All God’s Children Got Values

All God’s Children Got Values

The experts have apparently agreed that it wasn’t values that lost us the last election. It was passion, and above all, it was the passion of fear. But maybe frightened people look for strong leaders, whose strength is revealed in their firm commitment to a set of values. Fear politics and value politics may turn out to be closely related. So what is wrong with the liberal-left? Do we really look weak, uncommitted, value-free-tacking to the wind, whichever way it blows? And is this just a matter of appearance, a failure of public relations; so that what we need is a little rhetorical uplift, cosmetic surgery, some improvement in our posture? Stand straighter! Talk tough!

Well, no. We had better tell ourselves a more interesting story than that. Something big has happened in American politics over the last several decades, a basic shift in perspective, a strange crossover of left and right traits that we need to understand. Consider the role of ideology on the right today. We on the left tell ourselves that the politics of the Bush administration is driven by old-fashioned class interest and corporate greed. But that’s only partly true. If the old Marxist ruling class were actually ruling right now, its policies would be considerably more moderate than those of this administration-at home and, even more clearly, abroad. What we face in Washington is an ideologically driven politics, in which class interest is certainly well represented but also exaggerated and distorted.

In fact, ideology rules everywhere on the right, across the spectrum of issues in which right-wing intellectuals and activists take an interest (note the combination: it used to be only the left that had intellectuals and activists). Everywhere, we see radically coherent, single-causal analyses of social problems and radical proposals to deal with the problems once and for all: lower and lower taxes, privatized Social Security, tests and more tests in the public schools, torture for terrorists, war for Saddam, democracy for the Arabs. And everything will be wonderful, after the revolution.


This is the first crossover: ideological certainty and zeal have migrated to the right. Of course, there are still people on the left who are absolutely sure about their political position and zealous in its defense. But they don’t set the tone; they are off on the margins, a frequent annoyance, but not a political force. Most of us on the near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we understand, and we move around in that world pragmatically, practicing a politics of trial and error. We defend policies like Social Security, which have worked pretty well, and try to make them work a little better. We want more redistributive tax and welfare systems, but we are not Bolshevik egalitarians-even if our opponents are Bolshevik inegalitarians. We opposed the Iraq War but are painfully unsure about how to get out and when. National h...

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