Fifteen years ago, Todd Gitlin offered a precise and devastating metaphor for what he saw then as the academic Left’s default from democratic politics. In The Twilight of Common Dreams, Gitlin noted that while the Left was “marching on the English department,” the right took the White House.
More than they ever want to admit, intellectuals of the Left are influenced by the cultural politics that dominate their time. While the political right spent the 1980s and 1990s preaching the gospel of privatization and the virtue of pursuing individual satisfactions, many in the progressive academy engaged in their own form of withdrawal. An aesthetic radicalism replaced political radicalism, and a battle over texts and canons displaced the fight over whose interests would be served by government and whose ideas would define mainstream politics.
It seemed that the Right, far more than the Left, had learned from Antonio Gramsci, the revisionist Marxist who understood the power of ideas in shaping the outcome of political contests and economic struggles—even though Gramsci was, in fact, the vogue on much of the academic Left.
Typically, it is the Left that finds itself accused of excessively politicizing its intellectual and cultural work. But beginning in the mid-1960s, it fell to the American Right to devote itself to producing politically useable ideas. Its narratives on the futility of government-sponsored efforts at social reform, the dangers posed to the economic sector by state interference, and the primacy of moral breakdown as an explanation for poverty shaped the political discussion through the Clinton years.
Something changed after 2001. The instrument of that change was not the rise of a compelling vision on the Left, but a visceral reaction against George W. Bush’s presidency, not only on the Left, but also across much of the political center. In an odd way, the response to Bush, even on the Left, was rooted in what might be seen as a conservative revulsion over the recklessness of Bush’s policies, particularly his approach to the war in Iraq.
Bush’s radicalism—there is no other word—was captured rather chillingly in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind. Here’s how Suskind recounted a conversation with a Bush lieutenant:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,: which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We‘re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
It dawned on much of the intellectual Left that control of the English department was not sufficient. Self-marginalization meant being confined to the wayside to “study” what others did. This was an act of democratic irresponsibility. It was time to rejoin the ranks of “history’s actors.”
But becoming actors in the American story required accepting the disciplines—and limitations—of democratic practice. It demanded a faith in the wisdom of fellow Americans and a dedication to the task of popular persuasion. It meant tempering utopian expectations and accepting the need for near-term reform. It meant moving from the seminar room to the precincts and the neighborhoods. The excitement so many experienced during the 2008 Obama campaign was nothing more or less than a rediscovery of the joy of democratic activism.
In a democracy, political engagement is an act of patriotism, a declaration of faith in the judgment of one’s fellow citizens and thus, ultimately, in one’s nation. Michael Walzer is right that the truly effective social critics are embedded in their societies and operate at least as much out of love as from alienation. And love is usually dominant.
In The Company of Critics, Walzer quotes the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik: “A movement that does not honor society’s constant values is not sufficiently mature to undertake the reshaping of that society.” Walzer draws the right conclusion: “Criticism is most powerful . . . when it gives voice to the common complaints of the people or elucidates the values that underlie those complaints.”
Note the twin obligations Walzer imposes on the critic: the democratic obligation to voice “common complaints” and the intellectual obligation to elucidate values. The latter can be quite subversive of accepted understandings, exposing as it typically does the ways in which a society ignores or violates the values it claims as its bedrock.
Few leaders better embodied the patriotism inherent in embedded criticism than Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both drew on the insistence of the nation’s founding document that all men are created equal to launch social and political movements that revolutionized the country.
Lincoln spoke of “a new birth of freedom,”[emphasis added] paying homage to a nation that had been “conceived in liberty.” He appealed to the nation’s “bonds of affection,” to “the better angels of our nature,” and he spoke of the country’s “unfinished work.” He was confident that the nation was capable of finishing its work.
King described the “promissory note” to the nation’s African-Americans, a pledge to the “unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” King’s declaration that the note was “a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” was a classic exercise in the elucidation of values. The nation’s sin originated not in the values that lay at its core, but in its failure to apply those values consistently. Therein lay King’s hope. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation,” King declared. “So we have come to cash this check.”
But as King knew, demanding that the check be honored is only a first step. And democratic politics is an ongoing commitment. A single election campaign, however exhilarating, is just the beginning of engagement. Moreover, embedded critics—their ranks include, but are not limited to, academics and intellectuals—have a necessarily ambiguous relationship to power.
Here, the differences between Lincoln, the politician, and King, the prophetic activist and critic, are clear. The politician focuses on the work that can get done and is called upon to have a realist’s sense of the limits of the possible. The critic is dogged in pointing to the work that remains unfinished, the reforms that are not adequate, the crooked places that have not yet been made smooth. “No, no,” King declared, “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” That is, to say the least, a standard that politicians cannot live by. But it is the standard to which they must be called.
The late Michael Harrington tried to square this circle by insisting that he was fighting for “the left wing of the possible.” It’s a powerful phrase because it asks activists and critics to keep in mind both of Max Weber’s categories for political action: the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of absolute ends.
As a general proposition, democratic politics demands an ethic of responsibility. Persuasion is a long process, reform is always achieved in steps, compromise is inevitable, and moving forward is better than moving backward—even if the number of steps taken at any given moment can be limited by circumstances. A single election, a lone health care reform bill (even a big one), this civil rights bill, that labor law reform: all are steps down a road. They are not a destination.
But some critics will hold out and say they are not satisfied. They will call power to account even when those in power have some sympathy for their goals. They will lay out the requirements for a future better than the present even during times of progress—perhaps especially during times of progress.
Both kinds of critics are necessary. Both can, if they keep Weber’s admonitions in mind, contribute to democratic progress. Lincoln needed the abolitionists and the proddings of Frederick Douglass; Franklin Roosevelt needed the labor movement; John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson needed the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.
What is not an option in democratic politics is self-marginalization. Gestures are not enough. Flag burning does not cleanse a nation. The English department is not the White House. “Politics,” Weber wrote, “is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” This, at least, is something that most progressive intellectuals learned in the years between 2001 and 2009.
E. J. Dionne, Jr., is a university professor at Georgetown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. He is the author of Why Americans Hate Politics and, most recently, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.