Paul Gottfried and I disagree. He positions himself in opposition to “the post – Marxist PC left.” I suspect that my commitments to feminism, gay rights and the victories of the civil rights movement, while thinking that Marx was an important 19th century thinker, but not a guide for politics in our times, means that the phrase applies to me (even though I am not sure what it means exactly). Yet, I am pleased that I found a prominent conservative intellectual to contribute to our discussions. I have already learned something from Gottfried, and want to explore what the practical implications of an exchange of views between us, along with other Deliberately Considered contributors and readers, can be.
We certainly won’t come to agreement on some fundamentals. I don’t believe that the confrontation of our ideas will yield a higher dialectical truth. I am pretty sure that on some issues it is a matter of prevailing, not convincing. He writes about the “our oppressive anti-discrimination apparatus,” while I see only reasons to celebrate the struggle against discrimination, racism, sexism and the like. I see no possibility of compromise here. In fact, I regret that things haven’t changed as much as I think they should and welcome political action to move things forward.
Yet, I believe that there is a possibility that differences such as those that divide Professor Gottfried and me can be civilized, and not simply be about confrontation. A starting point is sharing insights, and I think I see one based on our opposing appraisals of the present state of American political culture. I see, and worry about, an ascendant know-nothing right, while Gottfried is deeply concerned about the ascendance of the post Marxist left. These differences, I believe, ironically point to a compatible understanding.
Gottfried’s diagnosis of the present political climate does indeed surprise me:
Those who oppose this [post Marxist pc] Left are fighting from a steadily weakening position. They have lost the cultural war to the state, our educational system and MTV; and as the predominantly left-leaning Latino population and the lifestyle Left continues to grow, the real Right and the faux right GOP will be driven into a less and less promising minority status. The only way out of this worsening situation for those who don’t like the direction in which the multiculturalists and our two national parties are pushing us is a vast reduction in federal authority, together with the increase of state and local powers. This will not deliver New York City or San Francisco from the Left, but it will limit the power of New York City to control what goes on in Augusta, Georgia or Ames, Iowa.
In contrast, I have good reason to worry about the ascendency of the right wing in America. Each year, it seems to me, the Republican Party has moved to the right. What they proposed in the last decade of the 20th century, healthcare reform with mandated participation of the public, and a cap and trade approach, using a market, to control the ill effects of industrial development on the environment, they now denounce as socialism. And conservative political leaders step by step have moved radically to the right, from Nixon to Reagan to George W. Bush to Mitt Romney, indeed given the unsteadiness of his commitments, from Romney to Romney. And at the same time, despite my expectations and fears, these men have repeatedly won elections, the worse case for me was the re-election of George W. Bush, despite his extremist security and foreign policies. Now opposition to abortion rights is absolute among Republicans, and their approach to the reading of the constitution, original intent, has moved from the margins of judicial philosophy to a near majority on the Supreme Court.
Yet, I must admit, Gottfried also has good reasons to be concerned by the direction of things. From the point of view of the right, much has changed for the worse, despite the cascading right wing successes at the center of political power. We do now live in a much more multicultural America. The political and social rights for women, African Americans, gays and many other groups of the formerly excluded have expanded, sharply represented by the first African American president. The typical American looks very differently than a generation ago. The successful passage of “Obamacare” has extended state mandated and supported social benefits. The promise of the New Deal is more of a reality today than when FDR was at the height of his powers, free of its initial racist limitations and greatly expanded by the Great Society reforms and the accomplishments of Barack Obama in his first term.
Thus, I think that both Gottfried and I perceive real changes in the American political landscape. The left’s victories until Obama, since Reagan, have been for the most part off the center stage. Despite the elections of right wing Republicans, a slow and steady transformation has occurred in America. People are changing their relations with each other in their everyday practices: gay and straight, black and white and Latino and Asians, men and women. Little victories concerning the extension of citizenship have transformed the country. The right has mobilized against these victories, winning most of the major electoral contests over these changes since 1968, threatening real progress, in my judgment. But, nonetheless, there has been progress from my point of view. Because Gottfried believes these changes are being forced by a repressive state, liberal educational institutions and the media apparatus, the situation is grave from his point of view.
The threatening storm of a right wing backlash looms, as does the spread of the PC left.
Gottfried and I have grounds for our concerns, given our commitments. But I wonder: shouldn’t a reasonable conservative, in the tradition of Edmund Burke, understand the progress that I see as an instance of the power of slow and steady social transformation, as a healthy kind of conservative change? This is clearly the position of Andrew Sullivan. I wonder about recent Deliberately Considered contributor Alvino-Mario Fantini. Can he perceive that the state presents both a reasonable promise for the fulfillment of and a possible threat to the defense and extension of our liberties? And can my friends on the left appreciate that small victories add up to major change and abandon utopian dreams of sudden and complete transformation?