How the American left really died
The New York Times, that modern-day Pravda of left-liberalism, recently ran a review of a book purporting to explain the demise of the American left. The explanation given—that leftists failed, for unknown reasons, to maintain an “animating vision” of socialist utopianism—is, as one would expect giv1en the Pravdan nature of the NYT, absurd, but the reviewer inadvertently mentioned a real explanation for said demise.
The left generally failed, according to Kazin, when it emphasized atheism, collectivism and ideological purity. It has been more successful when taking the form of broad, heterogeneous movements struggling for individual rights. Witness the rise of gay marriage, arguably today’s most effective left-leaning social campaign. Viewed as a utopian dream, it promises to transform the institution of marriage. But viewed as a civil rights matter, it simply aims to include more people in an existing institution.
By this statement, one can easily predict, given any leftist policy goal, whether it will succeed or fail: it will succeed if it involves expanding individual freedom, commonly known euphemistically as “civil rights”, and it will fail otherwise. On its face, this may seem like an odd statement; leftism, after all, is fundamentally collectivist, so why are its successes limited to a domain in which it does not lie? But it fits the reality of the situation well enough that, despite its initial counterintuitiveness, there must be a way to make sense of it.
And, in fact, there is: leftists succeed in implementing any policy goal that moves American society further toward the liberal ideal of maximized individual liberty. (Americans may be confused by this statement, since that ideal is much more commonly associated with libertarianism than liberalism in America, but libertarianism is simply a subspecies of liberalism that believes nongovernmental forces cannot restrict liberty.)
A clear example of this is American feminism, which, according to Christina Sommers, can be divided into two camps: ‘egalitarian’ (that is, liberal) feminism, currently the dominant philosophy in feminism, and ‘conservative’ feminism, the illiberalism of which has gotten it written out of the historical record, despite having been historically far more effective than egalitarianism:
Willard, a suffragist and leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, is another once esteemed figure in women’s history who is today unmentioned and unmentionable. Willard brought mainstream women into the suffrage movement, and some historians credit her with doing far more to win the vote for women than any other suffragist. But her fondness for saying things like “Womanliness first—afterwards what you will” was her ticket to historical obliquy.
Approved feminist founders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony promoted women’s suffrage through Wollstonecraft-like appeals to universal rights. Their inspirations were John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Wollstonecraft herself. Stanton wrote affectingly on “the individuality of each human soul,” and on a woman’s need to be the “arbiter of her own destiny.”
What then, in practice, is leftism in America? It cannot be proper leftism, because proper leftism, as per Kazin, has not been successful; what has been successful is liberalism, which commonly disguises itself as leftism. This may be confusing to Americans, who have most likely never encountered a proper leftist and, if they have, were most likely too distracted by the rhetorical similarities between the two to tell the difference. (Liberalism and leftism are both progressivist ideologies, but they have one easily noticeable difference: the eschaton that liberalism would immanentize is one of atomistic individuals with maximum license and no connections to anything or anyone, with the possible exception of the benevolent State, whereas leftist utopian projects demonstrate at least a faint grasp of human nature. More on that later.)
American ‘leftism’, considering its in actu effects and its rhetoric of “civil rights” and “individual liberty”, can only be described as liberalism, or, more insightfully, as ultra-Americanism:
But when we look at the actual political motifs in the two kinds of anti-Americanism, we see very little in common – besides of course hatred of America.
Clearly it’s this word anti-American that’s confusing us. If we split it in half we can see the trend clearly. To be counter-American is to resist American political theory. To be ultra-American is to accept American political theory so completely that you become more American than America itself, and you feel America is not living up to her own principles.
But what is American political theory? It is, quite trivially, the dominant political ideology in America. Considering the history of American politics, it is clear the American political theory is fundamentally liberal, and that said history can be summarized as the bringing in line of American society to a distinctly un-nuanced reading of that oft-quoted clause in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
Liberty is license, happiness is hedonism, and our political discourse has been shaped in such a way that liberal hegemony currently goes unchallenged. The left, then, did not die due to lack of an “animating vision”; it was co-opted by liberalism.