We have seen that radical conservatives, battered by previous miscalculations, studied hard during their time of exile. Banished from government, a clade of conservative thinkers spent this time studying, analysing, learning their political lessons well. In the last section we discussed one of the most potent methods that they picked up, which is superficial ideological inclusiveness. A willingness to accept anyone into the great Big Tent of Conservatism, given even the slightest excuse to do so.
But coalition-building was only the first of many GOP innovations — weapons that were honed and sharpened during years spent hungry, in the political wilderness. A shortened, abbreviated list of other methods would have to include:
Fomenting "culture war" as a function of religious identification, regional identification, rural-vs-urban identification, etc., taking advantage of every possible source of resentment.
Mobilizing wealthy supporters to buy up crucial companies, gradually gaining control over most news media, radio outlets and manufacturers of most of the nation's voting machines.
Perfecting the art of state-by-state gerrymandering, in order to maximize every electoral advantage.
Turning "K Street" — the Washington lobbying industry — into another branch of government, a source of unaccountable political funds, of reliable patronage, of sinecures for retired politicians, and law-writing outside the precincts of accountable institutions.
Associating conservatism with Mother-Pie issues like patriotism, military readiness, preservation of the family, and childhood innocence.
Playing upon fear. Of foreigners. Of terror. Of technology gone out of control.
By combining these and other innovative techniques, conservatives — (or rather, neoconservatives) — have overcome the inherent disadvantage that they would normally face in direct debates over specific issues.
This particular point is an important one.
As shown by public opinion polls, Americans tend to lean in modernist-progressive directions when asked — in a neutral manner — about particular policies, ranging from retirement to budgetary restraint, from energy research to science education, from labor law to conservation, from agriculture to border policy, from taxation to global warming, from teaching evolution in the schools to abortion, from excessive secrecy to civil rights, from foreign intervention to transparency and accountability in government. Consensus opinions on most of these issues generally swing neither left nor right... at least, not dramatically. But they do tend toward mildly progressive-moderate, with possibly a tilt toward "liberal." One consistent example would be overall public support for budget balancing as a priority, instead of tax cuts for the wealthy.
Faced with an intrinsic disadvantage when it comes to the broad sweep of policy, the GOP has viewed it as vital that elections not be about these issues. Party leaders needed every one of the innovative methods that we are describing in this essay. Even so, the last two presidential elections were the closest in a hundred years. So close that questions over legitimacy still fume among very large fractions of the population.
After successive electoral debacles in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2004, are Democrats ready to perform a similar re-evaluation? Perhaps even readjusting their priorities and methods for a new century?
By all signs, the answer is no. What can we expect in the next few political seasons?
Some things are as certain as sunrise. For starters, standard leftist mantras will dominate the primaries, while candidates vie for support from the passionately committed...
... followed by a frantic, post-convention scurry as candidates earnestly burnish their "moderate" credentials for the November face-off.
Alas, for the poor benighted Democrats, this dance will prove (as always) ineffective. Oppo teams — abetted by a compliant press — will recall every vaguely lefty statement that each candidate ever made. Any subsequent explanations or equivocations will be labeled "wishy-washy" or indecisive, a character flaw that is routinely portrayed as more heinous than dogmatic obstinacy.
Meanwhile, there are already dark warnings from the left that any drive for the center will be punished by the Democratic Party's home-grown ideologues.
As happened to every Democratic candidate, other than the agile Bill Clinton, this quickstep of relentless explanation, clarification, and re-explanation will dominate campaign news. Too-left. Too-moderate. Too wishy-washy in between. These are the Scylla, Charybdis and Styx of every modern Democratic candidacy. And by dancing to this tune, the candidate inevitably wastes both time and resources, then winds up dashed against all three shoals, at the same time.
So, how did Bill Clinton escape this trap?
First, he relentlessly avoided excluding people and groups, unless it was clearly necessary. He even found things to praise in Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America!" (This is a hint to something the Democrats really ought to try next.)
These Clintonian behaviors weren't just a matter of tactics, but of personality. In taking this approach, Clinton resembled the inclusive tendencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Moreover, conservatives were right to fear this. It was why their true believers had to be diverted from debates over policy to issues of "character."
Second, Clinton never bought into the silly and insipid notion of a clearcut "left-right political axis." And when fanatics of left or right tried relentlessly to apply such labels, he simply shrugged it off.
Third, Clinton only got into real trouble when he lied.
This final item would seem to be a tautology! After all, the self-hypnotic mantra of the far right is that Clinton always lied. And yet, the irony is that he won almost every battle that he ever fought, and most of them weren't even close. The only fight that was truly a squeaker happened to be the one time anybody was able to prove that he lied.
Now, there are two possible paths you can take from there. One is to say that he wasn't caught in any other lies because he was so "slick." Too slick to be snared even by the entire apparatus of the GOP, after they had all of the filing cabinets and all the papers of the Executive Branch in their hands, for five long years, along with all of the resources of the Justice Department and the FBI. After close to a billion dollars (private and public) spent trying to find some kind of smoking gun.
Too "slick" to be caught, after all that? Right.
The other, far simpler explanation — but one that neocons cannot conceive, or even parse — is that, contrary to the mantra, Bill Clinton simply did not lie very much.
Despite the howls of derision that this second hypothesis will reflexively provoke on the right, which view is supported by actual evidence?
A detailed rebuttal can come elsewhere. But three irrefutable facts are utterly inconsistent with the standard mantra:
Under Clinton the government's use of secrecy went down to its lowest level since WWII — in contrast to overwhelming Bush-Cheney increases in secrecy to levels never seen even during the Cold War against the Soviet KGB!
During almost the whole span of the Clinton Administration, it was subjected to relentless supervision and scrutiny by subpoena-equipped staffers from Republican-controlled Congressional committees — something that has not happened, even remotely, under the present regime.
We were promised that Slick Willy and his guys would all go to jail, just as soon as "honest Republicans" got those Executive Branch filing cabinets to pore through. "Any day now..." we were assured during the first six months of 2001. By autumn, people were starting to wonder. Now, five years later, after untold millions in resources spent looking for smoking guns, the total number of Clinton era officials indicted for abuse of their actual powers in office is... still... zero.
These statements are not ambiguous or politically biased. They are simply, blatantly, outrageously plain facts. They put severe test to standard articles of neoconservative faith posited by the right and inflicted upon Americans for thirteen years.
Finally, Clinton was unashamed of reaching out to particular subsets of conservatism, taking advantage of inherent schisms, splitting the right-wing coalition and luring away support from the other side.
Alas, these efforts were nearly always of short duration. Clinton's own notion of a Big Tent was always tactical, never strategic. As soon as the next political battle came along, the same obdurate "liberal-conservative" party lines re-asserted themselves.
Was this due to a character flaw, that historians may someday deem far worse than sexual pecadillos?
Or did these lines reestablish simply because classic liberals and conservatives wanted it that way?
The lesson may be that maturity is hard. Even if the Democrats come up with another political genius like Clinton, and even supposing that he wins the Presidency, that will be no panacea for a revitalized liberalism, or even revitalized moderation. Not if the same self-defeating habits continue to prevail at all lower levels.
Unless something is done about the deeper problem — that of a deliberately induced Culture War — the grand strategy of neoconservatism will continue to achieve brilliant success, out of all proportion to the merit of their policies or agenda.
How do supposedly smart liberals allow such a lose-lose situation to develop? One in which political suicide is the order of the day?
True, it can be personally satisfying to disdain and reject those who disagree with your party line.
And yet, how can any intelligent person not have noticed how politically self-destructive this has been?
Alas, the neoconservative game plan appears ready to play out successfully, yet again, next political season, as the most active and vigorous elements in the Democratic Party left eagerly repeat this "gift" to the right.
Frustrated by their own lack of new ideas and by a growing contempt expressed by millions of their fellow citizens, those on the far left have taken to preaching the same mantra over and over again, urging a "return to our base" and rock-solid fealty to "fundamental liberal values."
In so doing, they commit some basic political errors that have brought on defeat after defeat, falling into the neoconservative trap. Above all, they prove just how different they are from the arch-conservatives who gathered together in the political wilderness, after Watergate. While many of those early neocons were dogmatic, they agreed to put dogma second, after the top priority of gaining power.
In what follows, I will cover (briefly) a series of perspectives on these political "fatal errors." (Each one may be looked at as a political mini-essay.) Some will seem a little repetitious, after earlier sections. But these are points that merit chewing upon, until they really sink in!
In some cases I will offer possible solutions or corrections. Elsewhere, alas, I see very little chance of anything happening at all.
The ideological-left wing of liberalism often hurls a particular accusation — that so-called "moderate" Democrats are in fact "Republicans-light."
This is excellent polemic. It not only makes these moderates seem pallid and lily-livered, but it also tars them with slightly paler versions of every right-wing crime.
Of course it is a calumny and a lie. Many moderate Democrats are deeply committed modernist reformers with vigorous and assertive agendas aimed at making a better world. Their will to restore openness and accountability to government, for example, strikes at ninety degrees to every "left-right" cliche.
It is true that many "moderate" Democrats would incorporate elements of market capitalism in their eclectic notions of reform. But that does not make them pallid versions of today's neoconservative kleptocracy. If that were true, the neocons would not have so deeply loathed Bill Clinton, whom they saw as the greatest threat to their plans.
Note, once again, the suicidal reflex that has already driven liberalism to the brink of ruin. Instead of pushing moderate Democrats away, it would be just as easy to reach out toward moderate Republicans as the type of sincere people to lure and recruit into a winning coalition, thus shattering the adversarial alliance. Pragmatic politicians look for such opportunities, even while keeping true to their basic values.
But this possibility is seldom mentioned on the left. Only bitter, angry accusations of 'sellout' toward anyone who ponders one or two good ideas from the right.
The present trend toward weakness in public support for President Bush may give an electoral advantage to the next Democratic slate. Perhaps enough to overcome huge GOP advantages that arise from gerrymandering and the rural-leaning Electoral College. Maybe even enough to overcome almost certain manipulation by the uninspected, unaudtited and uncompetitive pro-GOP companies that just happen to make nearly all of the nation's voting machinery and software.
Indeed, if even one house of Congress switches parties, we will see profound effects. Dozens of investigative committees, dormant and inactive for years, will be restored to business, armed with subpoenas, doing their job of oversight, shining light where it is currently forbidden.
Let's be optimistic and assume that this happens. Imagine a landslide Congressional shift in 2006, followed by another 55:45 trouncing by Democrats in 2008.
Won't this be a victory?
Only a Pyhrric one. A Democratic Congress and President, even elected by a whopping 10% margin, would still find it almost impossible to govern this great land. Because under those conditions the "culture war" fostered by Karl Rove and his ilk will still be the order of the day.
Red states and counties in bitter division with blue cities. An endless series of Watergates and Whitewaters and Monicagates and leaks and counter-leaks, with government workers desperately walking on eggshells, terrified of special prosecutors. A nasty, immature and self-defeating style of governance, featuring ever-accelerating pendulum swings of revenge and payback.
(Take the infamous Plame Affair as an example. With all of the crimes currently afoot, must liberals stoop to such nitpicking? Yes it was illegal and petty and dismally stupid. But honestly. Leaks are not the worst scandal afoot, by far! Nor should such a precedent be set, lest it turn and bite your people when they are in charge. Or, do you honestly think there won't be leaks, when you have the Oval Office? Honestly?)
This is no way to define victory. Trouncing the GOP on election day (overcoming every variety of cheating that money can buy) won't be enough.
True victory will only come by defeating the very idea of "culture war."
By bringing back the old notion of one nation, where politics is waged vigorously, but over coffee and ink, not slander and indictments. Where we seek common ground on goals, while arguing constructively over how best to achieve them. Polls show that this is what the people really want. Shouldn't we be trying to give it to them?
Those who would wage culture war fall into Karl Rove's trap. Even if he loses a battle or two, his kind will win the long term war.
But suppose a candidate called the American people to something higher? Say waging war against culture war?
That could be a strategy to win much more than a single election. It might even win a civilization.
Today's nostalgic reflex to oppose the Iraq War in the same terms as Vietnam has ironically gelded the antiwar movement, robbing it of countless weapons. Indeed, by falling for every cliché, the antiwar movement has actually helped to solidify Red State support for a foreign adventure that was initiated and executed in an almost cosmically stupid fashion.
Take for example the issue of incompetent political meddling in military affairs. For decades, the right wing railed that "we lost Vietnam because politician-amateurs interfered in military decisions."
Today, this moan could be thrown back in the faces of today's pathetic civilian fumblers, a rabble of dogmatic draft-dodgers who have treated members of the United States Army as their private toy soldiers. By any measure, this Administration's degree of incompetent amateur meddling, in Iraq operations, would make Lyndon Johnson look like a piker. So why has this hypocrisy never been used as a political weapon?
Or take the growing scandal of plummeting U.S. military readiness. How could an Administration that promised us greater robustness against unseen dangers get away with undercutting our core resiliency? Almost any kind of surprise or shock would find us less ready now than we were on 9/11, especially when it comes to availability of readily deployable military assets. This was clearly demonstrated during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. So why have almost no Democrats raised this issue?
Only in mid-November 2005 did Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) step forward to raise some of these calamitous flaws... and his blows struck hard. Shrugging off the Rove-inspired labels of wimpiness and lack of patriotism, Murtha called upon a classically conservative value, seeing to our own defense before engaging in foreign adventures.
By following Murtha's example, Democrats might go even farther, offering a stark contrast between the bungled Iraqi mess and the 1990s Balkan Intervention, in which not a single member of the American military was lost while achieving unprecedented strategic, tactical and political success. Europe found peace at last, after 4,000 years. And our alliances grew stronger in the process, instead of dissolving into dust. (See more details in "War in the 21st Century.")
Above all, there is the Saddam Hypocrisy.
So far, administration defenders have managed to brush aside embarrassing wounds, like the WMD-lies and the horrific torture scandal, by portraying anti-war activists as somehow pro-Saddam.
"Hussein was a mass murderer," they cry. "But you would have left him in power, free to keep murdering and persecuting and spreading Hitler-style poison."
How could liberals have allowed this towering and monstrous cheat to stand? The simplest — and utterly devastating — answer would be to hurl almost the same words back at Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et.al.
"Hussein was a mass murderer, and you DID leave him in power, when you had him in your hands, back in 1991. You deliberately left him with his heel on the necks of the Iraqi people, free to keep murdering and persecuting and spreading Hitler-style poison. Gen. Schwarzkopf could have flicked him like a mosquito, even without going anywhere near Baghdad. Instead we had to come back 12 years later, squandering our boys and girls and our treasury and our alliances, in order to fix your mistake.
"Maybe we were honor bound to correct that horrible blunder — that stain upon our honor. But should we trust you to come up with the plan to do it?
"Don't you dare preach to us about Saddam."
Let's explore that a bit further. Instead of allowing the anti-war debate to focus on whether we should have left Saddam in charge, it could be re-couched as an issue of competence. Can anyone doubt that we eliminated Saddam from power in the most costly, most violent and least efficient way that anyone could possibly imagine?
"Hindsight alone is not wisdom. And second-guessing is not a strategy." — President Bush during his State of the Union Address, January 2006.
Um... true enough. On the other hand, looking back at an endless litany of wretched blunders — stretching back to the Great Shame betrayal of Iraq in 1991 — is relevant to the issue of credibility! It has bearing on whether we should want the same people who made those blunders (or worse, planned exactly what happened) to be in charge of deciding our next "strategy."
By making this about "anti-stupid-war," liberals can avoid the cliched dichotomy of warmongering versus lefty-peacenik-naivete...
...a set of polar opposites that does not represent the complex discomfort of a vast majority of Americans. Citizens who are rightfully proud of a history spent rescuing other peoples from tyranny! Citizens who — frankly — do not mind some occasional endeavors — even using military force — that assertively spread freedom. The way — for example — we rescued freedom in Europe more than once.
But citizens who can be made to see that these morons are not people to trust with a burnt match, let alone our fine military.
Seriously, does it benefit the antiwar movement to unnecessarily draw the lines of controversy to exclude many Americans. Fellow citizens who may dislike the war for reasons other than yours?
Again, and repeatedly, bring attention back to the scandalous fact that the US is less safe today. Less ready to face a sudden blow than at any point since Pearl Harbor. This is hardly what we were promised after 9/11. Indeed, these issues that might strike a resonant chord with moderate Americans of all parties.
But not if the only alternative is reflexive and habitual opposition to national strength.
There are countless bad consequences to accepting the artificial clichés of "Culture War." Earlier we saw how one of the worst is to lump all aspects of "conservatism" together in a basket of things that liberals must reflexively oppose. This serves the opposition just fine.
For one thing, it helps unite the untidy coalition of the right. Those who may flirt with the idea of defecting from the neocon camp are often driven back into line by this simplistic insistence upon cleanly divided "sides."
Take, for example, the millions of honest conservatives who feel repelled by Bush Administration dishonesty. Many have continued, nevertheless, to support it — holding their noses — in order (for example) to ensure proper control over our borders.
Or take a classic Goldwater conservative who detests the neocon war against science. She may still vote Republican (unhappily) because she fears a "return to big government."
Or take an army captain who dreads what amounts to an ongoing political purge of the U.S. Officer Corps. This patriotic soldier might despise recent, blatant attempts to politicize the traditionally neutral professionals who protect the Constitution every day. Nevertheless, he may keep silent, and even close his eyes, because he feels sure that Democrats are "weak in the war on terror."
In each of these cases, discomfort with Bush Administration corruption may tempt the individual to glance leftward, and see if any comfort or welcome might be found there...
...but it is never offered.
Please note that the neocons have not made the same mistake. Keep an eye open to the number of GOP politicians who prominently display pictures of Martin Luther King on their walls! While in the wilderness, they carefully noted which parts of the liberal agenda had become part of American consensual morality. They then picked their coming wedge issues carefully, conceding those that would only weigh them down in the coming fight.
By remaining light on their feet, neocons manage to pretend that they always supported equal rights and a race-blind society! That they were always in favor of education and upward mobility for women! Even the issue of combat roles for women in the military, divisive a few years ago, has simply slipped into acceptance without comment.
(As for the policy of "don't-ask-don't-tell?" Prominent GOP politicians now seem to be saying: Why, wasn't that our idea, all along?)
When an issue becomes an obvious lost cause, they drop it. They adapt. They make it their own. And they win.
Let me elaborate on some of the wedge issues that could be reversed upon Republicans, if ever the Democrats became interested in winning the right way — by breaking up the Grand Conservative Coalition.
In each of the following brief cases, I will describe how to appeal to a person whose prime "conservative" issue — the thing keeping him loyal to the right — could be turned around.
In each case, imagine a citizen with complex views. In other words, a real person and not a caricature-cliché, crammed to fit the insipid "left-right axis." Maybe some of this person's views are a bit "liberal." Others are "conservative." We have seen that usually, such a person accepts conservatism as a label. This is often because the GOP welcomes one-issue voters, while the left does not.
The irony is that there are many single-issue "conservatives" who should not be supporting the Republican Party, and who would not, if only the facts were made clear.
Take the following examples:
Those wanting control over our borders. It is a reflex truism in the minds of nearly all Americans that Republicans are more likely to supervise our borders and limit illegal immigration. To this date, it has suited the psychology and political purposes of both left and right to maintain this illusion. Call it a delusion, because the truth is diametrically opposite to this cliché.
In fact, one of Bill Clinton's first acts in office was to double the number of Border Patrol agents in the field, and then to institute the dramatically successful Operation Gatekeeper.
In stark contrast, one of George Bush's earliest measures was to cripple the agency, cutting funding and savagely reducing the actual number of agents on patrol. (as of December 2005, he is finally promising to restore those cuts, as one conservative wing starts to take notice of what he did.) These facts are clear, historical and profoundly telling. And yet, nobody tells!
Actually, there are some simple and logical underlying reasons for this difference. Democrats want legal, not illegal, immigration, since this may supply new minority voters. Some (not all) GOP elites prefer illegal immigrants, who will work cheaply and demand few rights. Still, these reasons matter far less than the blatant pattern of action. Moreover, despite this clear record, it would take serious effort ever to convince "border conservatives" that it is true.
Anyway what Democrat will even try to explain this fact to nativists, only to be labeled "intolerant" by his own side?
On the other hand, silence is fine by Karl Rove! Chalk up several hundred thousand "conservative" voters who might possibly have reconsidered their votes, if anyone ever showed them the truth.
Those wanting efficient government and balanced budgets. Yes, this should be a "no-brainer." Clinton balanced budgets while Bush busted them. And yet, somehow, the right has succeeded in painting the fiscal prudence of the 1990s as a fluke, or credited it to the Gingrich Congress.
The point could be hammered home, by pointing out many other parameters that also correlate with good, prudent administration. For example, these were the only years when the number of federal employees (non-military) remained static.
The years when tax compliance improved.
Years when the actual number of federal regulations went down! (Under Gore's "Reinventing Government" program. Compare this to the skyrocketing of regulation today.)
When the rich got richer while paying their fair share of taxes. (Today's Iraq War is the first in all of our history in which the wealthy did not assent to help pay for a conflict that sons and daughters of the poor would have to fight.)
When the number of secrets held by government actually decreased. (No other metric shows more clearly good intentions. It is laborious to declassify documents, yet the Clinton Administration allowed light into many new corners.)
Contrast this with today's secrecy-obsessed administration. It could not be clearer. And yet, which Democrat has dared to make it an issue?
I could go on. There are dozens of potential Wedge Issues that could be used to split up the Conservative Coalition... a trick that top GOP operatives began using against the Liberal Coalition, decades ago. Ambassadors and olive branches could be extended, one-by-one, to groups of single-issue conservatives, attempting to lure them away from Rove's fantastically contradictory coalition.
Meanwhile, the wedge issues that have been used against Democrats might be blunted.
For example, imagine a Democratic Convention at which a moderate anti-abortion activist were invited to speak. Picture someone who supports the right to choose, but who also feels that choice can and should include incentives to pick other, better options than abortion. It is possible for a sincere person to support womens' rights while also speaking from a deep moral conviction that we need a better prioritization, including a heartfelt appeal to use education, etc., to reduce the number of abortions toward nil.
Would this kind of sincerity betray any basic Democratic principle? More fundamentally: would it hurt to say, across the land, that "we will not eject you if you disagree with us over any one thing, so long as your overall goal is the same as ours. To build a better world."
Try compiling a list of America's mightiest or most noble achievements during the 20th Century. Get people to rank them in order of importance. For example, almost any decent, modern person would give the following items a score of nine or better, on a scale of one to ten:
Ending Jim Crow laws and blatant racial discrimination.
Empowering women to vote, become educated, and hold professions.
Increasing basic literacy from 35% to 95% and college attendance from 2% to over 50%.
Rural electrification, rural roads, rural schools.
Freedom of information & sunshine laws.
Promoting democracy overseas.
Antitrust rules to encourage market competition.
Increasing the number of engineers, doctors and scientists 1000 fold.
Lifting both our allies & enemies back up after war.
Eliminating most contamination from food and drugs.
The National Park System.
Crop stabilization programs to save family farms.
Deregulating major industries like trucking, banking, telecommunications, airlines.
Reducing or eliminating the lock on power and justice that local gentry had in every village, from the dawn of civilization.
Landing on the Moon.
One could go on and on, listing accomplishments of the most impressive nation the world has ever seen.
Now here is the amazing fact: not one of the items listed above had its roots in the post-1910 Republican Party! In most cases, the item in question was passed over furious resistance by the GOP. Most of them have firm roots in liberalism.
In fairness, a few of these notions do have tendril-roots in the GOP of Teddy Roosevelt (part of that Party's Progressive wing, which was purged following the election of 1912). And a few others were bipartisan. Certainly one could add the Interstate Highway system — a collegial product of a Republican President and Democratic Congress. I would even call Nixon-to-China impressive enough to add to the list. And... even though it grates to see conservatives give Ronald Reagan's end-game all the credit for the success of George Marshall's long range game plan of Containing Communism, it would be churlish not to admit that Reagan's risky gamble of pushing hard at the last moment miraculously did have rapid and productive effects.
Still, as far as tracing the original idea and impetus behind any great, post-1910 American accomplishment, those that are directly and solely attributable to the GOP are virtually nil.
No, I am not calling conservatism useless. Coming up with bold new ideas is not really conservatism's job — holding on to what should not be thrown out with the bath water! That's a valuable service that true conservatives can rightfully claim credit for. Still, with neocons railing and spewing venom at liberalism, it is perfectly reasonable to spit back with: "Look at this list of accomplishments! Where were you?"
Or better yet, ask them to pick from this list, and say which items they wish never happened! Dare them to pick some they would reverse.
Did you say that Containing Communism was a "liberal" endeavor? Yes, I did.
Let's step for a moment into the Way-Back Machine and take a jaunt through time, in order to look at what might be called the Miracle of 1947.
In January of that year, the liberal movement faced a crisis of conscience.
Having recently witnessed the cruelty of Soviet repression in Eastern Europe, and especially Stalin's savage suppression of trade unionists in every conquered nation, several groups — notably the AFL and CIO — began calling for a fierce policy of anti-Communism. Knowing full well that this would alienate the left wing of the Democratic Party, where many still nursed delusions about socialism, these activists girded themselves for a necessary civil war. One that would sever friendships and require wrenching choices.
Few Americans today have any idea how the ultimately successful policy of containment — showing firm but calm resolution in the face of Soviet expansionism — became US grand strategy for the second half of the 20th Century. We have discussed how, over on the right, Ronald Reagan, is given all the credit for his risky but successful end game. But it was George Marshall and Harry Truman who forged the overall plan. One that (despite tragic errors like Vietnam) worked beyond all reasonable expectation, outlasting the Marxist fever without triggering nuclear war.
What bears noting is that Truman and Marshall were actively hindered, at the time, by the Republican Party of Taft and Vandenburg, who wanted a return to traditional American isolationism.
So, how could the Democratic leadership take this bold step? Only with powerful political backing. Support that came — with ferocious propelling energy — from the U.S. Labor Movement. Yes, that's the truth. Anti-communism and containment are indisputably the successful offspring of a branch of liberalism that opened its eyes, and willingly acknowledged that the left can contain monsters.
Moreover, they went further. They accepted a basic principle of citizenship: When your "side" contains monsters, it is your duty, as a patriot and as a decent member of civilization, to stand up and repudiate them — no matter how painful that repudiation might be.
That is what they did — those activists of the AFL-CIO and the Americans for Democratic Action. Even though it hurt. They did it for the sake of a decent, democratic civilization. They did that before turning their attention to other matters, such as civil rights, womens' rights, expansion of university education, and all the other reforms that were desperately needed by a flawed America. A country that had much to fix, before it could rightfully claim moral superiority.
Hey had no intention of letting up on the drive for reform. But first, they stood up as patriots to make it clear where they stood. Against leftist madness and for America.
We are now living in a time when conservatives face a similar crisis of faith, duty and citizenship. Many of them are coming, gradually, to realize that the right contains monsters! Some even recognize a duty to repudiate those monsters. Only... where is the courageous core group of American conservatives who are willing to stand up and say this publicly?
Where are the conservatives who will speak up and denounce the secrecy and corruption, the hypocrisy and betrayal, by kleptocratic and apocalyptic monsters who bear as much similarity to Barry Goldwater as a vampire does to a vegetarian?
Two hundred prominent American conservatives could save America tomorrow, by saying "this is not conservatism!"
Just two hundred or so. By denouncing "culture war" in favor of a return to the eclectic politics of reasoned argument. In favor of modernity and the Enlightenment. In favor of science and openness. In favor of a free enterprise that fosters lots and lots of small, entrepreneurial businesses, instead of a new baronial class of parasitic CEOs.
Just two hundred could do it, setting the stage for a 2008 election that faces policies against each other, argued by decent men and women, instead of pitting rural America in bitter hatred of its cities. Instead of pitting faith against science. Instead of stoking fear and a state of "war," when fewer Americans have died from terror in a decade than die of car accidents in any given month.
But it won't happen. In what must be the ultimate repudiation of all of conservatism, the entire movement has been exposed as hollow, empty, devoid of courage or true patriotism.
Because, even in the face of the incredible, the unbelievable, the monstrous, the utterly corrupt, it cannot come up with even 200 true Americans with enough guts to stand up for their civilization, the way thousands of liberals did, in 1947.
Still, all bitterness aside, this should remain the aim of all decent Americans — especially true liberals.
To reach out.
To tug upon the conscience of true conservatives.
To beckon across the artificial insanity of a so-called left-right chasm. Calling (with respect) upon our fellow citizens to do their duty.
In another essay I compile a list of two dozen practical suggestions and potential tactics that might help lead to a Democratic victory — not only in electoral terms, but in the far more valuable sense of defeating the very notion of "culture war" in American society.
For example, why not take advantage of one of the most vivid and effective piece of political/theatrical polemic in recent decades, the 1992 Republican Contract With America? Might there be ways to both pay homage to that brilliant move and use it as a weapon against GOP hypocrisy? In a different article I describe how a truly agile Democratic Party might create its own "contract," deliberately contrasting with Newt Gingrich's version, achieving four ends:
FIRST: Show a willingness to accept good ideas, even from sincere opponents.
NEXT: Dramatically illustrate how the good parts of the 1992 "contract" were utterly betrayed.
THEN: Illustrate how the bad parts — those that served the interests of a narrow aristocracy — were the only parts that got relentlessly instituted.
FINALLY: Use this device to add half a dozen planks that the Democrats vow utterly to enact, showing that the liberal agenda has freshness and purpose, once again.
But this suggestion — and others — is delineated elsewhere. What is important is to note here the general principle: All of them revolve around a central theme of agile-but-principled pragmatism.
Instead of falling into Karl Rove's traps, again and again, trying to thunder straight ahead like sumo wrestlers, progressive citizens and politicians should learn the tricks of judo: Step aside from standard dogmas, evade the trap of too-rigid positions, take advantage of the opposition's contradictions, and offer incentives to uncomfortable elements of their coalition, in order to break its cohesion.
In order to do this, we would have to posit that moderates and decent conservatives are fellow citizens, possibly with genuine and intelligent points to raise. That they may even be right about a few things, or at least have concerns that can be addressed through give and take. Even through compromise.
This reaching-out could entice millions away from their reluctant, lesser-of-evils support of neocon mania. It could marginalize the fanatics of the right.
Alas, though, it would require marginalizing some of our own war-fighters and demonizers. And that won't be easy.
To begin, we must study what those arch-conservatives of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s schooled themselves to do... on their way toward mutating into neocons. And of course, therein lies a warning about what can happen to you even — especially — if your side wins.
It is not necessary to copy the worst parts of those brilliant neocon strategies. The cheating and bribery and secretive manipulations.
But it is essential to learn from their clear-eyed cleverness and willingness to try new things.
Otherwise, they will be "clever" in ruling us for a long, long time to come.
Copyright © 2006 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Despite the title of this article, what you will read here is nearly as critical of liberal activists as it is of the neoconservatives. Indeed from one point of view — political effectiveness — can anybody seriously claim that Democrats can't learn a lot by analyzing the techniques — both admirable and despicable — that helped today's neocons to take over a major party, most of the media, and all three branches of the US Government?
Strictly in terms of practical realpolitik, that accomplishment merits respect, the kind that any foe ought to give — if grudgingly — to opponents who have reinvented themselves, adopted new messages, recognized and seized new opportunities. The kind of respect that precedes an effective effort to fight back. One thing is guaranteed: Zealots of both the far left and far right will not be amused.
"The Republican Party's Neocon Re-Invention" is published in full here.
This article is part of a series of economic and political essays that offer cantankerously tilted perspectives on the United States. The fight to restore and re-invigorate a confident nation requires that we speak up against every sort of dogmatism — even those toward which we feel kinship.
I do not intend to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns me is the profound differences in political methodologies that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another, any one person's political preferences should not be the issue.
For too long dogmatists have oversimplified and poisoned our political and social discourse. Discourse should be about solving complex problems, not preening and shouting that "My ideology is better than your ideology!"
Elsewhere, I go into detail about the problems facing the Libertarians and Democrats, but this series is one where I unabashedly take sides. There is no doubt that the fate of American democracy demands a major change in our political and economic strategies and tactics. Our ancestors fought down attempted tyrannies in order to keep their miracle alive. They demand no less from us, when faced by a pack of proto-tyrants and monsters. Allowing this to happen has been a terrible mistake.
David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"
David Brin, "Betraying America's State of Readiness"
David Brin, "Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?"
David Brin, "How Progressives Can Win Back America"
David Brin, My Questionnaire on Ideology
David Brin, "The Real Culture War, Part 1: Defining the Battlefield"
David Brin, "War in the 21st Century"
Grist Staff, "One Step Backward, Two Steps Back"
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (book)
David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
All the Ways in the World to Reach David Brin