Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Revolutionary Posturing on the Left

Kevin Baker:
With Bernie out of the battle, what remains is the left’s odd, outmoded doctrine of purity, of revolutionary posturing. This is a philosophy alien to the long legacy of pragmatic American liberalism. Its perpetuation speaks directly to the reasons today’s liberals seem to have such difficulty holding and wielding power in this country. “The worse, the better,” went the Leninist saw. There is no reforming the rotten old system. Best to “let the empire burn,” and have the fires purify the new society.

True believers will not be dissuaded from this worldview, even if history tells us that almost no violent revolution in a major country has ever brought about a better, freer society without intervening years (and more like decades) of dictatorship and slaughter. Even our own revolution left the little matter of slavery for another day and the bloodiest war in our history.

“Why visit Russia when you can go to Denmark?” the great jurist Louis Brandeis, one of the intellectual fathers of American liberalism, liked to say in the 1930s when friends told him they were off to see how the future would work. It was his tribute to social democratic incrementalism when revolution was all the rage.

Change — lasting, democratic change, which is the only kind worth fighting for — is hard, slow, often exasperating. And yet the theatrics of revolution seem to mesmerize the left, over and over again. The concept, all too similar to the religious fundamentalist’s obsession with the end times, is that cataclysm will bring redemption. There is inherent in this a deep indifference to the historical recognition that one thing proceeds from another, reaction following action, and that when we start down an unknown trail we cannot be sure where we will end up. Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, Al Gore or George W. Bush, it makes no difference, for if the apocalypse comes the millennium will follow. The worse, the better. . . .
As Baker notes, this habit of waiting for the Revolution to fix everything distracts us from measures that might actually work now, and form the tactics necessary to make them happen. Thus Bernie said every day that we need to break up the big banks, but it was left to Hillary to explain how that might actually be done.

Liberalism has always been entwined with radicalism. During period of greatest progress for working people – say, 1880 to 1970 – there was probably never a majority of real liberals anywhere. Liberals were able to achieve the amelioration of bad conditions because they had grudging support from millions who really wanted revolutionary change, and from conservatives hoping to avert that very revolution. So the position of anti-revolution liberals (like me) has always been somewhat tenuous. Much of the energy that makes it possible to pass something like Obamacare comes from people who end up despising the result. This goes some distance toward explaining the weird the electoral see-sawing of recent years, as believers in dramatic change get hopeful listening to Obama's speeches but then throw up their hands in disgust at how he governs, handing the mid-terms to the Republicans.

Politics, to coin a phrase, make strange bedfellows. To achieve the things I want requires working with people whose basic approach to the world is baffling to me. But purity is for saintly hermits. Ours is a huge and extremely messy world, and doing good requires as much compromise, in both senses, as anything else.

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