How to think straight about America’s imbalanced politics? It’s not so easy nowadays. David Plotke’s smart article in this issue ought to initiate considerable debate about how we went from the New Deal to Bush’s bum deal. Bush has not pulled the country radically to the right, Plotke thinks. Those who claim he has or that he owes his job to ruse must have been sleepwalking through the last decades as the public moved rightward. The president’s plunge in the polls is due to his performance more than reproof of conservatism.
How, in the short term, can our imbalanced politics be checked? How do we get more people to question that conservatism? The first question is easiest. This fall’s congressional elections are urgent. But even if the Democrats win one or even both chambers, that second question makes things complicated. Many people may vote Democratic to rebuke Bush, not to embrace liberalism (let alone social democracy). Plotke suggests that the left must resign itself to a centrist Democratic strategy if the most important thing is to make sure that the right loses in 2006 and 2008. That will be a start, and if we on the left want to persuade the country, we’d better be able to persuade Democratic centrists.
Others will demur. They will contend that today, more than ever, lines should be drawn, big arguments made, bigger visions projected. Too much focus on “the center” makes people cross-eyed. Besides, who succeeded centrists—Carter, Clinton—in power? Reagan and Bush.
How to link short-term imperatives to longer-term hopes? Some Dissent readers will say, “This is not a new problem.” True, but we’ll have to argue it again. We can do so well or badly. Unfortunately, parts of the liberal/left tend to deride foes as fools (if on the right) or as turncoats (if on the left). But consider: Bush won the Texas governorship twice, took the presidency twice, and led his party to congressional victory twice. Losers kept calling him stupid. Something is wrong, and it is not only Bush’s politics or the Baghdad Botch.
Good ways of arguing often become collateral damage in angry times. For a model intellectual dispute, see the exchange about “Regime Change” between Michael Walzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain. A divisive issue, Iraq, looms large, but these authors raise the level of conversation rather than make its tone shrill. So, too, does Anson Rabinbach in his exploration of totalitarianism, a loaded political word. Applied too liberally to the Middle East, it can mistake “secular religions of the past” for “religious antisecularism of the present.” There is a danger when “the price of moral clarity” is “political myopia.”