News & Politics

Purity and Power


America’s premiere right-wing journal, National Review, backs George W. Bush this week and urges “the faithful to do the same.” The exhortation seems unnecessary. Conservatives are united behind a man they regard as a moderate. How can William F. Buckley and his heirs share the same bed as a candidate who says he won’t apply an abortion litmus test to his Supreme Court choices? Adapting a wryly godlike stance, the editors of National Review write that if they’d been “present at the creation, we’d have struck a finer tuning fork to guide George W. But the choice is as it is.”

Most conservatives agree. You may think Bush is further to the right than Gore is to the left, but right-wingers see things differently. They consider Gore a flaming liberal and Bush a flickering conservative at best. Yet 90 percent of Republicans say they are satisfied with Bush, while 86 percent of Democrats say the same of Gore. That four-point spread may be the margin by which Republicans take the White House—especially when you factor in Nader’s strength among liberal-leaning independents. Their antipathy to Gore is Bush’s recipe for victory. (If you don’t believe that, ask the Republican Leadership Council, which is running ads for Nader in swing states.)

The upchuck factor is in play all across the political spectrum, yet you don’t see fundamentalists flocking to Pat Buchanan. They are willing to compromise in order to advance incrementally.

Why is the right more willing than the left to settle for a flawed champion? In part because conservatism has two congruent wings: the reverent and the rich. It’s clear why the wealthy are for Bush, but what about the faithful? They’re not in it for the tax cut—and they’re not naive enough to think Bush will follow their lead on the social issues. They’ve watched pol after pol preach the gospel while winking at the sinful like a regular Clinton. The Christian right isn’t any more thrilled with Bush than the secular left is with Gore. But they’re standing by their man.

Why won’t the left? The question is far from academic, because what’s throwing this election is not just Bush’s seduction of the soft center but the abandonment of the Democratic party by its progressive core. The last-minute drive to get out the African American vote shows how hard the Democrats have to work for it this year. But blacks have a clear interest in defeating Bush, who has already coined the phrase “affirmative access” to replace programs that benefit minorities. However, there’s another group of Democratic defectors that is far less likely to return home, if only because their ox won’t be gored by Bush. Call them the latte left.

Feminists and populists may be front and center in the Nader campaign, but polls show that his average supporter is a well-off, college-educated white male. These legions march under the banner of bread and roses, but their interests are a long way from their ideals. The disjunction between the class they are and the one they think they are makes Nader voters highly susceptible to symbolic gestures, since their politics isn’t guided by tangible needs. They already have economic and social equity, which is why they don’t notice the difference between Bush and Gore.

I don’t dismiss the desire to rebuild a shattered radical movement, the righteous rage at Democrats for adapting crucial planks of the conservative platform, and the determination to create an unapologetic alternative. But why doesn’t the same impulse arise on the right, among those who had to suffer a Republican convention that must have seemed like an Episcopalian healing circle? The upchuck factor is in play all across the political spectrum, yet you don’t see fundamentalists flocking to Pat Buchanan. They are willing to compromise in order to advance incrementally. They understand the Maoist maxim: Dare to win.

The same cannot be said for true believers of the left. In fact, this is now the major difference between the left and right in American politics: their attitude toward power.

It wasn’t always that way. Progressives built major institutions in this country because they navigated the democratic process and tolerated its considerable imperfections. But in the 1960s, a new spirit of refusal took hold of the left. While the black movement kept the faith in electoral politics—and won major gains in civil rights—white radicals were guided by a primal rage at power. This was a pure feeling, sensate and splendid. It was fine for making culture and expanding consciousness, but it didn’t produce enduring political change.

Meanwhile, something else was going on in the Aquarian Age. The right was reconfiguring itself along populist lines. These new conservatives weren’t led by an instinct to rebel. They weren’t drawn to revolution. They were willing to be patient, building a network of like-minded partisans, school board by town council. They spent their money wisely on think tanks and publications. And they grew these affinities into a well-disciplined force that could enlist the resentments of the moment. In 1980, they came to power with Ronald Reagan as their spokesmodel.

You’d think that, after 20 years in exile, the left would have reconsidered its aversion to power. But this reflex persists. We still glorify rebellion and demonize compromise. We still think the purpose of politics is to manifest dreams rather than distribute wealth. And we are still masters of culture, where the imagination rules.The left makes art, while the right makes policy.

The Nader campaign is a great conceptual piece, but it has nothing to do with daring to win. It isn’t built on a mass movement. It hasn’t proven itself in any primaries. It didn’t grow from local victories. And it shows little evidence of taking root in any group the left must reach in order to expand its base. The best Nader can achieve is enriching the Green Party with federal matching funds. This is a worthy goal, but it can only be met at the expense of the Democrats. In order for Nader to truly win, Gore must lose. And if, in four years, those Clintonite centrists don’t “shape up,” Nader says, the Democrats must be “prepared to shrink down.”

But who will be big? Certainly not the Greens. If this scenario really comes to pass, the result will be an even more embedded Republican majority.

Not to worry, say the Naderites. A Bush presidency will inspire a radical renewal. This argument is in the grand tradition of leftist visionaries who imagine catastrophe as an instrument of progress. It’s much more likely that four years of Bush (especially if the Republicans hold on to Congress) will sap the energy and shrink the means to foster change. The income gap will grow larger. Labor will find it harder to organize. The courts will be less sympathetic to civil rights. Late-term abortion will be illegal. The number of children without health insurance will rise. Things will get worse for the people progressives are supposed to care about.

Gore may not make things much better. But take it from the editors of National Review: “The choice is as it is.” For them and for us.

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