The Left's Central Problem

The central problem of the (self-described) decent cosmopolitan left is that America is not, by their standards, a decent cosmopolitan country. The United States is a nation-state. Early on, the United States was a Herrenvolk democracy or ethnocracy dominated by a relatively small slice of the European-origin population. Since then, American democracy has deepened and broadened in many respects, but it remains infused by nationalism and a constitutional regime that is in many respects elitist and anti-majoritarian. As it turns out, the elitist and anti-majoritarian dimensions of the American constitutional state interact with American ethnoracial diversity in a number of interesting and, for the left, vexing ways. (Consider the rather amusing name of the “American Constitution Society,” the left’s answer to the Federalist Society. Originally, the group was to be named after James Madison. Madison, though, was a slaveowner. And besides, many prominent members of the ACS favor radical revisions of the United States Consitution. Some, including Bruce Ackerman, favor a German-style constitution. So perhaps the group ought to have been named the German Constitution Society, thanks to Germany’s more extensive protection of basic rights, its consensual model of worker-management relations, and its embrace of minority-friendly proportional representation.) For example, it shapes and some would say perverts the kind of redistribution that occurs. As Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina have argued, it seems that ethnoracial fragmentation cuts against redistribution — taxpayers are reluctant to subsidize members of outgroups, a gut instinct that is easily characterized as racist. But perhaps this impulse is a useful corrective, and one of the virtues of diversity — i.e., perhaps greater homogeneity leads taxpayers to overinterpret a kind of nationalist sameness, thus leading to higher levels of redistribution than are in fact desirable. Now, I don’t think this is obviously true, but it’s no less plausible than the other story, namely that the interrelationship between extreme homogeneity and social democracy is an unambiguously good thing.

Which leads me to Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Chris Hayes has written a characteristically smart piece on the hypocrisy of Wright’s critics.

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After three decades of the mainstreaming of dangerous and reactionary viewpoints, though, even the mildest bit of left-wing radicalism is deemed toxic and taboo. So while Ann Coulter can call John Edwards a faggot, Grover Norquist can say he wants to drown the government in the bathtub, and a host of imperialists can foment an illegal and pre-emptive war based on lies, Barack Obama’s pastor isn’t allowed to mention that America has been throughout its history the site and cause of much evil in this world.

This, of course, is a fairly straightforward result of the nationalism of most Americans, and the (mostly correct) view that while America has been been “the site and cause of much evil in this world,” surely we’re not unique or even terribly distinguished in this regard. Mind you, this is more of a sad commentary on the world, but it is true nonetheless. American exceptionalism, our peculiar form of nationalism, often collapses into American solipsism. And Wright’s brand of “mild left-wing radicalism” is just that: surely Wright, as a learned and impressive figure, understands that the evils he describes are present in many societies, and that America has taken the lead in seeking to redress them.

Chris continues,

Ultimately, though, this controversy, like so many in American life, is about race. It’s telling that the issue of Wright’s views have percolated among the right-wing fringes for months, but it was only with the discovery of a video, and the images and sounds of an angry black man decrying racial oppression in the cadences of the black church that the media staged a collective freakout.

Of course, documentary evidence of a white man doing the same would surely have a similar impact. I grew up watching television, and I have a keen appreciation for the power of images. By layering race over this simple and familiar fact, Chris takes a mundane fact, that people respond to images more readily than text, and makes it seem alarming and suspect.

Chris ends with the following:

And if, of all things, it is his pastor’s heated denunciation of American injustice that undoes the candidacy of an African American with a legitimate chance at the White House, any conscientious observer could be forgiven for thinking: God damn America indeed.

The trouble is, for the decent cosmopolitan left, that only a small minority of Americans are conscientious by their admirably high standards. There’s a profound mismatch between the country their values and the frankly nationalist values of the country they seek to govern and remake in their own image. Chris touches on this difficulty here:

So now, after years of Democrats being hectored for being insufficiently pious we have candidate who speaks openly and genuinely about his Christian faith, and what happens? The man whom the candidate says brought him to Jesus is transformed into a political liability. The entire episode has a familiar Lucy-and-the-football quality to it. Four years ago Democrats, having been told they had to prove their patriotism and military bona fides, nominated a war hero, and what happened? He was promptly attacked precisely for his record of military service. It’s a rigged game.

And of course this seems like a rigged game when these efforts are pursued in such a calculating manner. (I can’t think of a more delicate way to put this.) Authenticity matters to voters, and Kerry was a contradictory figure in many respects. I have no doubt that Senator Obama is as devout as he claims, yet he’s also reluctant to wear an American flag lapel pin. Though he’s embraced a devotional, very public brand of religiosity, it could be that his thoughts on faith are decidedly complex, and not well suited to being enthusiastically discussed on the campaign trail. That is perfectly respectable, and some would say to his credit. Unfortunately, such a stance represents a liability in a confessional culture, a point that Senator Clinton has made in another context.

Finally, Chris begins his essay with an interesting notion.

Imagine for a moment that you are pro-life. You believe that each abortion represents the murder of an innocent child. And as it stands despite protests and lawsuits and bills passed in the state legislatures, and organizing and marching and lobbying and petitioning, abortion in America remains legal and each year over 1 million innocent children are murdered. Yet America continues to stand idly by and allow this mass slaughter. If you were religious, you might think that God judged America harshly for this crime, for the nation’s continuing indifference, and you might even think that God damns America for its tolerance of a holocaust.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that if a Republican presidential candidate were running for president and had a preacher with the views spelled out above, that it would cause much of a stir, or even register a blip in the brain-dead oscillations of the twenty-four-hour, scandal-cycle EKG.

Does anyone remember the notorious First Things symposium on the justness of the American regime in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade? And the alarmed reaction of ardently “pro-American” conservatives, several of whom left the board of First Things and condemned some of the symposiasts. Then there was the Falwell incident. It could be that Wright isn’t getting a fair shake. But devout anti-Americans of the right, including friends of mine, are profoundly alienated from America’s nationalist mainstream. Read Ross for more insight on this subject.