Jim Webb, Jonathan Chait, and the left’s moment of truth

It remains the most peculiar feature of contemporary liberalism that during these waning years of the Obama era it is still in search of a set of organizing principles.  In practice, of course, appeals to increasingly crude identity politics reigns supreme, with what passes for an overarching narrative being the so-called “coalition of the ascendant.”  The pernicious assumption behind this idea is that everything can be reduced to demographics and that no appeal to common sense or conviction is necessary; the advantage of such intellectual laziness, of course, being the support it lends to the self-satisfaction that to be aligned with the naturally harmonious and enlightened coalition of all racial and sexual/gender minorities is to be on the right side of history, and all critics therefore self-evidently illegitimate.

Jonathan Chait’s much-discussed essay of this past week identifies and deplores this phenomenon with the aged and less than satisfying label “PC culture.”  The responses from the left have ranged from the unbowed dogmatic intersectionalist call to arms to the consensus-liberal denial that Chait has aptly labeled “anti-anti-PC” to the sincere radical who agrees with Chait but still feels a need to shoot the messenger.  The point they all seem to be missing is that Chait’s argument is not so much about free speech in abstract principle but about the mainstreaming of this phenomenon in American liberalism.  Indeed, the nerve that Chait seems to have struck so deeply in many on the left is to have pointed out that what has made radicalism so painfully irrelevant in the post-Cold War era is that virtually without exception, it has been hobbled by the same affliction as liberalism: the idolatry of identity politics.

It is doubtful that Chait intended this, for as his detractors have not tired of pointing out, he is a product of The New Republic in its heyday as a bastion of what leftists have obnoxiously labeled “neoliberalism.”  (Speaking for myself, though I would have still labeled Chait a left-neocon as recently as five or six years ago, he is far from the only alumnus of Marty Peretz’s TNR to have proven thoughtful and worth reading once freed from his grip).  In other words, Chait has historically identified himself with that faction of American liberalism that first elevated cultural appeals at the expense of bread-and-butter economics or any appeal to historical liberal principles.  As Ross Douthat points out in his Sunday column:

What’s interesting about this ambition is that it’s about to intersect with a political campaign in which the champion of liberalism will be a Clinton — when the original Clintonism, in its Sister Souljah-ing, Defense of Marriage Act-signing triangulation on social issues, is a big part of what the new cultural left wants to permanently leave behind. . . . Can Hillary, the young feminist turned cautious establishmentarian, harness the energy of the young and restless left? Or will the excesses associated with that energy end up dividing her coalition, as it has divided liberal journalists of late?

Enter the most likely and formidable alternative to Hillary in the coming primary, Jim Webb.  To begin on a personal note: in 2006, I had just moved to New York and finished college, kicking over the last traces of illusions about the radical left and any prospects for it.  It was first seeing Jim Webb on The Colbert Report that summer that made me think I could in fact stand to be a Democrat again.

The taxonomy by which the DC establishment made sense of the Democratic victory that year on the strength of antiwar sentiment was both confusing and misleading, perhaps deliberately so – red-state Democrats who won opposing the war and the Bush economic agenda, in many cases with strong labor movement credentials, represented the triumph of “centrism” as resurrected by the absolutely wonderful Rahm Emanuel.  This has persisted into discussions of the coming election, with Webb not infrequently described as prospectively running to Hillary’s right.

It is downright bizarre that Jim Webb should be seen by anyone as the second coming of the Democratic Leadership Council.  Perhaps his biggest domestic policy passion is criminal justice reform.  His economic populist appeal is no less unyielding than that of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.  His record in the Senate is at least as suspect to the Israel lobby as that of Chuck Hagel before him.  His most prominent criticism of recent American foreign policy has been regarding the intervention in Libya.  In short, it would be difficult to devise a record and platform whose substance was more diametrically opposed to that of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Webb’s return does bring back certain fond memories of that highly hopeful political moment of my youth, but it has not been without hesitation that I have embraced him as the anti-Hillary.  I was at first excited about Brian Schweitzer, who may or may not re-emerge from whatever hole he disappeared to a few months ago, and if he does I’ll certainly give him a hearing again.  My main reassurance came from Ryan Lizza’s rather glowing profile in The New Yorker last November, which not only informed me that Webb did in fact have an impressive record of achievement during his time in the Senate, but offered the most convincing portrait I’d ever seen of what a realistic and non-demagogic yet satisfying answer to the outrages of Wall Street since 2008 would look like.

What about the other darlings of the left these days?  On Bernie Sanders, I can speak from personal experience.  In 2013 I attended the annual Fourth of July Parade in Warren, Vermont, where sincere yet rather tepid applause for the governor was followed by absolute pandemonium for Bernie.  As a certain grizzled old Vermont leftie explained to me a few days later, two things account for such near-universal adulation and the 70% votes to back it up: activism on veterans issues and an A rating from the NRA.  Bernie deserves great credit for being able to pull this off, but if he’s smart – and he typically is in matters of politics if not always of policy – he’ll marshal his well-earned influence behind the candidate better suited to replicate this nationally.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, I’ve been forced to conclude is merely the Chris Christie of the left: a loudmouth who specializes in riling up the base, not completely lacking in substance but getting by on the bare minimum.  I made a point of keeping an open mind about her, that perhaps she could have serious national appeal beyond the base.  But after the last midterm, whose emblematic figures – from Wendy Davis to Mark “Uterus” Udall to the street theater emphasizing the word “vagina” that allowed the battle-scarred Scott Walker to win re-election and become a first-tier Republican contender – made clear that the Democrats had learned all the wrong lessons from Obama’s re-election, there can be no doubt that Warren would be as clobbered in Iowa (and the other bastions of forgotten Democrats who can still decide primaries) as Howard Dean.

Why so little love then for Jim Webb?  In addition to his positions outlined above, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that in every public statement he has shown himself to be a perfectly conventional down-the-line liberal on the key culture war questions of abortion and gay marriage.  That being the case, one can only conclude that resistance to Webb by any principled progressive who wishes to deprive Hillary Clinton of the Democratic nomination is motivated by rank cultural prejudice, no more no less.  The recent essay in this connection by Jackson Lears in the London Review of Books is a must read; what better indictment can there be of the identity politics idolatry of contemporary liberalism than that the allegedly presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is a woman just a couple of shades to the left of Joe Lieberman, for practically no other reason than that she’s a woman?

One will inevitably raise the further question, how can any hope be seen at this stage to reverse the trajectory of the Democratic Party and American liberalism toward the union of PC culture and Clintonism?  The answer can be found in a historical analogy – a very old and tired analogy with dreadful baggage, but nevertheless particularly apt in this case.  The rise and fall of Communist or “Popular Front” influence in the liberal coalition of the 1940s, culminating in the bizarre presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948, can be compared to the place of the subjects of Jonathan Chait’s essay in mainstream liberal discourse in many respects; specifically, a pervasive if not overwhelming influence in media and cultural institutions that created the appearance of intractable dominance, yet highly vulnerable to a methodical decapitation for lack of real grassroots support.  Particularly salient are analogous circumstances in the Republican midterm victories of 1946 and 2014: the former was measurably aided by the Democratic primary victories of Communist-aligned candidates, particularly in the western states and including the merger of the Democratic Party of Minnesota with the Communist rump remnant of the once-formidable Farmer-Labor Party.

The essential irrelevance of this sanctimonious pundit class once the voting public must inevitably have its say may be best illustrated by the recent demise of what was its flagship publication in both 1946 and 2014, The New Republic.  It is no accident that, having long taken many nominally extreme left-wing positions on culture war questions to paper over its fellow-traveling of neoconservatism, for at least a decade been the most vociferously opposed to the rise of any potential Democratic standard bearer who could leave the culture war behind.  When Jonathan Chait aptly described the majority of his detractors as “anti-anti-PC” he no doubt was deliberately invoking the vintage concept of “anti-anti-Communism” – in other words, pointing out that most of the contemporary liberal pundit class are not intersectionalist ideologues but allow their distaste for the latter’s enemies to determine their views.  The irony indeed appears to be lost on both Chait and his detractors that in doing so they are aligning perfectly with the priorities and agenda of the “neoliberals” whose menace determines their “anti-anti-PC” attitude, which prompts such personal animus toward Chait and with whom he has indeed been aligned historically.

One could concede all of the above and still conclude that none of it matters, because the Clintons have a complete grip on the Democratic Party fundraising apparatus and even notwithstanding could easily outspend any opponents.  There are many answers to this, including the myriad ways that money is slowly but surely becoming less decisive and the many potential sources of adequate funding for a candidate to stop Hillary.  But perhaps more to the point would be to unpack the narrative of inevitability itself.  Why the media, and many otherwise thoughtful people, have forgotten that the recent history of American politics is littered with inevitable nominees that weren’t (Howard Dean and Rudy Giuliani being only the two most recent) remains a mystery.  What virtually no one seems to remember, very strangely as it was integral to the backdrop of today’s political and media elite coming of age, is the highly analogous inevitability of Ted Kennedy in the years leading up to the 1980 election.  Hillary’s weaknesses and baggage from the 2008 campaign have only grown with her current inevitability – and we now know that Barack Obama is not an unprecedented political genius, revealing just how weak a candidate she has always been in the first place.

Finally, a word must be said about Jim Webb relative to the other, more widely discussed symbol of anti-establishment sentiment in this political season, Rand Paul.  Immutable differences in economic policy cannot be dismissed easily, not least considering the historically close relationship of both Ron and Rand to the National Right to Work Committee.  I will certainly maintain that Rand Paul represents the most promising path for the Republican Party to move on from the era of George W. Bush and Fox News.  But it does not seem likely that this transformation can take place just yet, due to both Rand’s own and the larger structural barriers that remain in the Republican Party. I have always said to libertarian friends that I don’t have a problem with Rand Paul playing politics, but that he’s just not very good at it.  His overeagerness to find compromise positions with the neocons and Republican establishment result in a poorly thought-out product, and if anything the audience in the Republican Party for his domestic reform agenda is even smaller than on foreign policy.  He has a neat bag of tricks, but its a limited bag of tricks and he doesn’t seem to recognize that its limited.  Without making a moral judgement in either case, the difference between Rand Paul and Marine Le Pen in their public relationships with their fathers respectively is revealing in multiple respects.

However short of a non-interventionist ideal Jim Webb might ultimately come down, we know that it is not in his nature, for good or ill, to vacillate and equivocate, and thus there are myriad reasons to conclude that Webb would be a more reliable standard bearer for a principled realist foreign policy than Rand Paul, and on other civil liberties concerns certainly no worse.  That there’s even a question of such a Democrat with a strong economic populist appeal as an optimal standard bearer for a principled left is the most damning possible indictment of the transformation of the American liberal left detailed by Jonathan Chait.  In his posthumously published Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt wrote that “the choice we face in the next generation is not capitalism versus communism, or the end of history versus the return of history, but the politics of social cohesion based around collective purposes versus the erosion of society by the politics of fear.”  That choice may never be more plainly and dramatically be decided than in the Democratic primary of 2016.

(Image source)

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