A Clarification on the Nature of Social Movements

Yesterday, September 10th, I published an article entitled “The Left’s Priority: Destruction over Control.” The theme of the article was the ironic contrast between the characterization of the American left as power-hungry statists who desire control above all else and seek to perpetually aggrandize the size and powers of government for its own sake and for their own enrichment while, at the same time, the left continue to pursue policy goals that diminish the stature of the United States and consistently choose their own dogmatic economic mantras rather than good policies for which they could claim credit and personal, political gain. One need spend little time around conservatives to hear it said that leftists want ever more control over the economy and Americans’ private lives. To a great extent, I do not disagree. The essence of my article was to highlight the trend in the last several decades for leftists, informed by the ideals of the New Left, to forego opportunities for greater empowerment in favor of other policies. The one trait that those other policies have in common is that they diminish the well-being of the United States—economically, diplomatically, or otherwise.

Before I go forward, I want to make clear: this is not a retraction-of or a step backward from one single point in that editorial. Most of the responses that I have gotten for the article were strongly supportive, but there seem to be voices of concern who think that I have rashly mischaracterized the nature of the left. I simply want to rectify here certain misconceptions that may be had by those who are not regular readers of this publication and to make clear just what I mean when I refer to “the left.”

When I write that “the left” or “leftists” are pursuing a program of action that prioritizes the destruction and diminution of American power over even their own control, I am not writing of the rank-and-file of the American left, the average voter or politically conscientious citizen who happens to vote Democrat. I am writing of the left as a movement driven by an ideology. All political movements and programs, from the factions that set forth the founding of Athens to the warring parties of modern American politics, are driven by their intellectuals—those who set down the ideas that guide them. An ideology is a social, economic, and/or political program devoted to the attainment of a particular end. It is the translation of philosophical understandings and values into the crafting of a social system. The articulation of such a program is the work of intellectuals. Guided by philosophers, intellectuals are the engine of any movement. They set the course for a culture and establish the array of ideas and options that politicians have to choose from in managing a society. That is what is meant when I write of “the left.”

That said, we come to the curious case of the rank-and-file. The rank-and-file of any movement—whether politicians, activists, voters, etc.—inherit the ideas set forth by the intellectuals. The influence of these ideas permeates the books they read, the commentators in the news that they watch, the art that they consume, and even their conceptions of themselves and their fellow man. It is important to recognize, however, that as diverse as intellectuals are in their views, the average citizen is often quite eclectic in his own sense of the world and his convictions. His fundamentals are very often inconsistent and contradictory, derived from multiple sources. It takes a keen mind and a conscientious person to resolve his own internal inconsistencies with clarity and forthrightness. Many people, whether on the right or left, follow general trends of belief and often rally around sets of beliefs united only by the common denominator of having been endorsed by their party of choice.

The result of this process is that such individuals are not necessarily exemplary of the true spirit of the ideology held by their party or movement. Relating this to the article published yesterday, I would say that the vast majority of American leftists—to speak to them and hear their views—are absolutely well intentioned and love their country. They are, far more often than not, simply persuaded of some wrong ideas about economics and the proper moral purpose of government. However, being the rank-and-file, they do not set the tone for that movement. Tragically, that tone is set by leftist intellectuals in universities, research institutions, media institutions, publishing houses, etc., who are far more in line with the nihilistic vision of the New Left than the average Democratic voter. This is how political movements and ideologies have always been. Strikingly few conservatives could detail to you the philosophical lineage of their party’s views, but they hold to them. It is likewise true even in the most fervent, extreme cases. Nazis in the 1930s could not have explained the philosophical origins of their worldview from Plato to Kant and how it was mediated to them through the German philosophers. How many Marxists can explain the synthesis of Lutheran salvation theology and Hegelianism that gave birth to Marx’s economic thought? And yet, they nonetheless live and die for it. In the end, it is ideas that set the path of a party and, when that party is dominant, of the country that it leads. No measure of good intentions or well-meaning ignorance by the average voter can outweigh this fact.

Conservatives act to their own detriment if they ignore the changing tone of the Democratic Party today and the nature of the American left in the twenty-first century. It is not the party of FDR, one that stood firm against totalitarianism in Europe; it is too concerned that America’s strength is an imposition on the sovereignty of nations that hang dissenters in public squares. It is not the party of Truman, willing to scale back the scope of government when it grows too large and threatens the well being of American workers; it is too busy ensuring that there is a government program for each and every demographic in the United States, ready to buy their votes when the time comes. And it is not the party of Kennedy, who cut taxes in order to raise revenue because he acknowledged that excessive taxes make it more difficult to fund the government programs he sought to create. We may have significant disagreements with those programs, but we can respect the honesty of Kennedy in acknowledging basic economic truths.

So, if conservatives are apt to disagree with my assessment, if they see my appraisal of the left’s trajectory as alarmist and absurd, then I welcome any explanation as to why a party that allegedly desires the utmost control over society through the machinery of government is diminishing the power of that government diplomatically, reducing the available funds for government programs through its tax policies, inviting crisis through a looming threat of unfunded liabilities, and perpetuating growth-destroying, abusive regulations and controls. If my estimation of the role of New Left nihilism in this process is wrong, then the ball is in their court, and they must establish their own hypothesis as to why the left does not behave like a rational, power-seeking movement that seeks to hold sway over the most powerful nation that it can possibly build. I await their answers and stand by my own.

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