The Neoconification of the Left

Over at the Wonk Room, Matt Duss highlights a great quote from Obama’s Nobel speech:

At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — and condemnation without discussion — can carry forward a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

Of course, the right does not have a monopoly on “the satisfying purity of indignation.” Indeed, if anything kills the left’s recent resurgence, it will be our surrender to that very thing.

The thing that’s so disastrous about the once-reigning, now thankfully moribund doctrine of neoconservatism was that it was superficially compelling–Democracy is good! Evil regimes are bad! The former should blow up the latter!–while, in fact, being outright disastrous thanks to its refusal to accept basic realities, and the hard moral choices that come along with that acceptance. Now we’re seeing something similar in certain corners of the ideological movement I’ve called home all my life: the acknowledgment that progressive reform is good and that a lot of what Obama and Congress has been doing is not good, but without letting that morph into a moral understanding much more nuanced than fighting the man versus providing aid and comfort to the man.

Of course, one thing that’s nice about having a binary conception of ethical choices is that it makes it very easy to frame your platform in starkly moralistic terms, and limit your opponent’s capacity to do the same. This was a cruel irony in the neoconservative case for the Iraq War, since the ultimate decision to go to war was, by any reasonable standard, horribly immoral. Not only was the war initiated under false pretenses, but it led to the preventable deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands and destabilized the region.

Now look at where we are today: there’s an internal debate raging among progressives over whether remain engaged with the Democratic establishment and the Obama administration, or whether to simply opt out of two-party politics entirely, because George W. Obama, etc. Once again, the latter choice is more emotionally satisfying, and certainly easier to make the case for in black-and-white ethical terms: Obama’s escalating in Afghanistan! He hasn’t rolled back all of the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses! The health care bill is weak! How can we possibly support an individual or party who has conceded this much ground on progressive issues?

I don’t think left-wing critics of this attitude (myself included) have done enough to frame their own objections in moral terms. But make no mistake, this is a matter of morality. Because indulging in “the satisfying purity of indignation” and simply withdrawing from the mainstream channels available for political action (such as electing major party candidates that we share some common interests with and supporting compromise bills that accomplish some but not all of what we would like) will have simply disastrous consequences in the long run. To name one: a GOP resurgence in 2010 could doom the push for legislation dealing with climate change. That’s not just something that affects us–it affects the entire world.

Plus, I’m not sure if the left could come back from ritual seppuku like that. There’s a reason, after all, why the evangelical right always comes back to the Republican Party, even when they don’t get everything they want–if evangelical leaders really followed through on their perennial threats to form a third party, it would be a joke, a historical footnote, and the GOP wouldn’t kowtow to them on anything anymore. Similarly, if we won’t do business with the Democrats, what are our options? Cynthia McKinney? We might as well just put on Guy Fawkes masks and start shrieking about the gold standard for all the influence we’ll have.

The point is, now that we’ve got a slippery grasp on some degree of political influence, it’s time to grapple with what the neocons never could: that in the realm of politics, every single choice you make involves some degree of moral compromise, and the art of politics is all about managing and minimizing that compromise. To be supposedly “uncompromising” is exactly the wrong way to do that: it’s tantamount to crippling yourself, and your whole agenda as a result. And because I believe the progressive agenda is still largely one that needs to be implemented for the welfare of the United States, I consider acts of self-hobbling to be severe moral failures.

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3 Responses

  1. Firstly, nothing that is anti-American can be good or moral and, therefor, nothing that Progressives is good or moral and no Progressive is such either.

    Secondly, what difference does it make what candidates you support? America has reawakened and we Americans will no longer let your sort have your way and will never let you destroy our country. If needs be and no other solution is available, we’ll exterminate the lot of you and anything that you might have spawned.

    have a nice day, but wake up to reality.

    • ‘Cause nothing says “American values” like a mass pogrom against people you disagree with.

      You have a nice day too!

  2. “We might as well just put on Guy Fawkes masks and start shrieking about the gold standard for all the influence we’ll have.” Whether or not I agree with everything you state in this post, I think I might be in love with you based on that line alone. LOLing by myself over here…

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