[A follow-up to this article has been published here. It further explains what is meant by “the left” in this article and to what extent dangerous views held by leftist intellectuals are reflected in the average Democratic voter. – SM]
What would the Democratic Party do if it truly wanted power over a prosperous, growing, healthy country? What would it do if it truly hungered for the indisputable claim that it had conquered the last recession, set the US back on sound footing diplomatically, and secured our nation against the threats of Islamic totalitarianism and nuclear aggression by dictatorships like North Korea? It is a seldom-asked question worthy of consideration. Perhaps out of a self-destructive desire to seem conciliatory, perhaps because of their own middling appeals to statism and refusals to embrace capitalism, Establishment conservatives are prone to interpret the policies of their leftist rivals as economically irrational but well-intentioned attempts at needed reforms. They characterize Democrats as power-hungry and dismissive of “traditional values”, but they rarely openly question Democrats desire for America to succeed. Meanwhile, more Tea-Party-minded Republicans and those—unfortunately, if somewhat accurately—now best described as the “angry right” indulge Mephistophelian conspiracy theories, reading elaborate and far-reaching schemes behind the left’s every move.
In truth, there is more substance today to the latter of these theories than the former, but the “angry right”’s lack of respect for and understanding of the role of philosophical ideas obscures their understanding of the process. In their search for evidence hidden in some smoke-filled back room in Washington, they forego the more available theory: that the leftist path to control is not fulfilled through elaborate thought and ingenious design but rather through the failure to think and the refusal to embrace reason; that socialism in the twenty-first century, far from thriving on a coherent ideology, is the result of a collapsing belief system—one that fell with Berlin but that might still, all these years later, drag the Western world down with it.
When does an ideology die? Is it when its last adherent passes away or gives up? When there are no more political parties campaigning for its realization? When it is no longer taught in the universities? These are common metrics, but I would venture another standard, one suggested by the writings of Ayn Rand: when its infeasibility is demonstrated in full, upon the failure of its most consistent adherents. By that standard, socialism and collectivism as ideologies died in 1945, and the Soviet Union and the social democratic countries of today are merely staggering onward, bleeding out, and sustained by whatever portions of their economies are still left free.
Objectors to this view will insist that socialism is alive and well. They will note that, for the first time in a hundred years, a prominent presidential candidate openly describes himself as a socialist. What this omits, however, is the very different nature of socialism from the form in which it began. It is often forgotten today that socialism was a system built on the claim of productive superiority, on the supreme ability of intelligent planners and government officials to direct the economy to a level of productivity that capitalism, they claimed, could not achieve. That claim died in the twentieth century, but along the way a new standard was adopted with the rise of the New Left. These young activists in the 1960s, along with their enablers in academia, were driven by the egalitarian theories of philosophers such as John Rawls. The justification for socialism, they stressed, rested not on productive superiority but on equality. Even if equality meant equal squalor and misery, even if collectivism meant collective suffering and degradation, they clung to these ideas without concern for the consequences and embraced the centrality of the state in society. The New Left argued for socialism for its own sake and, through their prioritization of equality over success, of the environment over man, of need over ability, they accepted whatever destruction of human values might follow. This is not socialism in its original spirit; this is nihilism using socialism as a weapon.
[Edit: Now, does this mean that the left seeks the literal dissolution of the United States, to turn it into a collapsed state? Of course not. When I write of “destruction” and nihilism in this context, I mean the destruction of America qua America–our nation as an idea and in the form in which it has existed since its inception. If the left could pursue its goals entirely unimpeded, there would, of course, nonetheless be a United States (for a time, anyways); this incarnation of the United States, however, would be an entirely different entity than what our Founding Fathers envisioned and created. Eventually, it would either collapse into the stagnation and bitterness of continental Europe’s socialist democracies or destroy itself with wars of plunder when its economy could no longer produce– most likely both. However, the fact that leftists do not set out with the explicit goal of ruining and dissolving the United States does not mean that their actions are not systematically devoted towards that end; nor will the implicit nature of their ideology save them or anyone else from its consequences.]
For many conservatives, it is too strange an idea to think that anyone would choose nihilism, that they might prefer destruction to even the successful maintenance of control. Many conservatives remain determined that the leftist ideal is to seize control over the government, sit atop Capitol Hill, and collect the corrupt rewards of a nation’s productivity. They hesitate to believe that the nihilist spirit of the left is so consuming as to drive its adherents to prioritize destruction and the diminution of the greatest country in the history of the world, the United States, over their own power. However, even a cursory browsing of leftist positions on everything from entitlements and tax policy to foreign relations and national defense reveals that the assumption that leftists’ ultimate goal is simply the attainment of power is as outdated as the assumption of their “misguided good intentions.”
Consider the subject of entitlements. America in 2015 faces a long menu of concerns as to its economic future, any one of which could put it in dire straits if neglected. Our entitlement programs are expected to enter a deficit in the next two to three years and be bankrupt in perhaps another twelve. The glut of inventories reported in the first quarter of this year and the decline in home sales this summer, combined with uncertain movements by the Fed, appear to justify suspicions that we may soon slide back into recession. As if that were not enough, looming over all of this is the largest national debt in our nation’s history.
Given such challenges, one would think that the left would be proactive in addressing these issues. Not so. In fact, rather than addressing them, leftist pundits and politicians have long been engaged in a broad-sweeping campaign to deny that these are, in fact, problems at all. The current president and both major Democratic presidential candidates behave as if the national debt is a non-issue. They offer no solution to improve the economic well-being of the country but rather race to expand the size of the federal government and its role in healthcare, education, student loans, and—as if the last recession never happened—housing.
If the left truly wanted to maximize its power, would it not want power over an economically productive, thriving country?
The same contradiction is reflected in the left’s views on taxes. Nothing could be more damning to the leftist claim to good intentions or a desire for a productive economy than their continued insistence on higher tax rates. In the 2008 Democratic primary debates, President Obama stated, in an exchange with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, his desire to raise taxes for the purpose of fairness even if it resulted in lower tax revenues and less funding for the government. Consider the betrayal of motives here: if the president was truly an advocate of American prosperity who believed that it could be achieved through the power of government—or even if he cared little for the prosperity of the American people and desired only the expansion of government power—he would want the most well-funded government that a tax policy could provide. He would seek to maximize revenues to the hilt, searching tirelessly for just the right tax rate that would keep revenues as high as possible. Instead, the president expressed a desire for lower tax revenues and therefore a government with less funding, so long as the wealth of some Americans would be diminished. What he demonstrated was a desire to achieve equality for its own sake, equality as an ultimate good even if it amounts to fewer benefits for the poor. An equality borne of destruction. Today’s Democratic candidates are no better, with Bernie Sanders calling for a ninety-percent top marginal tax rate (way, way on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve) and Hillary Clinton already warming up her vilifications of the wealthy.
If the left truly wanted to maximize its power and the power of the state, would it not want to enact policies that maximized revenue and funded as many government programs as possible?
Perhaps most pertinent to current events is the contradiction of leftists’ alleged desire for power set against their determined campaign of diminishing the global power and influence of the United States. The decline in American leadership under the Obama administration has been noted and decried by pundits on both sides of the aisle, members of Congress, and the president’s fellow world leaders. America’s eclectic and unprincipled military policy for the last six years, its predilection for funding and arming unvetted Middle Eastern rebel groups who frequently switch sides to support our enemies, President Obama’s indecisive behavior toward international bullies like Vladimir Putin, and his determination to get a deal—no matter how horrible—with Iran have amounted not simply to neglect of our interests in the international community but a policy of striding purposefully backwards. America today commands less influence than it has in generations, and it is the result not of trying and failing in well-intentioned efforts but of willful self-destruction and self-sacrifice. The Obama administration has seemingly done the impossible in recent years, alienating both Israel and Arab states—driving the leaders of both to either circumvent the White House and appeal directly to Congress (in the case of Israel) or to deny the president’s invitations for a summit (in the case of the Saudi and Gulf State monarchs).
Here again: if the left truly wanted power, would that ambition not extend beyond the borders of our own country, driving it to establish the United States as a center of gravity in international relations? Would it not seek to build the strongest alliances possible with world powers in every region? Would it not want the most formidable military and intelligence services possible?
The examples could continue, but the theme would remain: in every way, the modern American left acts as a destructive force in US domestic and foreign affairs. Contrary to the typical interpretation of this as a mere side effect of its endless pursuit of power, however, a careful look at leftist policies reveals that it often foregoes options that would yield ever more power and support from the American public.
Contrary to popular narratives, FDR’s New Deal did not end the Great Depression, but once the 1942 draft diminished unemployment and afforded Roosevelt’s actions the illusion of success, it served the Democratic Party as one of the most valuable pieces of political capital in American history. Save for the unique case of Eisenhower, a Republican didn’t win the White House for twenty-six years. The very fact that the recovery (although illusory and masked by the effects of military spending) seemed tangible to American voters was more effective than any campaign rhetoric could ever be. Results spoke louder than words.
Fading into the present, nothing would have been more valuable to the Democratic Party during the Obama years than to have spent them focused on careful, genuine, and stable economic recovery unfettered by loyalties to Keynesian doctrine and party lines. By lowering tax rates, reforming entitlements, and strategically managing US foreign relations, President Obama could have walked to reelection with a healthier economy, more regard for his presidency, and a larger federal government to boot! (Not that that is an ideal, mind you.)
Today’s left, however, is satisfied with pandering to and bribing Americans with ever larger and more irrational social welfare programs. Its politicians ride the short-term waves from election to election, searching for ways to alibi their every failure rather than abandoning failed or destructive policies and investing in something that would afford them greater influence for a generation. These are not the actions of strategic thinkers who truly desire the greatest power over the greatest country. These are the meddling acts of scavengers who race to be first in line to cash in on the conning of the American voter.
If the left wanted statism more than stagnation, it would lower taxes to maximize revenue and better fund the bureaucracies it so desperately protects. If the left wanted to secure its power, it would show a genuine concern with the economic health and future of the country, enacting lasting reforms that it could claim credit for to a new generation of American voters. If the left wanted global influence more than the erosion of American stature, it would redouble its commitment to our allies and articulate a meaningful strategy for leadership in the twenty-first century. If the left wanted power more than destruction, it would embrace American greatness and seek to restore the United States in health and stature as the ideal of free peoples everywhere. But perhaps, then, it would cease to be the left.