Left and Right

LEFT AND RIGHT….Via Praktike, Michael Walzer has an interesting essay in the current issue of Dissent. He argues that over the past few decades the basic temperaments of left and right in the United States have swapped places with each other:

….the first crossover: ideological certainty and zeal have migrated to the right….Most of us on the near-left live in a complex world, which we are not sure we understand, and we move around in that world pragmatically, practicing a politics of trial and error. We defend policies like Social Security, which have worked pretty well, and try to make them work a little better. We want more redistributive tax and welfare systems, but we are not Bolshevik egalitarians-even if our opponents are Bolshevik inegalitarians. We opposed the Iraq War but are painfully unsure about how to get out and when. National health insurance is the most radical proposal that I’ve heard from American liberals in recent years, and it’s a European commonplace.

….the second crossover: ideological uncertainty and skepticism about all-out solutions to social problems have migrated to the left. This must have something to do with 1989 and the collapse of communism ? though I don’t think that the left, near or far, has even begun to come to grips with the disaster that was communism. Perhaps the second crossover is also the product of the (very incomplete) success of social democracy in Europe and New Deal liberalism here, of civil rights and feminism, even of multiculturalism. Successes of this sort don’t leave us without an agenda, but they may leave us without the kind of agenda that makes for passionate conviction and zealous endeavor.

I’ve made a similar argument before, and I think there’s something to it. To a large extent, despite the triumphalism of the right, liberalism has won most of the big debates in this country. Sure, we’ve only gotten 80% or 90% of what we set out to get half a century ago, but it’s hard to bring a lot of passion to the fight for the final 10 or 20%. The reason liberalism seems lackluster these days is that with the exception of the radical left, which is mostly ignored, garden variety liberals don’t have all that much to complain about.

Conversely, conservatives do. They don’t have a constructive program so much as a seething rage to tear down the liberal experiment, something they really haven’t had much success at. The result is an explosive frustration that surfaces in things like the Terri Schiavo case or the recent “Justice Sunday” assault on the judiciary. But as polls clearly show, this kind of stuff doesn’t go over well with the American public. There may be some support for changes at the margins, but not for wholesale revolution.

In the end, then, we have a stalemate. The left in America has limited energy because its goals are fairly modest and its story is disjointed. The right has energy and vision to spare but its goals aren’t widely supported. Someone ? or something ? is likely to come along in the near future and smash this stalemate, but what? Or who?