Most of the Democrats in this country see the recent election in Iraq as a very positive event. But still, the nod of approval is painful due to the enormous level of disapproval over how it was brought to fruition. The American Left is stuck about Iraq, stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are caught in a no-win situation, faced with the bitter choices of either supporting Bush’s newly created legitimacy or drearily saying that democracy is not a worthwhile goal to actively pursue. How can the Left say that democracy isn’t worthwhile, when to do so would go against everything America holds dear? Sadly, this allows the Republican machine to appropriate democratic values and paint them as something uniquely conservative. To denounce democracy is now not only un-American, but strikingly liberal too.
The election in Iraq only compounds the current crisis of a Left that seems to lack direction and vision. But the Left isn’t struggling because of inept leadership, nor is it the victim of a particularly diabolic strategy from Karl Rove. The Left is in its current state of disarray because of cultural forces well beyond its control. Yes, the cultural shifts given the slapdash label of “postmodernism” are to blame for the current Leftist trauma.
The last few decades have seen changes in young liberals — most notably, the pervasive decline of socialism. The problem isn’t Karl Rove but Karl Marx. News magazines are rife with stories about the new wave of young Republicans. It seems the anti-communist Reagan era ushered in a new generation of social and fiscal conservatives. However, what is perceived as a reactionary conservative trend is really nothing more than a reaffirmation of 18th century liberalism, the very democratic principles on which this country was founded. The new generation isn’t full of Republicans, but really disciples of the Philosophes.
Whereas class equality was the driving priority of young liberals even until 30 years ago, today the struggle of identity politics is the main concern. The communist ideal of uniformity is thrown away for the individual relativism of “to each his own.” Feeling the memory pains of such atrocities as slavery and the Holocaust, ethnic hatred has replaced being a capitalist as the most heinous crime in today’s Leftist cultural landscape. We are wary of imposing one’s cultural superiority over another, saying that one type of dress, custom or belief is better than the other. Tolerance is the paramount virtue of our age.
However, this individualism runs into conflict with our deep-seeded democratic beliefs. How can we extol the virtues of universal suffrage and freedom of expression when women in some countries are not even allowed to show their faces in public? But almost immediately, binary thinking paralyzes us. We tell ourselves that we must respect a foreign culture and that we have no right to force our values upon them. This is the tension the Left must deal with and the reason we cannot reach a clear opinion about how to handle the Middle East.
Unfortunately, time is not on the Left’s side and we should hurriedly meld this schism in ideology. Speculation foreshadows that Bush is making plans for Iran. If current trends continue, the American public will stand behind him. Bush is preaching a strange amalgam of imperialistic expansionism and a type of democratic universalism. Isn’t democracy the best type of government for everyone, everywhere? In one of the most dramatic political flips since the Dixiecrats, Republicans have taken over the notion of international revolution, pledging to carry democratic principles across the globe. If a country is too dark to see our beacon of hope, then damnit, we will come down and light their ass up. Unfortunately, Bush’s amalgam is anything but strange and nothing that hasn’t been seen before. The same time period that brought us the enlightened principles of political equality and free speech was also the time that saw the birth of widespread colonialism. The “progress of civilization” was Europe’s responsibility to bring to savages worldwide, just as it is our responsibility to convert dissenters into the fold of liberal democracy.
So what’s the answer? Everyone has his or her own take on how to fix the Left so here is my manifesto to add to the pile. The Left doesn’t need merely new legislative tactics but an entire ideological alteration to compensate for the cultural shifts of the last few decades. The Democratic Party should take back its principles and re-appropriate the notion of liberal democracy. It has to make political, civil, ethnic and gender equality its defining principles while warning of the innate dangers entailed in fostering an empire. Democrats should export the values of democracy without relying on the revolutionary arm of the military. Despite what Bush thinks, democracy cannot be implanted, it must grow on its own. “Freedom” perpetuated by a foreign body is a Bolshevik principle and that’s just not what the American Left stands for.
Butler is an Art and Design senior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.