Recently I was asked to participate in a symposium on Michael Berube’s “The Left At War” for the journal “Politics and Culture.” I took the author to be scolding those he calls the “Manichean Left” because they threatened the ability of the Left to govern in what might be a dawning Progressive age. I took the opportunity to reflect on whether the Left can govern in the United States. You can read the entire essay here. Below is a sample:
Berube sketches a moral outline for his version of the social-democratic left. He makes his case in normative language and wants the left to work toward a wide variety of policies that improve the nation and the world relative to these moral ideals. But serious progress on this policy agenda, seemingly possible after the election of 2008, requires connecting with the people of Kansas. Berube wants a politically savvy left to take this opportunity and persuade the broad middle of America that the left’s policies are the best expressions of the American self. Drawing from Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms, Berube believes that a caring social democracy that protects the vulnerable and that moves closer to international governance rooted in these moral principles is a reasonable expectation.
For Berube’s high moral agenda of a world made just, I detect NOTHING that approaches a story. Conservatism 2.0, however historically thin, nonetheless tells a story of America that allows citizens to play a role in a comprehendible reality. Being American matters to them because it situates them in a particular, understandable, laudable narrative. Who could love something as abstract as humanity—cold, faceless, and, one has to assume, eventually bland? I may not find a story about natural rights and a city on a hill to be sufficiently rich with historical texture to satisfy my needs for roots, but this “conservative” story is amazingly attractive to people who want to believe that their nation’s story has cosmic purpose, and that its flaws are not so much a result of evil as of a well-meaning but naïve people. The problem with the left is not that they critique this story—it is that they have no story of their own that allows the people of Kansas to find a role to play. For this purpose (to say nothing of his great many failings as a historian), Howard Zinn has nothing to offer Americans. Because the left cannot tell a story of America, they cannot govern.