Liberal Democracy in QuestionThe Left

Focus, Please

A plea to the Left

Both the right and the left in the United States of America are undergoing political mitosis, splitting into two different daughter cells. The split on the right is simpler to understand: it is a functional split between Trumpites and everyone else. Republican Party regulars abhor Trump, his inner circle, and his enthusiastic supporters for many reasons, both stylistic and substantive, but are willing to tolerate all the eccentricity, instability, and occasional lunacy for the sake of getting their plutocratic, deregulatory legislative agenda passed quickly. The split on the right is also easier to evaluate. The Trumpites are incompetent amateurs at best, aspiring tyrants at worst. The remainder who call themselves conservatives are mostly just sellouts, with occasional voices, like Andrew Sullivan’s or Bruce Bartlett’s, crying in the wilderness to little avail.

The split on the left is less functional than polemical and ideological. Center-left liberals, a.k.a. “the Democratic establishment”, still smarting from Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College defeat, view the Trump administrations’ Russia-troubles, not to mention his executive orders, with white-knuckled alarm. Thus they tend to view his regime as at least quasi-illegitimate, the outcome of Putin’s meddling and James Comey’s 11th hour interference, aided by the fecklessness of the left-wing coalition of Sanders supporters and millennials. In turn, this antiestablishment-left counter-coalition thinks, with justification, that establishment Democrats are smug and clueless. They mistakenly thought the 2016 election was Clinton’s to win rather than Clinton’s to lose. Consequently, much (though hardly all) of the Democratic left is also skeptical about Russia’s election meddling, or at least the role it played in Clinton’s loss. They argue that the real reason for the catastrophic election of 2016 lies elsewhere: Clinton was the entitled standard-bearer and heir apparent of a failed neoliberalism. She represented the confidence that the late capitalist market, with a little technical tweaking, could handle problems of general economic prosperity, thus leaving the political realm open to deal with socio-cultural issues of racial and gender identity and the like. But political economy is not that easily dispensed with.

At its fringes, the antiestablishment left finds itself more alarmed by the moves by what it calls “the deep state” than by the right-wing antiestablishment Trump administrations. The CIA’s antipathy to Trump, or that of State department “old hands”, is a sign of contempt for the democratic process — a long-standing contempt when it comes to sovereign nations, like Iran and Iraq and Nicaragua and Chile, who frustrate Corporate America’s ambitions. Russia is not the enemy: the tattered remnants of neoliberal economics and neoconservative hegemonism are. If you view “neoliberalism” and “the administrative state” as synonyms, you shouldn’t be too surprised to see both Breitbart and Counterpunch writers sharing the same anxieties. Strange alliances indeed.

I find this schism on the left disconcerting, even maddening. It’s not clear to me that there’s a contradiction between loathing the shenanigans of U.S. intelligence agencies and their lack of democratic accountability, and loathing the clear attempts by the Putin regime to coax a loss of faith on the part of established democracies, first in Europe, now in North America. And it’s very clear to me that, whatever you think about the Democratic Party or neoliberalism on the one hand or the antiestablishment left on the other, the first order of business nowadays is resistance to an executive and congressional regime hell-bent on transforming this country into an authoritarian, ultra-nationalistic despotism, with an ample dollop of unimaginable corruption on the side.

My plea to the left, broadly construed, then, is this: focus. Please focus.

Factional skirmishes on the left are a long-standing tradition. This confrontational habit is not necessarily a bad one, either. It was important for Stalinists and anti-Stalinists to duke it out in the 1940s and 1950s, not just because debate is intellectually and morally healthy, but because the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of Stalinist orthodoxy needed to be exposed to the light of criticism and outrage. It was important in a different sense that the “vital center” liberals of Kennedy’s New Frontier were challenged by the New Left. The former was hardening into a self-congratulatory orthodoxy blinded by the hubris of “the best and the brightest”, while the latter dissolved in its worst moments into self-indulgent oversimplification and randomized rage. But the historical and political contexts of these skirmishes were different from today’s, and context makes a significant difference: the election of Trump alongside a Republican House and Senate has opened up the possibility of a new kind of homegrown tyranny, a hybrid of unfettered plutocracy and populist nationalism, that threatens the republic at its foundations. Sectarianism has its time and purpose under the heavens, but not here and now. There is too much at stake to fall victim to a panicky political ADHD. We need a form of political Ritalin: focus, please. Focus.

Consider for example the internal struggle, among those on the left, on the topic of “the deep state”: must one dismiss all concern with Putin’s well-documented ambitions to foster anti-EU/right-nationalist sentiments around the globe as the red-scare redux? Does admitting this make one, God forbid, a closet Hillary partisan blind to neoliberal and neoconservative hegemonic global ambitions? Conversely: does a justified disdain of blanket Russophobia mean that the US intelligence establishment is 100% untrustworthy 100% of the time? Is it entirely inconceivable that they might have something ugly about Trump, his campaign and administration, and above all Russia, about which we can nurse some real worries?

Few observers have written on “the deep state” with more insight and balanced wisdom than Mike Lofgren, a veteran analyst on the House and Senate budget committees and author of two lucid books, The Party is Over and The Deep State. Lofgren is in fact probably the first to have used the term “the deep state.” His eponymous book is a chronicle of how entrenched permanent interests in government have become conduits for equally entrenched permanent interests in the Military, on Wall Street, and in Silicon Valley, morphing our democracy into an oligarchy in all but name. While disturbing, this is not exactly news. But recently, on his blog, Lofgren has weighed in on the Trump v. deep state controversy, and has drawn conclusions that might give both aforementioned factions some pause. His post “The Deep State 2.0” is worth quoting at length:

There is little evidence that America will be saved by concealed and powerful forces in the manner of the shadowy Caped Crusader rescuing Gotham City from the deranged Joker, or, alternatively, that the rough-hewn populist good guy Trump is in mortal combat with the Deep State. It is true that he ran as a populist against elite institutions: the power centers of the 1 percent — Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the military-industrial complex — mostly supported his opponent. But his actions so far have strongly reinforced rather than weakened their position.

A glance at the membership of the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum shows they are flocking to his side, with masters of financial buccaneering like Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, along with Doug McMillon of retail giant Walmart. There is even an ex-governor of the Federal Reserve Board, Bush appointee Kevin Warsh. This is hardly a populist revolution of the kind preached by John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad. . .

Trump had always claimed, in line with conventional Republican dogma, that America’s military was “depleted,” and that he would increase its budget to “rebuild” it. No matter that this was a myth, as DOD in 2016 spent, in constant dollars, comfortably more than the Cold War average. And, sure enough, after the election defense stocks rose in the expectation that he would open the money spigot even wider. This expectation is bolstered by the fact that Congress is controlled by Republicans, whose reflex is to throw money at defense. The military-industrial complex, a core component of the Deep State, will grow even fatter, as his request for a 10-percent Pentagon budget increase plainly telegraphs. . .

Donald Trump will not dismantle the extra-constitutional power structures that have grown more influential in the last decades of near-perpetual war, increasingly intrusive surveillance, financial deregulation and widening inequality. He will further entrench them. This has confounded those in the media, who once regarded him as a vulgar but basically harmless jackass who probably wouldn’t win but who in any case increased ratings and circulation, as well as those Americans desperate for silver linings who saw him a change agent that would shake up a polarized political system and slaughter a few sacred cows. . .

[Elites] have flexibly adapted to the angry rhetoric of anti-establishment politics while expanding the very same policies that led to that populism in the first place. Trump’s tastelessness and complete lack of qualifications, which at first seemed like serious defects, may in retrospect have been his tactic to save their political agenda by masking it in a façade of fake populism and reality-TV stage management.

The Deep State is an outgrowth of the illiberal tendencies in liberal democracy, tendencies which have given disproportionate influence to a militarized foreign policy, secrecy and surveillance at home and entrenched disparities of wealth. But, while it has been a grave defect of our governmental system, it was not the worst thinkable permutation of that system. What is now evolving in the West Wing under the troika of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner is something much more sinister.

Lofgren describes himself as a centrist rather than a liberal or leftist. Yet I think he exemplifies the need for “focus” that, I fear, the left is starting to lose, as it has lost too many times in the past. Our problems take multiple forms and wear many different disguises, and have many causal antecedents, ranging from serious defects in the mechanics of democracy, to the corrosive influence of money in politics, to grotesque economic and social inequality, to racism and sexism, to the weakness bordering on nonexistence of American democratic culture – the list could be expanded indefinitely. It is worthwhile to continue to expand that list, to analyze, interpret, and relentlessly criticize things as they are in light of the way things should, or could, be. But one problem takes precedence over the others here and now, and that is the threat posed to what remains of this liberal democratic republic, and that threat is the administration of Donald Trump and the Republican congress in thrall to him.

So please, please: focus.

Michael Quirk

  • laslanian

    Well, of course, I agree. Just to add a few thoughts. The left (Clintonites and the far left anti-Clintonites) was blindsided by Trump’s apeal and victory in part because we paid no attention to Fox News and Beritbart and the appeal that they had. I consider this a major oversight on my part, at least. But their appeal is as you note not simply an argument against anything like neoliberalism or a declaration against US interference around the globe to protect our business interests. It is really, as you note, an appeal to nationalism, racism, xenophobia, etc. It took hold in many economically depressed areas but its appeal is broader and wider. Many upper middle class and wealthy folks voted Trump into office as well. I don’t see the schism on the right as easily as you do— in fact, if the old school republicans had any conviction they would part ways with Trump. For the far left that blames all of this on neoliberalism my feeling has been that they are fitting what is happening into their preconcieved box. To put Trump and HRC on the same plane of dangerous blows my mind. Trump is gutting the government and will run the country for his profit — he will take away healthcare and social security and the have-nots will be completely unprotected. This is happening so quickly it is dizzying. There is in this situation only one real response: outrage and unity. I agree that healthy debate on the left should continue but we should try to keep it amongst ourselves for a while. Trump is dangerous beyond measure.

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