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Politics in the West has in recent years lost much of its ideological edge. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 has had a continuing ripple effect on political developments elsewhere. Progressives of all stripes have watched with dismay—and a deep sense of the unfairness of it all—as the left has come under blanket suspicion. Socialists, social democrats, and left-liberals of various kinds have found themselves hard-pressed to resist a tide of free-market enthusiasm that has made collectivism more suspect and economic conservatism more successful than at any time since the Great Depression. Politicians of the left who have managed to resist the conservative tide—Bill Clinton in America and Tony Blair in Britain most notably—have done so only by turning their backs on leftist doctrines (except on social issues) and accepting as their own, with minor modifications, traditional conservative prescriptions.

Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton—and a committed man of the left—is among the many liberal academics unhappy with this development. Writing in the March 24, 1997 issue of The New Republic, he argues that the loss of a distinctive left is bad not just for the left but for the health of democracy. “Partisan division is not only important in democratic politics, it is vital. Without ideologically distinct intellectuals and politicians publicly debating issues . . . democracy eventually deteriorates into static centrism and even authoritarianism.”

The politics of centrist muddle is, he thinks, more advanced in the U.S. than in Britain. In the UK, the admittedly opportunistic Blair “is constrained by a political base—that is, by an organized constituency committed to partisan ideals.” “Though Blair has lifted some of Labor’s old leftist constraints, he is still tied to a real political party with historic commitments to equality and solidarity. By contrast, our own ‘left’ politicians increasingly have no such ties. The Democratic Party’s disintegration has left Bill Clinton practically free-floating.”

Party ties have not deteriorated as badly, Walzer notes, among American conservatives. “Republicans today are a little more circumscribed; they still have to answer to their base, which is why their politics often seem more principled than Clinton’s. The Republican revolution of 1994 turned out to have only minority support, but this was, and still is, a well-organized minority. American democracy would be better served if there were a similar organization on the liberal left. (Before stagnating, the labor movement once played that critical role.) Political debate would be more substantive if that were the case, and, just possibly, there would be less room for the personal attacks and negative advertising that increasingly scar our political life. Indeed, personalities figure so largely in American politics because parties figure so little.”

The American left, bereft of leadership, has become featureless. “What is the liberal-left position on immigration or welfare reform or health care? Where are the Democrats committed to explaining and defending this position? Try to paint a portrait of the American political landscape, and the whole left side of the canvas would be a virtual blank: a few figures, a huddled group, standing, isolated, in the near distance.”

Bill Clinton’s short-term successes, in Walzer’s view, have come at too great a cost. “Bipartisanship has been a useful strategy for defusing the Republican revolution. I suppose that is Clinton’s excuse: he . . . is avoiding a crackdown . . . on poor, weak, and vulnerable men and women. Or, if not quite avoiding the crackdown, at least reducing its impact. But avoidance and reduction make for shortsighted politics. Without an alternative vision, without a robust democratic debate, without strongly based partisanship, our politics lurches from one scandal to the next—while the country steadily drifts rightward, where all the partisan fervor is.”

Despite the left’s recent dissembling, Walzer thinks that fundamental distinctions between left and right still obtain. “What marks the partisan left is a commitment to equality and a strong sense of solidarity with people in trouble. What marks the partisan right is a commitment to social and economic distinction and a deep admiration for independent, self-sufficient individuals—who, as a matter of principle, don’t get into trouble . . . . Radically different understandings of the uses of state power, the limits of market freedom, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and the extent of the welfare system all follow from these two partisan positions.”

One needn’t be a cynic to suspect that Mr. Walzer’s concern over the decline in ideological clarity in our politics would be less urgent if it were the right, rather than the left, that was in full retreat. I do not recall a similar worry for the health of democracy among liberal academics when, in earlier periods, it was the “whole right side” of the American political landscape that remained “a virtual blank: a few figures, a huddled group, standing, isolated, in the near distance.”

Be that as it may, the most striking part of Walzer’s analysis is his definition of the distinguishing characteristics of left and right: the left is marked by “a commitment to equality and a strong sense of solidarity with people in trouble,” while conservatives are devoted to “social and economic distinction and a deep admiration for independent, self-sufficient individuals . . . who, as a matter of principle, don’t get into trouble.” One might as well say that liberals are nice people and conservatives are not. The problem here is not so much with Mr. Walzer’s categories as with his tendentious way of describing them.

Begin with equality. As Walzer is too sophisticated not to know, the issue is not equality as such, but what kind of equality. American conservatives typically embrace the principles of equal moral dignity, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity. Where they differ with the left is over its zealous pursuit of equality of condition. Conservatives do not, contrary to Walzer’s suggestion, seek out “social and economic distinction,” but they do accept social and economic differences as natural products of a free society. People differ in ability and effort, and conservatives do not suppose, as those on the left habitually do, that inequality necessarily suggests inequity. It may or may not, and justice consists in constructing careful rules for marking the difference.

“Solidarity” is an even more problematic category than equality. We are all called to concern for “people in trouble,” but the form that concern should take in public policy is by no means self-evident. Like many on the left, Walzer appears to confuse the demands of charity and justice. As his fellow liberal, Mickey Kaus, has written, “Compassion isn’t politics.” When people in need of particular government assistance turn to Washington for help, Kaus says, “it is (or should be) as self-reliant citizens, and it’s a terrible mistake to mix up their plight with the ‘weak and unfortunate’ charity cases. Charity is a noble impulse. But it is not the relation of free, equal citizens.”

Social welfare policies constitute an essential element of decent government, but such policies must always be administered with careful regard for their effects on their recipients and on the common good. We want to be, as Kaus notes—and as conservatives regularly emphasize—a society of free and equal citizens, not one of benefactors and dependents. There will always be those among us who cannot care for themselves and to whom we owe support and solidarity, but a society that in ordinary circumstances views any substantial portion of its citizenry essentially as “people in trouble” has succumbed to a muddled and demeaning public philosophy.

That explains why Mario Cuomo’s celebrated “society as family” speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1984 was, however eloquent, fundamentally misguided. We love and sacrifice for our families without regard to anyone’s deserving. We owe them that because they are family. It is political madness to suggest that we owe everyone in society in the same measure. Love may motivate our participation in the public square, but it cannot provide the substance of our politics. Love gives without counting the costs. A politics that doesn’t count costs is feckless and irresponsible.

The left has always prided itself on its moral superiority to the right (we are compassionate, you are callous), and Michael Walzer’s essay indicates that the situation has not changed. But Mr. Walzer and others like him might reflect more deeply than they seem to have done on the implications of the collapse of socialism. The world has not overnight turned hardhearted. If there is today a near universal suspicion of the politics of the left, that reflects not a failure of moral imagination but a commonsense recognition that collectivist ethics, like collectivist economics, simply runs contrary to the way the world works.

Image by DonkeyHotey licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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