In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part V)

A twenty-first-century pilgrim ends a year-long journey where the seventeenth-century Pilgrims ended theirs—on the coast of New England, not far from where his travels began
The Democratic Party as a Black Hole

The real surprise on the political left in Americais that nothing is happening. Not that I claim to have seen everything in such a limited time. But I did meet former members of the Clinton, Gore, and Kerry teams. At the AFL-CIO headquarters I attended a "joint conference" of three organizations designed to extract lessons from the defeat and prepare for battles yet to come. I saw union members and intellectuals, elected officials and strategists, the old and the young. For three days I hunted down the New Democrat, that supposedly developing breed of which, I was told, I could find as many specimens as I liked in Washington.

The results, I'm afraid, didn't measure up either to my hopes or—far more serious—to what anyone might reasonably expect given the quality, intensity, and strength of the ideological argument mounted by the right.

At the end of my inquiry I found:

1. Sixty-year-old "young" Democrats whose arguments date back if not to the Kennedy years, then at least to the centrist wave that elected Bill Clinton. Thus Al From (of the Democratic Leadership Council) and Will Marshall (of the Progressive Policy Institute) spent two hours selling me on the merits of a "third way," which I am convinced they would have described in exactly the same terms twenty years ago.

2. Very peculiar progressives whose only concern seemed to be to persuade the visitor—hence, I imagine, the voter—that they shouldn't accept lessons on patriotism, religion, or morality from anyone, least of all their opponents. "The heartland of America is us," is basically what John Podesta, formerly the White House chief of staff, now the head of the Center for American Progress, told me. The Bible, religious faith, the crusade for family values—all that is us too, and letting others monopolize it is simply out of the question. When the Lewinsky affair was brought up, and the key role it played, in my opinion, in America's swerve to the right; when I told him that the founders of held the same prejudices as their enemies on this question and almost condemned the former president, I beheld the extraordinary spectacle of the grand adviser blushing like a baby, laughing nervously like a maiden aunt, and replying that perhaps Clinton had committed a "blunder."

3. More radical left-wingers, people like Michael Moore, who at least understand that the only way the Democrats can break out of the mess they're in is to take the initiative, construct a world view that's distinct from the Republicans', and stop all their whining that they're good guys too, and that the lowest rates of divorce and teen pregnancy are in the blue states. But here the problem is in the rhapsodic—or worse, populist—flavor of a far too abstract radicalism. And when the question of Iraq is brought up, and—beyond Iraq—the role of America at large, the problem is also a certain pacifism that has a whiff of isolationism, difficult to distinguish from the isolationism of someone like Pat Buchanan.

4. People who supposedly fight for their ideas: activists who explain that they have only one objective, to regenerate the ideological substance of their party; heads of think tanks who, as genuine or feigned progressives, as people who are nostalgic for moral order or who advocate steering away from it, present themselves as ideologues and assure you that their aim is to vanquish the right, and especially the neo-conservatives, on the battlefield of doctrine. But when you push them a little, when you ask them what their time-line is and, within this time-line, what their tactical or strategic priorities are, their only common ground is talk about … money!

During the presidential campaign I had already observed this phenomenon. I had noticed the frequent press releases that informed us, day after day, like so many victory bulletins, about the status of the party's finances. I had seen how, here, money is the very sign and symptom of excellence, whereas in France money is What Must Above All Never Be Discussed.

But now the campaign is over. Now is the time for reconstruction. So let me take the instance of this joint conference. I'll choose those three hours of debate in which the participants, myself included, were meant to question one another about the profound reasons for the increased electoral turnout that occurred during Bush's re-election.

The fact is that two thirds, maybe three quarters, of the speeches were devoted to talking not about "party lines," not even about "communication" or "advocacy," but about marketing, fundraising, the relative merits of the ceremonies financed by the Republicans or the Democrats, the role of the Internet. The fact is that these brilliant pioneers who were supposed to set down the cornerstones for the people's house of tomorrow had only one idea, one obsession, and, fundamentally, one watchword: how, in four years, to fight the Republicans on the battlefield of fundraising …

I have nothing against money as such. And there's a part of me that doesn't hate the complex-free, offhanded manner Americans have of approaching the subject.

Yet on that day, I wanted to hear about something else. I looked for speeches about why this money should be raised. I yearned for one voice, just one, to articulate the three or four major issues that, given the current debate and balance of power, might constitute the framework of a political agenda. A defense of the Enlightenment against the creationist offensive. A Tocquevillian revolution extolling certainly not atheism but secularism, and maintaining the separation of church and state. A new New Deal for the poorest of the poor. An uncompromising defense of human rights, and a rejection of the "exceptional" status of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.


Money, and then money yet again. Money, the index and criterion of all things. The hypothesis, the axiom, according to which, in order to win the battle of ideas, you first have to win the battle of money.

An observer—someone who, like me, was struck by the vigor of the neo-conservative awakening and was expecting to see at least its equivalent on the other side—senses a trap in the process of closing. For a long time the Republican Party was the party of money. For a long time the Democrats repeated, "We have ideas, but you have money, and that's why you win."

Today a turnaround—or, rather, a trick of history—has occurred, and all of a sudden the two camps are struggling on opposite fronts: a right wing of money but also of ideas, which in twenty years has renewed its ideological supplies; and a left wing that, by dint of wanting to compete on the battlefield of money, is in the process of losing its footing on the ground of ideas, and thus of losing, period.

Doing Away with Junk Politics

W e are always a little ashamed, Baudelaire wrote, of mentioning names that won't mean anything to anyone in fifty years.

In the case of David Brock the shame is redoubled.

First of all because you won't need fifty years, or twenty, or even ten, to see this name disappear from American political memory. But also because the character himself is in many respects one of the most objectively loathsome I've met in the ten months I've been traveling through this country.

He is a little over forty years old. Dark brown hair, smug good looks, thin wire-rimmed glasses. The well-defined square jaw of a tennis pro. Yet in the corners of his mouth; in the self-satisfied bitterness of his smile; in his morose, fugitive glance; last, in his odd complacency in not sparing any detail of his shadowy past, there is something that makes me deeply uneasy.

Here is his story, as he tells it to me.

This is the guy that a Republican lawyer summoned to Arkansas in 1994, to offer him, keys in hand, the so-called secrets of Bill Clinton's bodyguards. He is the journalist who, based on these cobbled-together pieces of information, gave The American Spectator the article (titled "His Cheatin' Heart") that launched the whole affair of Clinton's sex scandals.

But after he'd done his dirty work, and the president was crucified and his private life spread out on all the American networks and throughout the world; after the delayed-action bomb had been thrown that would poison the political life of the country for a decade; then he regretted what he had provoked, and made it his new specialty—on all the airwaves, in the columns of all the newspapers, in an interminable, conceited memoir that immediately became a best seller, in a thundering letter of excuse to Clinton himself, published in Esquire, in which he asked forgiveness for wanting "to pop [him] right between the eyes"—to declare his shame, his very great shame, and he went over to the Democratic Party to which he had done so much harm, but which he wanted thereafter, cross his heart, to serve with all his remaining strength.

Now, in this Washington office where he receives me and where, since his conversion, he has set up Media Matters for America, an agency that works against Republican disinformation, and which he created with the help of a handful of Democratic sponsors, here again is this theatrical way of covering his head with ashes. The impression I get comes across like this: I invented facts … I rigged information … I'm a faker … I have no honor … In this affair I did just what I did ten years earlier, to that poor Anita Hill … I didn't even care about the rules of my profession but about fame … not even fame, but money … just money … the lure of a reward … Now I regret it … Oh! I so regret it … There is not enough time left in my life to redeem myself, to ask for forgiveness, to grovel at the feet of my new friends, hoping they'll one day forgive me …

Just think, say the bigwig Democrats who recommended that I see him, for whom the winning over of such an individual is obviously perceived, even today, as a godsend—an apostate! A renegade! Someone who comes to us with, in his beggar's bundle, the stuff, the secrets, the list of the enemy camp's dirty tricks! The ideal political spy! The most valuable of turned spies! He was in the heart of the machine, had close contact with the Beast, and he's just abandoned it all! You can't get much better than that, can you?

Presented by

Bernard-Henri Lévy

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a writer and philosopher who lives in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Barbarism With a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and War, Evil, and the End of History. This is the last in a series of articles.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In