XIV. What's the matter with... liberals?

Annie is very puzzled by most of her fellow Americans. She doesn't understand their taste in food, or clothing, and she really doesn't get why so many of them go to church. More than anything else, though, she's baffled about why they hate liberals so much.

Social Security, student loans, interstate highways, subsidized mortgages, electricity in every darkest Dogpatch of the benighted South -- all these things, and more, were the liberals' gift to America. They're all things that regular Red-State Americans consider their birthright. In fact, it's not too much to say that all these liberal initiatives built the world the liberal-haters live in. So what's their problem? Why do they have to bite the hand that feeds them -- that's fed them for three generations now?

Annie, though she won't admit it -- old Commie that she is -- suspects they're just stupid. She won't come right out and say so, but she talks a lot about how all these white-bread, flyover-country Amurricans are "deceived" and "fooled" by the mass media, how they're "misled" by demagogues and TV preachers, how they're "deprived" of important information, how they're "distracted" and "stultified" and "hypnotized" and "lulled" and "educationally deprived." It's not their fault, of course, poor babies; they've been schnookered.

But if they're that easily schnookered, doesn't that suggest that they're really, well, not very bright?

This conclusion doesn't satisfy me. I'd rather start from the premise that the Red Staters, the Bush voters, even the holy-rollers, are in fact just as smart as the next person, and that if they hate liberals, they might have their reasons.

If this sounds like the DLC "triangulator" argument -- well, it is: up to a point. Where we need to part company with the triangulators will appear a little later on.

It's a commonplace of American historiography that our national narrative has been, to a very great degree, the story of a struggle between the progeny of Hamilton and those of Jefferson -- or, better yet, of Jackson. The sons and daughters of Hamilton are centralizers, promoters of Federal power, urban and mercantile elites, graduates of Ivy League universities. The progeny of Jefferson and Jackson, on the other hand, have always been the localists, the small-towners, the rough-hewn, the bootstrappers, the tobacco-chewers and whisky-drinkers. Oh, and the local squire and slaveowner -- we mustn't forget him.

This is not the same thing as the cleavage between Left and Right, between progressive and reactionary. In fact, it's a cleavage that runs almost at right angles to Left and Right. There's an anti-elitist, Left aspect to the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian story, but there's also a terribly reactionary side to it -- an embrace of "states' rights", with all that that implies; a deep-dyed racism; a close-mindedness and provincialism; an anti-intellectualism and a susceptibility to obscurantism and superstition.

On the Hamiltonian side, it isn't just a story of central banks, the sacred obligations of a bond issue, the more-than-sacred totem of hard money. There's also an openness to rationality, to modernity, to ideas that come from somewhere else -- even, perhaps, from Europe!

So where, in this divide, is the Left supposed to go? With the Hamiltonians and their central bank and their top-down ideas of governance, or with the Jacksonians and their uncouth, ill-informed, hick prejudices? Talk about a Hobson's choice.

Liberalism, in the sense Americans attach to that term, has made its choice. It's Hamiltonian to the core. There is no institution more holy to the modern American liberal than the Supreme Court -- and there is no institution more profoundly undemocratic. Liberals like the idea of Federalizing policy matters: abortion, religion in the schools, even speed limits. Liberals tend to feel that regulation is a constructive thing, and don't really see why anybody should object to being required to wear a seat belt, or a motorcyle helmet. It's for their own good, after all.

The reasons for this outlook are not far to seek. With few exceptions, people who consider themselves "liberal" tend to be relatively well-educated and generally either belong to the managerial-professional-professorial cadre or work in media or the arts. This class is, in effect, the modern, secular equivalent of the parsons and monks who kept the administrative and cultural machinery of mediaeval society running. The peasants did most of the hard work, and the barons and abbots and kings enjoyed most of the goodies, but it was the conscientious, self-disciplined, literate, moral clerics who greased the institutional axles and mended the institutional harness.

We don't really have a name for our modern educated, intelligent, reflective brain-worker class, so I'm going to revive a fine old Chaucerian word and call them the "clerks". Boardroom condottieri like Dennis Kozlowski are our equivalent of the robber barons of old, though the modern barons' taste runs more to Lear jets and $10,000 shower curtains than to roistering in the great hall and rogering the kitchen wenches on the side. Our clerks don't approve of the modern baronial oafs and their wretched excess any more than the monks of Citeaux approved of the Duke of Burgundy's mistresses. Like the monks of Citeaux, our liberal clerks are tender-hearted toward the downtrodden, and feel strongly that the rich and powerful should treat the poor and powerless more kindly. But like the monks of Citeaux, our clerks are also intensely loyal to the core institutions of the society. For the monks, it was the church and the feudal order; for our clerks, it's the constitution, the schools, the courts, and the law.

They are, after all, bred to it - or really, I should say, we are bred to it, since in fact I belong to this class myself. We got where we are by going to school, doing our homework, getting good scores on our tests, matriculating at good colleges, and then landing good jobs with possibilities for promotion, and doing those jobs conscientiously. Most people who grow up to be liberals have faithfully kept their side of the social contract as it was represented to them, and have found that the other side has kept its promises to them, too - at least until recently, when the dukes and earls of corporate America have undertaken, like epigonal Henry Tudors in suits, to dissolve our little monasteries one by one.

Meanwhile, out there in the sticks, there are all the people who didn't get on the escalator; who didn't go to the good schools, or couldn't pay attention and buckle down in the schools they did go to; who never acquired much culture, learned a foreign language, or cultivated refined tastes in food and drink. Our liberals may feel sorry for these unfortunates, but they neither respect nor trust them. Hoi polloi haven't studied, they haven't learned, they have no expertise, none of the professional man or woman's intellectual or personal discipline, and they do have all kinds of odd and poorly-founded ideas. By all means we must better their lot, and raise them as much as possible from their degraded state, preferably by more, and more relentless, education, but -- let them run things? That would be a disaster.

American liberals are decent, moral, humane people, and so they would like to make our fundamentally undemocratic institutions operate more benignly. But they are themselves an elite - and, what's worse, an elite of merit, if SATs and good grades and postgraduate degrees mean anything. And elites of any kind are seldom enthusiastic about handing over the reins to the great unwashed. So our liberal clerks, kind and beneficent though they are, have no fundamental quarrel with an undemocratic, Hamiltonian social order - indeed, if truth be told, they rather like it, though they mostly conceal this fact even from themselves.

In the sticks, where Jeffersonian and Jacksonian sentiment have always thrived, liberals, being openly and obviously Hamiltonian in outlook, are recognized as adherents of the ancestral enemy. Most ordinary Americans don't really know any powerful corporate honchos - any of the people who really rule them - just as most mediaeval laborers never made the acquaintance of the Duke of Burgundy. The actual structures of ultimate power in our society, as in any society, are fairly remote and abstract. But the teacher and the bureaucrat, the psychologist and the consultant, are known quantities, and they are not universally loved. These figures stand at the meeting point of Hamiltonian rubber and Jacksonian road.

The anti-liberalism of "red-state" Americans is a little like the anti-Semitism of the mediaeval peasantry. The peasants should have been angry at the lords, who had all the real power, and were their real, ultimate oppressors. But they didn't really know the lords, and the lords put on a good show, and occasionally threw a party on the castle lawn. On the other hand, the Jewish merchant and the Jewish moneylender were chronic, day-to-day, intimately-known antagonists. The lords, being remote, could pose as defenders of Christianity and rural tradition, just as corporate errand boys in the Republican party nowadays can pose as Nascar-lovin', gun-totin', plain-speakin' regular Amurricans. But Jews then, and liberals now, can't strike that pose and make it convincing. Like Aunt Polly, the liberal's social essence, his mission in life, is to edify, reform, civilize, and educate; and people don't always welcome missionaries.

The Jacksonian outlook, as we noted above, contains an inchoate Leftishness; it's insurrectionary and anti-elitist by nature, and these rebellious embers could be - and from time to time have been - fanned into flame by circumstances, and by political leaders who articulated a genuinely mutinous program. But nowadays the official left end of the political spectrum in the United States - as any editorial-page hack will tell you - is not mutiny, it is liberalism. And liberalism is a thoroughly elitist attitude. To be sure, it valorizes an elite of education, of expertise, of adherence to legal form and due process, rather than an elite of wealth and unscrupulous, unbridled power. But it is nevertheless an elite. Liberalism cannot speak to the mutinous side of the Jacksonian mind; and so faute de mieux, reaction speaks to it instead, and urges it to overthrow the iniquitous Hamiltonian dictatorship of - the liberals!

So the poor liberals get it coming and going. They keep the machinery in order - like those old mediaeval monks - for the benefit of the real rulers; and then the real rulers turn around and use them, the way the Jews were used in the Middle Ages, as scapegoats for public discontent.

But let's not shed too many tears for liberalism. Its weakness lies in the fact that by virtue of its deepest nature, it can't address the anger and resentment -- the well-founded, if misdirected, anger and resentment -- of much of the public. It is too invested in the institutions that have placed its adherents in positions of status, responsibility, and emolument. As long as the Left in American life is identified with liberalism, it doesn't have a prayer. It can't tap the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian, bottom-rail-on-top energies of the American people. And into the vacuum thus left, the Karl Roves and Matt Drudges, the Rush Limbaughs and the John McLaughlins, can move. They're not the real Jeffersonian-Jacksonian thing, of course. They just borrow its language and dress up in its clothes; but they're the only ones out there who are even doing that much. The liberals don't bother to hide their top-down, Hamiltonian way of thinking -- in fact they're quite convinced that it is, in that favorite liberal turn of phrase, "appropriate." The reactionaries, on the other hand, at least pay the public the tribute of hypocrisy, and articulate, however deceitfully, the anger that people understandably - appropriately! -- feel.

Given a choice between an erstaz Jacksonianism and the real thing, I believe that many Americans would prefer the real thing. But given a choice between ersatz Jacksonianism and frank Hamiltonianism, it's no contest; they'll take the ersatz friend over the open enemy any time. In this respect, of course, Red Staters are very much like their Blue State counterparts, who embrace those false friends, the Democrats, in fear of the open enemy, the Republicans.

Speaking of false friends, of course, brings us back to those Blues in Red's clothing, those Aunt Pollys trying to cuss and drink like Pap, the Triangulators: the DLC and its entourage of satellite organizations, the he-Clintons and she-Clintons, the Joe Liebermans. The faux Jacksonians of the Republican party are what we might call first-order con men, or hypocrites simpliciter; they're errand boys for corporate power and greed, masquerading as advocates for the Little Guy. Their form of dishonesty is comparatvely straightforward.

The dishonesty of the triangulators is of a far more complex and exotic kind. They are second- or even third-order con men: grifters of one kind posing as grifters of another kind; degenerate liberals posing as hypocritical corporate populists. Or perhaps it's the other way around; in such a well-stirred and long-simmered stew of dishonesty, it becomes difficult to distinguish the ingredients.

The Republicans have a comparatively simple role to play in the American political comedy, and they play it with a certain amount of conviction and plausibility. By contrast, the triangulation game is an exceptionally complex and involuted sting -- a design so intricate that it can't possibly ever work right. The triangulator role is so subtly conceived that it's unplayable -- the hapless actor cast in this part can't help giving off a ripe stench of slipperiness, contrivance, and chronic bad faith. His task is to tell two obviously contradictory lies to two different audiences, while both audiences are simultaneously present. He has to tell the liberals that he's really, basically, a "progressive" like them, and at the same time he has to tell the disgruntled Jacksonians that he endorses their resentments. Compared to the Democrats, no wonder the Republicans look comparatively straightforward and honest -- which is, perhaps, the Democrats' greatest service, among many services, to the triumphal march of reaction. The Democrat is such an obvious gallows-bird that the Republican by contrast seems like a straight shooter.

It would be a great deal easier for the American people to see through the Republican and his false populism, if it weren't for the Democrat on the same stage, looking so deeply and manifestly fraudulent, so hang-dog, sidelong, slinking and serpentine, so embroiled in multiple simultaneous cons that he can't remember himself which lie he's telling to whom at any given moment.

Harry Truman famously said of Richard Nixon, "I don't think the son of a bitch knows how to tell the truth." The same could be said for Nixon's contemporary Republican progeny; but they sure do know how to lie. They've brought it to a fine art. By contrast, the Democrat not only doesn't know how to tell the truth; he also doesn't even know how to lie with any degree of conviction. Or rather, he's trying to lie at a level of virtuosity that's beyond his skill -- perhaps beyond anybody's skill. The Republicans, like the hedgehog, have One Big Lie that they tell to one and all; but the Democrats are a not-very-competent fox, with a different lie for everybody, and a lamentable inability to keep their various stories straight.

The strategy of "triangulation", then, doesn't appear likely to bring the Democrats back into anything like parity with the Republicans. It's just too complicated and tricky, and complicated, tricky things seldom work very well - particularly when they underestimate the intelligence of the public, a thing that it's quite possible to do, whether Annie believes it or not. Even the master triangulator himself, Bill Clinton, had to catch a couple of lucky breaks to make it work for him. In 1992, he was running against an incumbent who had shot himself in the foot, and Clinton probably wouldn't have won even so, if Ross Perot hadn't further cut into the incumbent's base. In 1996, Clinton had the advantage of incumbency, relative prosperity, an unprepossessing opponent, ovverreaching Republicans in Congress following their midterm victories in 1994, and help from Perot again.

More to the point, though, for those of us on the Left, is the question of whether the Clinton strategy is worth doing even if it could work reliably. And surely the answer must be "no", as Clinton's own record in office sufficiently demonstrates.

Behind this question lies a deeper question for us Lefties: who do we really trust? Is it the institutions, or the people? Do we want to continue to rely on the Supreme Court? On a handful of senior, mildly liberal senators? On the American Civil Liberties Union? On establishment environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club? Weak reeds indeed.

There is an alternative, but it's frightening. We could decide to start believing in democracy instead. We could dismount from the high horse of education and expertise and embrace the Jacksonian bloody-mindedness of our fellow Americans. This would require listening as well as talking, and there would no doubt be many areas - cultural ones in particular - where we would just have to agree to disagree, at least for the time being.

Right-wing archfiend Grover Norquist, one of the leading engineers of Republican dominance in the last twenty years, has some important insights for us. Norquist says that one of the reasons ordinary Americans have shifted in such numbers to the Republicans is that, more than anything else, they want to be left alone: not meddled with, not edified, not improved. They want their dealings with bureaucracy to be few and quick, and they don't llike filling out forms. They know perfectly well that the Democratic party does not respect this desire on their part. Of course, the Republicans don't, either, but the yoke that the Republicans would settle on our shoulders takes a somewhat different form and doesn't appear so obviously as the government's work. The Republican program is a kind of wide-open, Wild Wes regime of untrammeled corporate self-enrichment. This program eventuates, of course, in a grinding oppression of the ordinary citizen, but that oppression appears to be the result of natural law, or the citizen's own failure to compete well, or of wickedness on the part of some specific corporate evildoer; it doesn't appear, on its face, in the ideological world we live in, as a social phenomenon, and specifically as the outcome of a certain kind of governance. So the Republican's hatred of taxing the wealthy, protecting the land and water and air, and spending on social goods like schools and parks, can be packaged as opposition to government meddling in general. And Joe Citizen doesn't like government meddling.

He's right not to like it; and those of us who have a streak of real Leftism in us -- those who may consider themselves liberals, for lack of a better word, but have within themselves, perhaps without fully realizing it, a streak of something hotter and more rebellious -- we ought to recognize and honor this impulse on Joe's part, and find a way to connect with it. We have a better and more honest story to tell on this subject than the Republicans have, and we should start telling it.

Concretely, what would this strategy look like? Keep reading.

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