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When the Left is Right: Unite and Rule

December 31st, 2010 by Jim May · 9 Comments · Uncategorized

There has been a recent effort on the Left to drive a wedge into what they see as a weak point in the Tea Party: the divide between the statist wing of conservatism (the “social” conservatives), and the libertarian-ish one.  This effort has been loudly dismissed by some on the right, most notably Glenn Reynolds (as evidenced by his chosen links on this topic, mainly in November and December).  An example of such a link, and of the counter-argument being deployed against this Leftist effort, is this post by Eric Scheie at Classical Values.

Unfortunately for Reynolds, Scheie and others, they are right only on the most superficial level. There is no reason why the Right can’t remain united at the ad-hoc level, which is what a narrow focus on merely downsizing government is.

The problem is that such ad-hoc alliances are necessarily short-lived, and short-range.  By their nature, the success of such coalitions terminates their raison d’être.  If two people disagree on everything except one issue, they can work together on that one issue.  Once that common goal is achieved, there is no longer anything holding those people together afterwards.

The trouble for the Right is that it contains two irreconciliable movements.  This contradiction, while deliberately obscured and maintained by the fraudulent left-right spectrum of conventional politics, is sufficiently acute to have given rise to the now well-known distinction between “social” and “fiscal” conservatives, where the latter consist mainly of libertarian-ish people whose main focus is on constraining government, generally in favor of individual liberties, while the former are those religious busybodies who continue to supply the Left with the ammunition they use to maintain their pretense to liberalism.

That is the big challenge facing the Tea Party, and liberty in general, and it does not bode well that even Eric Scheie doesn’t seem to notice it (or want to).

You see, the Left does not fear a mere ad-hoc coalition of the sort Scheie defends.  They know that the most that can possibly be achieved by such a coalition, would be a temporary, Reagan-style slowdown of the statist juggernaut.  At best, such coalitions serve as a brake that slows us down for a generation, about twenty years.  The Left does not fear mere delays, so long as the basic direction of travel does not change.

What they fear, is a reversal — that we will not merely slow down, but may actually turn around and accelerate in the other direction — i.e. to actually start rolling back the government, not merely constrain its growth.  *That* is the potential that the Tea Parties have signalled.

It is this fear which spurs this latest Leftist gambit.  What Scheie and others have correctly identified is the superficial strategy of divide-and-conquer; the Left hopes that the Tea Parties can be weakened by means of internal divisions.  Unfortunately for Scheie and similar “coalitionists”, I suspect that there is a much more subtle danger in what the Left is doing.

Contrary to the coalitionists’ whistling past the graveyard, the division is a very real one that goes down to fundamentals.  This move by the Left isn’t just “politics as usual” here, but in fact the smartest thing they’ve done by far.  The war that Scheie is wishing away has been there for a long time, ever since the remnants of Americanism were driven away from “liberalism” and expediently adopted by conservatism over the years from the ’60’s up to Reagan’s election.

The real threat in this Leftist gambit, as I see it, is not “divide-and-conquer”, but unite-and-rule.

A split between libertarians/fiscal conservatives and religionists/social conservatives could in fact contribute heavily to a further increase in political clarity in this country, which could actually work in our favor as pro-Americans currently uninvolved (not to mention what remains of those deluded quasi-liberals who still imagine that “being anti-authoritarian, pro-dignity and pro-freedom [are] values of the progressive left”) will suddenly find themselves no longer disenfranchised.

That clarity is what the Left really fears, and for that reason I don’t believe they necessarily want a split.  Rather, they would like to see the coalition maintained — at the expense of clarity — by the pragmatists among their number.  If the “coalitionists” succeed in dampening the more radical talk of liberty and individual rights (like that coming from Objectivists) in favor of a more pragmatic outlook, in hopes of keeping the Right united with the social conservatives on board, the real loser will be that clarity.  Statism on the Right would then be preserved.  Unite and rule.

If that happens, the Left will have achieved their most important long-range goal: to prevent the return of genuine Americanism to the political mainstream.  The Left depends on the confusion brought about by the conventional political spectrum and its contradictory package-deals, in order to keep things confusing for everyone — especially that most dangerous breed of individuals, the principled man.  The contradictions and resultant hypocrisy serve to keep such people out of politics — out of office, out of debates and out of *any* engagement with politics whatsoever.

Too much clarity not only activates such people politically, it would beak the Left’s control over the epistemology of politics, the political definitions and very terms in which people think about politics.  Pre-eminent among these is the Left’s century-long fraudulent claim to the mantle of liberalism.  If they lost that control, there would be a grand-scale ideological realignment affecting all the parties.  I don’t mean the superficial sort of political realignments that have been discussed on and off over the last decade or so, but a genuinely ideological realignment, a whole new political spectrum with liberty at one end and statism at the other — and yes, the Left and the social conservatives would finally be seen as what they are: perfectly logical and consistent bedfellows.

Clarity.

9 Comments so far ↓

  • Fareed

    Honestly the social conservative movement should bugger off. we need a secular and individualistic faction instead.

  • Dave

    Mainstrean religious conservatism is just as much a threat as left-wing so-called liberalism. Those of us with the philosophy of individual inalienable rights need to reclaim the title of liberal. I have made it a practice to no longer refer to the “left” as liberals since this is a total misapplication of the word. In conversation and writing, I only refer to them as “so-called liberals” or, more often, use their true title…authoritarians.

  • Shane Atwell

    Interesting hypothesis but I doubt there are any minds among the left big enough to grasp or push for the unite and rule. Haven’t read the links yet though. Their pointing out the conflict between the social conservatives and pro-capitalists can only do us good. Clarity is always good and we weren’t getting it from the Right.

  • Jason Goldsmith

    Dave,
    I’ve been thinking the same thing about the term liberalism. Grammatically, the term means free, like in the context of cooking, using an ample, unrestrained amount of something–i.e., “Apply a liberal amount of salt.”

    It actually makes much more sense to call a free political system liberalism than capitalism. Capital, or money, is a tool. How you use it can be good or bad. There’s no conceptual reason for capital to be the symbol of a free society. Freedom makes much more sense. Or something to do with justice (the primary social virtue, meaning that you judge people accordingly on the basis of their character) or private, personal choices. Privatism?

    Conservatism as a pro-freedom term makes no sense. Conserve means to keep; the nature of the concept is about doing things because that’s how they have been done before. Even if you originally had the correct ideas, the essence of what you are doing is not conserving those ideas; you are committed to the ideas because they are true, not because they are traditions.

    Anyway, liberalism is a term pro-freedom people should start to take back. I generally identify myself as pro-freedom, but will sometimes in certain contexts try to work liberalism into its true definition of pro-freedom and pro-individualistic assertiveness.

  • Fareed

    secular individualist is what I call myself. I avoid classical liberal as there are some bad philosophies under there and it is often tied to libertarianism

  • madmax

    Laissez-Faire Liberalism is another term I have heard which I like. I think Von Mises used it.

  • madmax

    Regarding Classical Liberalism, someone needs to define exactly what that is. I have seen alleged Classical Liberals all over the place on politics. Sometimes they sound like Left-liberals. Sometimes they sound like Hillaire Belloc type Conservatives. I see no consistency with them and they rarely stand for Laissez Faire.

  • Jim May

    madmax: that’s what I pointed out. Confusion serves the Left, and that is why clarity is so important.

    For that reason, much as I agree that *we* are the genuine liberals (as historical use of that term demonstrates), we are not in a position to rehabilitate the term. That is much harder that simply denying it to the Left, in part because such a denial is merely a negative, and in part because the Left itself is no longer all that attached to it, in light of the fact that the destruction the usurpation of that label was intended to achieve, is largely complete.

    It must “lie fallow” for now.

  • Jim May

    Interesting hypothesis but I doubt there are any minds among the left big enough to grasp or push for the unite and rule.

    There is still some intellectual firepower on the core Left, and I think those are the ones who are seeding this idea among the more literate Leftists. Notwithstanding the death of their ideological core, the Left retains some pretty sharp people. Don’t let the braindeadness of their public mouthpieces fool you; the rabbit hole still goes pretty deep over there.