Monday, July 04, 2005

Imagine an era when the literary critic Lionel Trilling could write: “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition…. [T]here are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” That’s from his 1950 collection of essays, “The Liberal Imagination.” Half a century later and what imagination liberals may have had has all but dried up. They’ve been relegated to waiting for conservatives (whose “impulses” Trilling likened to “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”) to get tired and give up. Even if it takes another half century. With one Supreme Court Justice retiring and another sure to follow in the coming months, it may well be longer.

There’s no arguing there’s a lot wrong with the right, but these days the left is the province of “irritable mental gestures” that stand in for ideas. Remember ABB—Anybody But Bush? Pretty inspiring, eh? Part of the problem is that the left takes a lot for granted, and though loath to admit it, shares with the radical right an often unexamined teleology: the idea that history is an inexorable progression towards an end. While the right is obsessed with a cataclysmic final judgment followed by a universe in which nothing ever changes, the left tends towards a utopianism sans the sword: a world in which everyone’s equal, racial and class disparity are vanquished, and we all live in perfect harmony, amen. Counterintuitive as it is, given finite resources and competing interests, many on the left seem to believe this utopia is inevitable, even imminent. A foregone conclusion. If only Bush had been defeated we’d be halfway there by now!

The problem is, as we are forever finding out, Democracy offers no such final resting place. Far from promising to dissolve dispute it opens the door to ever more interests fighting over ever fewer resources. Democracy is the one form of government that encourages endless dispute. It’s a lot of work. And the work is never finished. The ground rules are about the only things that don’t change—in fact, they were written precisely to accommodate change. The democratic spirit is actually a habit of mind that must be learned and practiced by each new generation, and taught to the next so that they can negotiate for themselves change in their time. It requires trust—in each other, and in the future.

There is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about many of the issues we are debating these days: if our politics were truly secular, a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage, two so-called “wedge” issues, could easily cross party lines. The failure to articulate that the struggle is not between liberals and conservatives in a democratic society but between the democratic process itself and the totalitarian will to power is only the most glaring evidence of complacency among today’s Democrats. Now it looks like we’ll all be paying for their complacency for at least the next half-century.


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