There’s an old joke where three statisticians go hunting deer. The first one shoots at a buck and misses five feet to the left. The second one shoots at a buck and misses five feet to the right. The third one shouts, “we got ’em!”
To me, that’s what politics is, more or less. Think of every political opinion that is prevalent in our system, balance on a long beam. The only way to achieve positive equilibrium is if you have equal balance along both sides. If someone says that the federal free lunch program is a sign of creeping fascism and should be abolished, it is not sufficient for others to say “Well, we believe in this program in principle, but maybe we could make a few cuts here and there.” What is required is that some people say, “In fact, all Americans, not just school children, should be eligible for federal lunch subsidies.” Otherwise, the whole thing starts to slide further and further towards the anti-school lunch fascism side.
Since the rise of the early reform liberals in the late 1970s or so, we have not had equal balance. At some point, it was decided that the leftward swing of the 1960s had gone terribly awry, and that it was time to push back towards the center. You could chalk this up to the Cold War, to stagflation, to anger over the culture wars, whatever. It happened that this was happening at the same time as the seeds sown by the Goldwater candidacy were fully sprouting, and the Reagan Democrat was born. That led directly to the Clinton era, welfare reform, and an American political scene which has a centrist party and a conservative party, which we operate in still today.
Now, I have a particular attitude towards the change described above, and it won’t surprise you that I think it was always and only a mistake. But surely anyone should see that, even if it was the right thing in 1980, that was a long time ago. It’s not 1980 anymore. Few people believe that our economic problems stems from labor unions that are too powerful. Few people believe that capital is paying too high taxes to generate growth. Those are not our problems. And yet Michael Kinsley is still Michael Kinsley-ing– in The New Republic, of course! Slate is Slate-ing like our political system is afflicted by too much left-wing power. Seriousness, in many contexts, is still defined by one’s willingness to find a left-wing position and declare it dangerous, or childish, or unworkable, or naive. And I simply cannot understand why.
The people I wrote about recently happen to hate the Tea Party. They should. But they don’t seem to understand: the conditions that allowed for the rise of the Tea Party are the result of an American political scene that has invested desperate effort in denying any voice or agency to a legitimately left-wing alternative. Of course Obama can’t pass his center-left agenda! There is a crazy-far-right dragging the conversation right, and a right driving the conversation right, and a middle halfheartedly trying to keep the conversation there, and a center-left vainly trying to hold the line while simultaneously telling leftists not to join in. Does this sound like a winning strategy for tug-of-war, to you?
So what I would say, to market liberals or the center-left or however you want to define it, is simple: you don’t have to be a lefty yourself. You certainly don’t have to hold your fire when you are arguing with people with whom you disagree. But I do think that you should make space for genuinely left-wing argument, and not to reflexively dismiss it as inherently unserious, which has been the tendency in American politics for better than three decades. The right wing is well funded. They are always going to be able to carve out mediums in which to express themselves simply through the force of their dollars. A new American left is nascent and can easily be strangled in its crib. Don’t participate in that.
I talk to young political types all the time. And there are very many people who are neither full-blown socialists like me, but who are far more amenable to redistribution and similar than the average liberal in the media. But they see the particular nature of the pushback against those opinions– not just disagreement but mockery, being pushed out of the conversation, being declared unserious– and are forced to choose between arguing in fringe spaces or modifying their views. And what these kids want, desperately, is to be in the conversation, to be one of the people who talk and are listened to.
Maybe my theory of politics is wrong. Could be. But I don’t think so. And at a time when so many are asking what to do about the recalcitrant madness of the extreme right, I think it’s time for people to consider whether it’s possible to fix that problem without balance. Not out of sympathy or principle or friendship. Just as a way of getting what you want.