A Political Sea Change
From the end of the Civil War until George McGovern’s 1972 campaign for president, politics in America was a family affair. In contrast to Europe, where conflicts pitted socialists against conservatives and often erupted in revolution and civil war, American politics involved little or no social upheaval. Whatever divided Americans was not fundamental; elections were about nuts-and-bolts issues, not about the foundations of the republic itself.
Critics complained that the two parties were no more different than Tweedledum and Tweedledee and offered voters “an echo, not a choice.” But there was also a bright side to this political convergence: it reflected the common values and shared understandings of the American social contract. Elections may have lacked ideological drama, but the payoff was political stability and the sense of a common national purpose, which seemed well worth the price.
All this changed in the 1960s with the emergence of an ideological left in the heart of America’s political culture. This countercultural movement was socialist in content and radical in its approach. Its leaders styled themselves revolutionaries, turned their backs on democratic elections, and took their causes “to the streets.” They rejected the political parties, calling them pawns of a “corporate ruling class.” Democracy, they groused, was a “sham.” But the revolutionary idea proved elusive in democratic America, and in 1972 the radicals of the 1960s abandoned the battle of the streets to join the presidential campaign of antiwar candidate George McGovern. In the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, they assumed a new role as the activist core of the Democratic Party.
As a result of these developments, today the Democratic Party draws its strength from the ideological left, a constituency composed of government unions, whose agenda is the expansion of governmental power, and organizations that grew out of the crusades of the 1960s and are driven by racial grievances, environmental radicalism, and campaigns for reproductive and welfare rights.
Philosophically, the Democratic Party is now almost indistinguishable from the traditional left-wing parties of Europe that make up the “Second Socialist International.” The affinity of the Democrats for the socialist Labour Party in Britain is as emblematic of the change as is the Democratic National Committee’s choice of Carlottia Scott—a former mistress of the Marxist dictator of Grenada and a veteran of the hard left—to be its “political issues director.” Yet this 1999 appointment was so much in character for the progressive coalition that now directs the Democratic Party that the appointment did not raise a single eyebrow among the Republican opposition.
At the most basic level, Democrats now view “rights”—the key concept of democratic politics—through the same lens as the traditional left, as social entitlements that can be created by government. This is not the view of rights held by the American Founders, but the classic socialist view. It can be traced to the French, but not the American, Revolution. It is a view both parties previously understood to be at odds with the idea of liberty enshrined in the Constitution of the American Republic.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution regard entitlements as endowments, not of human governments, but of a divine Creator. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are not given by the state, nor can they be taken away by political agencies—not even when those agencies represent the people itself: they are “inalienable.” In the eyes of the Founders, government is instituted only to secure the rights that God has given. The state cannot create additional entitlements as it would new taxes. Government-conferred “rights” are therefore negative in nature. They establish limits to what government may do. That is why the Bill of Rights is framed in negatives: “Congress shall make no law. . . .”
This common understanding of the Constitution as setting limits to what government may do has now broken down. (This is the second such national breakdown, the first having led to the Civil War.) This breakdown is usually referred to as a “culture war” and is the direct consequence of the entry of the left into the American mainstream. Leftists view the Constitution as a “living” document, and hence a malleable instrument of their “progressive” policies and socialist schemes the Founders would have found anathema. As a result of the influence of these views, the manufacture of rights has become a cottage industry of Democratic legislators and the judges they appoint, and a principal battleground of the culture war. The left’s ambition in these battles is to circumvent the checks and balances that were erected by the Framers to thwart what Madison described as the “wicked projects” of social levelers.f The core agenda of the left (which includes its tax formulas, its racial preferences, and its welfare claims) is to redistribute individual income on the basis of political prejudice. This is the essential socialist idea. The “culture war” that has defined “conservatives” and “liberals” for the past quarter of a century is in many ways just another name for the ideological conflicts between socialists and conservatives familiar from the European past.
Of course, the past never simply repeats itself. The influence of radicals inside the Democratic Party does not mean that the Democratic Party itself is a radical organization or that America is necessarily on the brink of social upheaval. Indeed, it would be odd if that were the case. The world left has suffered grievous defeats in the collapse of its Utopian schemes over the last century. Its radical temper has been severely chastened by the historic collapse of Communism and the failure of socialist plans. Defeats of such magnitude have not caused the left to give up its long-range agendas, but they have made the left more pragmatic in attempting to achieve them.
Contemporary leftists (often misidentified as “liberals”) are less impatient than they once were to pursue a radical course. The term “piecemeal revolution” would more aptly describe their current efforts. If the American people shut the front door on socialized medicine, for example, leftists will try to bring it in by the back door. They understand how to tack against the political winds and are able, during election cycles, to make temporary peace with balanced budgets and welfare reforms while they replot their political course. They are willing to compromise, work in coalitions, and be practical about what they can accomplish. Philosophically, they speculate about a “Third Way” between socialism and capitalism, which has long been a traditional escape route from the cul de sac of leftist defeats. But through all their linguistic shuffles and political temporizing the social vision that inspires them is still the impossible dream of a humanity remade.
This is the “mend it, don’t end it” school of pragmatic utopianism —or “practical idealism,” as Al Gore described it. Bill Clinton’s successful compromise with Republicans on balanced budgets and welfare reform rescued the Democratic Party from the electoral irrelevance to which its leftist trends had almost condemned it. But the tactical nature of this retreat has been manifest in the Democrats’ continuing pressure for expansive programs and “progressive” agendas. The big government leopard has hardly changed its spots. Moreover, it is unlikely a Democratic leader will soon emerge who is philosophically to the right of William Jefferson Clinton. Barring a disastrous electoral defeat, it is even more unlikely that the party itself will undergo a change of political heart.
The title essay of this book—”The Art of Political War”—was written to address one consequence of the transformation of the Democratic Party into a party of the left. This is the challenge presented to Republicans in the way Democrats conduct the political battle. A remarkable fact of the decade following the fall of the Berlin Wall was the resurgence of the Democratic Party through its appropriation of Republican rhetoric and policy. During the 1980s and 1990s, Americans rejected liberal Democratic agendas and ratified conservative Republican policies on balanced budgets, welfare reform, crime, and family values. But it was the Democrats, at the national level, who reaped the electoral rewards. In 1996, Bill Clinton was elected for a second term by running on what was basically Newt Gingrich’s Republican “Contract With America.”
It is my view that these developments cannot be attributed solely to the co-opting of these policies by Bill Clinton and his strategist Dick Morris. Nor is it merely due to the self-discipline of the Democratic Party left (which regularly subordinates its radical agendas to electoral opportunity). These developments reveal that the left-wing activists who now make up the core of the Democratic Party understand the nature of political war in our democracy, and Republicans quite simply do not. “The Art of Political War” is an instructional guide to making up this deficit.
“The Art of Political War” was originally published as a pamphlet and has been endorsed by Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, by Karl Rove, manager of the Bush presidential campaign, and by thirty-four state Republican Party chairs. Whether this portends a sea change in Republican strategy remains to be seen. Readers of the original pamphlet will find it significantly expanded here, and the text itself has been revised throughout.
The second section deals with the seduction of conservatives (who should know better) by the Puritan impulse, a powerful force in American politics, with constituencies at both ends of the political spectrum. Liberty is what conservatism is—or should be—about, not more government supervision of a “helpless” citizenry it thinks has been put in its care.
The third section addresses current controversies on race and describes my involvement in them both as a columnist for Salon and as the author of Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes. Much of this section is a reworking and knitting together of articles that originally appeared in Salon.com.
The last two sections extend this excursion into the “culture wars” and continue my efforts to deconstruct the radical mentality of the American left. All these chapters originally appeared as articles in Salon.com.
i wish to thank my editors at Salon.com, David Talbot and David Weir, for providing me this unique platform in the Internet world.
Benjamin Kepple’s careful copyediting and fact-checking once again made this text better and more accurate than it would otherwise have been. I want to thank John Kurzweil for being a good critic and my Dallas publisher Thomas Spence and his able executives Mitchell Muncy, Chad Blando, Yannick Ratnayake, and William Tierney for their courageous efforts to do for this and my previous book what my New York publishers would not.