Sunday, October 17, 2004

The current political polarization

The November 4 issue of the NY Review of Books contains a symposium in which fourteen NYR writers respond on “The Election and America’s Future.” Several of them, including Mark Danner, Thomas Powers, and Brian Urquhart have written perceptively on current affairs in the pages of the magazine. Yet the conclusions of all fourteen are uniform: no intelligent person could vote for Bush. This is the kind of collective narcissism one finds at countless dinner parties in the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I live. The symposium might be a tape recording of such a gathering. In the atmosphere of mutual congratulation that prevails in these contexts, there is no effort to consider, even for a moment, what the other side might be thinking, and how voters, imbued with this thinking, will pull the lever for Bush.

For my part I hope that Kerry wins. But this victory, if it comes, will not be achieved with the help of the smug arrogance displayed in this NYR symposium. It looks as if the NYR brain trust is setting itself up for a Pauline Kael moment. Kael, it will be remembered, was astonished when she found that Nixon won the election. “No one I know voted for him,” she noted.

Some of the hubris of the opposite side is shown in a quotation from Mark McKinnon, a Bush media consultant, responding to a question by the liberal journalist Ron Suskind, as reported in the NY Times Magazine (Oct. 17). “You think [Bush’s] an idiot, don’t you? … [A]ll of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast … Let me clue you in. We don’t care. Your see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America who don’t read The New York Times of Washington Post or the LA Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops [sic], his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what these folks don’t like? They don’t like you.”

Yet Suskind, the liberal target of these harsh remarks, is undeterred. He calmly refers to his group—those inhabiting the Blue zone attacked by McKinnon--as “reality-based.” Huh? I live among these people on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I share their hope, though not much else, that Bush will be defeated. But I am not delusional enough to think that only the views of my neighbors are “reality-based.”

Of course much crude ranting comes from Republicans, especially on cable TV. But it is a huge tactical error to think that conservative views are simply redneck mouthings, unsupported by ideas. Arguably there are more ideas on the Republican side than the Democrat one.

It is not hard to survey this ideology. It started twenty-five years ago when George Will provided a conservative rationale for big government in his “statecraft as soulcraft.” More recently this idea of aggressive government intervention has gone global in National Greatness Conservatism, as advocated by David Brooks, William Kristol, and others. These ideas are not limited to a narrow circle of neo-cons, though of course 9/11 has helped to lend them urgency.

For my own part, these statist views send chills to the very center of my libertarian soul. I hope that they do not prevail. But we are summoned to analyze and refute this ideology, not to pretend that it doesn’t exist. All too often, to cite Schopenhauer, traditional liberalism has taken the limits of its horizon for the limits of the world. If an alternative to the current ideology is to prevail we must take it seriously, abandoning the comforts of a cocoon of collective narcissism.