When the mainstream news media first discovered the neocons last spring and summer there was a lot of talk about their Trotskyite origins. Many of the Trotskyite references came in the form of loud denials from the right, “I am not now and never have been a member of the Fourth International and anyone who says so is a dirty anti-Semite.” That may be true for the current members, but their founders were, for the most part, old lefties. As a review article in Foreign Affairs explains it:
Many of the founders of neoconservatism, including The Public Interest founder Irving Kristol and coeditor Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Albert Wohlstetter, were either members of or close to the Trotskyist left in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Younger neoconservatives, including Penn Kemble, Joshua Muravchik, and Carl Gershman, came through the Socialist Party at a time when former Trotskyist Max Schachtman was still a commanding figure.
This should be no more than a historical footnote, a curiosity that deserves a slight “imagine that” response before we turn to the comics page. So why the heat? Conservatives usually like to parade liberal apostates and repeat their stories of having found the light. How many times have we had to listen to David Horowitz drone on about his conversion? Trotsky seems to bring out terribly conflicted feelings among the neocons. Writing in NRO, Stephen Schwartz managed to make the anti-Semite claim and get quite nostalgic for Trotsky in the same article.
I think the reluctance to let go of Trotsky is based on a desire to claim his undeniable genius and intellectual rigor for their own movement. The intellectual underpinnings of the American Right are very weak. This is not a cheap shot at the Right; the intellectual underpinnings of the mainstream Left are also very weak. Until about a decade ago, the only part of the American political spectrum with any kind of rigorous intellectual underpinnings or philosophical consistence was the Marxist far Left. They never had much influence on political discourse in this country, except as a boogie to the Right and lately they have become reduced to three depressed guys who sit on the corner opposite the LaRouchie table trying to sell dogeared copies of Granma.
American political parties are not ideologically based. I heard this statement enough times in high school and college that it almost became a meaningless slogan. Only years later did it make sense to me. Our parties are coalitions of interests. Some of the goals of these interests have become so dogmatic for the parties that they sometimes masquerade as an ideology, but hey have no philosophically consistent basis. The Republicans believe in small government; that explains their military budget. The Democrats believe in empowering the powerless, unless they are foreigners competing for jobs with unionized Americans. Neither party has a philosophically defensible stand on both abortion and the death penalty (I suppose pro-death penalty Democrats do). Both parties support and oppose free speech depending on content. Both parties support weakening separation of church and state when it benefits supporters of their agendas.
There is really nothing wrong with this. That’s just the way things work here. However, it does cause problems. Both parties contain some ugly marriages of convenience. People who do care about philosophical consistency often either cannot abide either party, or must make unconscionable compromises to participate in our political life (libertarians are a prime example of both groups, some divorce themselves from the world and become survivalists, some sell their souls and become Republicans. Finally, the chaotic and changing nature of political coalitions sometimes makes it easier for one party to represent its program in a sound bite that it does the other. The Democrats are currently the disadvantaged party on that score.
Kos spent yesterday at a conference given by a group called the New Democrat Network. They are a moderate Democratic group that is aware of the sound bite problem. Kos explains:
One key point that was repeatedly made was the ease by which Republicans can define themselves. "Pro-family values. Anti-tax. The party of patriotism." It may all be b.s., but at least they know what they stand for. Ask ten Democrats what the Democratic Party is all about, and you'll get ten completely different answers.
The NDN conference attempted to come up with a rough draft of a statement of something we should all be able to agree on.
The Democratic Party is the party of progress. Progress means strengthening our defenses and strengthening our alliances. Tax policies that help working people and the middle class, closing loopholes for corporations and making sure that wealthy Americans do not get all of the benefits. Investing in people so all those who make the grade can afford a college education or the training the need to get ahead. Moving people from welfare into the workforce through training they need to get ahead. Moving people from welfare into the workforce through training and job placement. Making American energy independent while cleaning our environment. And progress means ensuring that all Americans have access to healthcare and are able to save for a secure retirement.
This is a rough draft so I’ll try not to nit-pick grammar and wordsmithing issues too much. I’ll also assume this is supposed to be a bullet list following “Progress means…”
- Strengthening our defenses and strengthening our alliances. I don’t think this should be first. Though it will be a big issue in the 2004 election, this is not the key item that defines being a Democrat, unless the statement is just meant as an election year throw-away. This point needs lots of work (i.e. strengthening isn’t what progress means; it might be a means of assuring progress). Is “strength” the totality of what we have to say about foreign and military affairs?
- Tax policies that help working people and the middle class, closing loopholes for corporations and making sure that wealthy Americans do not get all of the benefits. No real argument here.
- Investing in people so all those who make the grade can afford a college education or the training the need to get ahead. This only refers to higher education. We need an unambiguous statement in support of public education.
- Moving people from welfare into the workforce through training they need to get ahead. Moving people from welfare into the workforce through training and job placement. Getting off welfare needs to mentioned as a follow-up to a strong support for a system of societal safety nets. Also, make it one sentence.
- Making American energy independent while cleaning our environment. This is two very important points that deserve separate commitments. Energy probably needs to be stated as a commitment to reducing dependency and expanding alternate resources. Environment is more than cleaning existing problems; it is preservation, understanding, and reducing our impact without surrendering a strong economy.
- Americans have access to healthcare and are able to save for a secure retirement. Again, probably two points and needs to be higher up.
I would add points for crime reduction through prevention, equal justice for all, preservation of our historic rights, being good global neighbors, and cats are better than dogs.
The two major American political parties have no consistent philosophical underpinnings. We are not intellectual creations. We are pragmatic groupings. But there is a little more to it than just that. I’ll try to get to that next time.
Postscript: I fixed some bad punctuation.