discourse cannot plausibly be made sense of under traditional categories of right and left. They know that Marx is dead and they have no interest in attempting to resurrect him. Similarly, they are largely indifferent to the radical feminists or postmodernists. They don’t take the radicals on in pitched battle because they think any such conflicts would be neither interesting nor sig nificant. The radicals get exaggerated attention paid to them, my friend thinks, largely because conservatives are so noisily frightened of them. If conservatives would calm down, he says, they would see that radicalism is not at all the looming danger they suppose it to be.
I don’t simply dismiss my friend’s arguments out of hand. He’s right to note that some conservatives sometimes talk as if this were still, say, 1968, and that this intellectual time lag can result in distorted political judgments. I remember a dinner conver sation a while back at a conservative gathering where my three table partners, all of them intelligent and learned scholars, could not understand my failure to agree with them that Bill Clinton is, at heart, a socialist. Bill Clinton is, in my view, many dubious things—but a socialist? I frequently find myself arguing with fellow conservatives—usually to little effect—that things have changed a lot since the sixties, more of them in our favor than most on the right, for whatever reason, want to acknowledge.
It is also the case that intellectual life is less obsessively politicized than it was in the sixties and seventies. To put it in shorthand terms, compare the New York Review of Books then and now. You don’t these days find diagrams for Molotov cocktails on NYRB’s cover, and the prose inside is correspondingly less febrile than it used to be. The political articles are not nearly so over the top as they once were, and there are many more articles today that aren’t about politics at all.
But I can’t in the end accept my friend’s “beyondist”—as in beyond left and right—argument. I was reminded why by a recent piece in the New Republic by Senior Editor John B. Judis (“Bad Trip,” November 13, 2000). Back in the sixties and early seventies, Judis was a radical, a founding member of the socialist New American Movement. But he came to realize, as he puts it, that “I inhabited a political universe that bore no relation to American reality.” So he gave up on socialism, though he still considers himself “part of the broader labor and Democratic Party left.”
Just before the election, Judis was invited to participate in a conference in New York City on globalization and independent politics, and the ex perience provided a flashback to his days as a radical. The conference, he reports, overflowed with hysterical rhetoric about the desperate state of American politics and its endemic racism, sexism, and neo–imperialism. Judis says of the panel discussion he moderated, “All in all, you could have held a more intelligent and respectful discussion of American politics and society in the sitting room of your local mental hospital.” Of the conference in general, he concludes that for the most part “reality was not on the agenda.”
Now my friend would insist that Judis’ experience at the conference proves nothing about the general state of the American left; it merely confirms that, as has always been the case, you will find a lot of flaky characters on the fringes of academia. But this was not necessarily a fringe occasion. The conference’s sponsors included, in addition to the Nation Institute, the Carnegie Foundation, Barnard College, Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), and George Soros’ Open Society Institute. That’s more like the establishment than the fringe. And Judis reports that among the five hundred attendees he noted “quite a few well–known academics and activists.”
For Judis, the conference revealed that there are “two American lefts,” and that they inhabit different worlds. “The reformist, democratic left of the AFL–CIO, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP is not moribund; in fact, it may even be on the rebound. But the cultural left, housed in universities like Duke, CUNY, and UC Santa Cruz, still lives, amazingly, in the bygone world of capitalist pigs, power to the people, and Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.”
That last may be somewhat exaggerated, but it seems clear that there aren’t a lot of beyondists in Judis’ “cultural left.” Indeed, many of his “reformists”—leaders of NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP—could themselves not unjustly be characterized as radicals. They aren’t headed for the barricades, but the rhetoric they employ and the proposals they put forward are considerably more militant than, say, the platform of the Democratic Party.
Be that as it may, I’m convinced that what Judis encountered at the conference in New York is far more prevalent in the intellectual world than my friend wants to admit. And intellectuals, as we all know, have influence over public opinion vastly disproportionate to their incidence in the population. Remember the years between the two World Wars: there were not many actual Marxists in America, but the Marxist influence was everywhere.
My friend dreams of a new End of Ideology, and I can readily join him in wishing for its advent. It would be a great blessing if the nation could once again establish the broad consensus on issues of politics, economics, and culture that it enjoyed during the Eisenhower era. But that, to put it mildly, is an unlikely prospect. Like it or not, the war of ideas continues to rage, and though my irenic friend thinks otherwise, the right can hardly be faulted for recognizing and engaging that reality.