If poetry, as Wordsworth wrote, “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” political thought should take its origin from contention and anger similarly recollected. I suspect that tranquility is in short supply among our writers, but still, we try in this issue to figure out what happened last November and how liberals and leftists should respond-and we try to do this calmly, quietly, thoughtfully. The questions are urgent, of course, and we are hardly finished with contention and anger. But we do need to step back a bit and think hard. The recent discussions around the “death” of environmentalism provide a useful model: arguments that don’t stop at posture and presentation but raise difficult questions about intellectual substance and political strategy.
Also necessary is a debate, just beginning in the wake of Tom Frank’s Kansas book, about the old idea of “false consciousness”-why does it happen so often that leftists claim to know more and to know better than the people they hope to represent? Sometimes, maybe, the claim is true, but it’s probably never politically smart. And there are reasons to worry, too, about the morality of representing men and women whose consciousness is so different from ours. We have to argue about ways of reconnecting with those people: how to do it? (rather than, what ought to be done?) is probably the central question in this issue.
It is also the central question in the series of articles, continued here (and to be concluded in the Summer Dissent), on family values. These are also reflections on the last election and the future of the left, written in the conviction that family and country are not the provinces of the right-not when we can rightly argue that we will do better by both. But until we make that argument persuasively, until we agree among ourselves on what “doing better” means, we will never win again.
The judicial branch of government has always come a distant third in leftist political thought. It is the least democratic branch, constitutionally protected against popular mobilization and frequently used to limit the success of social movements. On the other hand, the left has won many victories in the courts-on issues like civil rights, abortion, prison reform, capital punishment, and school funding. In terms of political effort, these victories have come relatively cheaply: they require nothing more than good lawyers and a smart brief. But we should probably be a little apprehensive about the staying power of these kinds of victories. We begin a discussion of court politics here, with pieces on the role of judicial review and federalism in liberal and left politics.