The Decline of the American Left

Last night,  before what proved to be a disappointingly small audience in attendance and Americans watching in homes across the nation, President Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to support the reelection of Barack Obama to the presidency for another four years. Whether the occasion marked a climax or anticlimax of relations between Obama and the Clintons, it makes ancient history of the hardball political gamesmanship played between them in 2008– far more than did Hillary’s appointment as Secretary of State which, as those familiar with the workings of campaign-year deal-brokering and administration politics will know, does not a personal affinity make.

The speech, however,  was a somewhat incongruous one which, instead of displaying ideological unity between the two presidents, only provided a sharp contrast between the two men’s leaderships, highlighting their differences and how far the American Left has fallen since the days of the Great Moderation. In Clinton’s presidency, there was much to be criticized: aside from the apparent issue of his personal indiscretions having disgraced the office, there was his thwarted push for what would later become ObamaCare, his administration’s expansionary housing policy which (in conjunction with that of President Bush) would contribute greatly to the creation of the housing bubble, tax hikes, and military involvements in Somalia and Kosovo which subjected our troops to injury and loss of life without a demonstrable U.S. interest in the conflicts.

Nonetheless, Clinton’s  indiscretions are paltry in relation to those of Obama. What’s more, their incomparable stature arises not simply from their being of a lesser degree, but of lesser natures as well. His advocacies of social welfare programs were, in the old Leftist tradition, rooted in an implicit acceptance of government force as a necessary evil in the achievement of an economic well-being that, they believed, could not be achieved in a free market. This is irrefutably both morally and practically wrong, but is quite a contrast to the premises of the Obama administration, which has demonstrated an utter failure to grasp basic economic principles, enshrined and idealized the preeminence of government over the individual and been a shining embodiment of the kind of movement that puts forth such bankrupt bromides as the president’s “You didn’t build that,” speech and the already infamous video which opened the DNC with the claim that “Government is the only thing we all belong to.”

Likewise, where  Clinton did raise taxes in his time in office, they were still persistently lower that Obama’s in every major category (effective top marginal tax rate, capital gains, average federal tax revenue as a percentage of GDP). Again, though, what distinguishes the men most is not a matter of a few percentage points, but a difference in intention and ideology: where Clinton appeared to raise taxes to support existing entitlement programs and pay down the national debt, Obama has flown in the face of reason by affirming that he would raise capital gains taxes even if it meant decreasing the government’s revenue or, as he so sanctimoniously put it, “I would look at raising the capital gains tax for the purpose of fairness.” Spending policy under Clinton and Obama has differed as well, with the most striking instance being the presidents’ divergent approaches to welfare, which Clinton limited, applying work requirements and cutting food stamp rolls by 11 million, by contrast to Obama who, in an election year when he needs support from low-income households, has increased those rolls by 14 million and sought to make work requirements more optional on a state-by-state basis– in keeping with his stated intention to “spread the wealth around.” In military policy, as well, the two presidents err differently. Where Clinton placed American lives in jeopardy for causes which in no way affected the United States, Obama has inexplicably placed our troops in conflicts which not only do not benefit America, but may have promoted the further strengthening of our enemies and could, without correction, increase security risks to future generation of Americans.

For the unconvinced,  a brief look at Clinton the candidate’s rhetoric in 1992 provides a window into the differences between the two men on economic growth:

“The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy, and foreign policy America can have is an expanding entrepreneurial economy of high-wage, high-skilled jobs”  

– Bill Clinton

“[W]e need… a government that understands that jobs must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise.” – Bill Clinton

“The private  sector is doing fine… [economic weakness is resulting from] governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government.” – Barack Obama

and American values:

“Soviet  communism has collapsed and our values—freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise—they have triumphed all around the world.” – Bill Clinton

“If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen… You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.” – Barack Obama

Put simply, Barack Obama is not a Bill Clinton-style Democrat. This should be hastily recognized by any who may have been errantly led to interpret Clinton’s endorsement as an equation of the two men, their philosophies, or their styles of leadership. Barack Obama is the first American president to have been raised and steeped in the ideology of the New Left. Practically distinguishable by its anti-ideological rhetoric, its emphases on race, gender, class, and ethnic distinctions, and its particular disdain for what surviving element of capitalism was still to be found in the American economy of the nineteen sixties and seventies, the New Left was at once more consistent in its condemnations and more sinister. In the words of Ayn Rand, who wrote extensively on the movement,
“As far as the left is concerned, its new line is a grotesque caricature of the old and, therefore, revealing, as caricatures often are. Hatred of reason leads to fear of reality; since fear has always been the intense motivational emotion of the leftists, it is fear that they have always used as their chief psychological tool of propaganda, apparently in the belief that it has as irresistible a power in the consciousnesses of other as it does in their own.”*
“There was  a time when the necessity of industrialization was the crusade of Western liberals, which justified anything and whitewashed any atrocity, including the wholesale slaughter in Soviet Russia. We do not hear that slogan any longer. Confronted with the choice of an industrial civilization or collectivism, it is an industrial civilization that the liberals discarded. Confronted with the choice of technology or dictatorship, it is technology that they discarded. Confronted with the choice of reason or whims, it is reason that they discarded.”**
Confronted with the choice of collectivism or economic recovery, it is recovery that the supporters of Barack Obama are discarding. Having dispensed with what remnant the Old Left still possessed of individualism as an American ideal, in whatever adulterated and superficial sense that they may have understood it, the New Left presidency of Barack Obama has replaced it with arguments that dispense with the idea of natural rights, deny individual accomplishment, and engender a culture of dependency between the people and government, between generations to come and those past, and between citizens individually.
What intellectual basis is offered for such a system? The paltry attempts to uphold one are being eroded by the day. For the second time in a century, a massive economic collapse has been answered with unimaginably vast and expensive interventions which have failed to quell the crisis and, what’s more, have prolonged it beyond what ever needed to occur. Socialism, whether absolute or mild, has, in the last three decades, lost whatever claim to intellectuality it or its exponents may have once held. Having, from its earliest days, turned a blind eye to the moral travesties that it perpetrated, it championed the notion of economic and industrial progress. Finding that, even in the mitigated form of bailouts, entitlements, “soak the rich” tax plans, and an immense regulatory culture, it cannot achieve prosperity, the advocates of a mixed economy cling to it dogmatically, wailing the imperative of a large and imposing government for its own sake.
These are the signs and wonders of an ideology in collapse, like the muscular contortions of a harpooned whale as it writhes desperately in the grips of a foregone conclusion. American liberalism, despite the legions of academics who would battle endlessly to deny it, is an intellectual void. Beyond its lack of answers to the urgent issues of our time– monetary uncertainty, fiscal peril, self-imposed diplomatic chaos– it faces a far greater problem: the dogmatic prioritization of past convictions over rational inquiry and an unwillingness to change course even to persevere. Rather, its leaders resort to anti-intellectuality and appeal to the same in their adherents. They do not ask man to consider his rights or nature as an individual, but to identify himself with a social group of his choosing– class, race, gender, or ethnicity– to cling to that group as the source of his identity and to allow himself to be assuaged on such terms as are perceived favorable by that group. They host meetings at their convention tailored to Jewish Democrats, instructing attendees on how best to appeal to their ethnic kin to gain their votes, resting heavily upon individuals’ irrational propensity to conflate an ethnic identity with political allegiance. Faced with a perceived politically inconvenient application of objective law in state VoterID laws, they decry it as racist with little to no attempt at rational justification. In each of these cases, it is not the best in men to which they seek to appeal– not their reason, their self-esteem, or their independent judgment– but the lowest.
What is the consequence of such a trend? It is difficult to predict, but in a general sense there appear to be two choices available to the passengers of a sinking vessel. There will be those who adhere more closely to the newly polarized party, accepting its new course as the natural, logical extension of the last. These will face much difficulty when faced with the fully explicit, avowed, and snarling nihilism of the Occupy movement. After all, what argument can be offered by a moderate leftist who accepts bromides such as ‘You didn’t build that’, ‘Spread the wealth around’, ‘Government is the only thing we all belong to’, and ‘We’re all in this together’ when faced with the venomous, anti-rational mob of protesters who tell him ‘Talk is cheap; pick up a sign.’
Fortunately, there will be others who will apply a measure of reason to their views, check their premises, and reconsider past convictions. This process, it seems, is already underway, as the noted shortage of attendees at the DNC this week is accompanied by statistics reporting that more women 18-29 consider themselves to be ‘conservatives’ than ever before, that the number of Republicans is at a modern high, and that more Americans are skeptical of the federal government’s overarching power than ever before. Perhaps the most striking quality of Obama’s campaign this year is the romance that his candidacy has lost since 2008, so much so that the campaign could scarcely coin a simple slogan that would catch on.
It is a unique shift that seems to be occurring. The Left, long since the party of the young and idealistic, seems with each passing speech to be the party of the status quo, the defenders of the way backwards. Whether the void that they are leaving is to be filled by real promise and the advocates of capitalism are to gain a firmer footing in popular politics is very much a matter of whether the Right is willing to expend the intellectual effort, challenge its own previous ways of thinking, and break new ground on social issues, diplomacy, defense policy, and against the strangling burdens of debt and regulation. There is a unique opportunity in this for real progress but it will require the desire to make it so. As in personal venture, so in politics, success depends ‘not upon our stars, but upon ourselves.’
*Rand, Ayn. Return of the Primitive, 170
**Rand, Ayn. Return of the Primitive, 168

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