Reihan: Marginalization and the Ironic Left

Earlier today I wrote a extremely short post on Vietnam revisionism that some have interpreted as "snarky." Well, revisit the post and imagine if it were instead entirely literal.

My sense is that Perlstein, for perfectly respectable reasons, wanted to discredit a strain of thinking about Vietnam, and so he chose two books that are emblematic (in different ways!) of this strain. There are other books that would lead you to a wider discussion of Vietnam revisionism, but this wider discussion would be less effective in achieving the end of discrediting a particular strain of thinking.

Focused enmity is an important part of almost any political movement's strategy: the goal is to shift the terms of the debate (the "Overton window") over time in a more favorable direction. And so right-wingers, during their ascendancy, sought to marginalize those segments of the left that argued (often very convincingly) for measures that would move U.S. society in a social-democratic direction. (I think this effort had mixed results to say the very least: many decent ideas were tossed out with the bathwater, though let's not kid ourselves about the state of the debate circa the Ford White House.) In a similar vein, a lot of smart liberals I know spend a lot of time thinking about how to use a very favorable intellectual climate. Should the left seek to discredit right-wing ideas? Of course. Should the left build an alliance with the mainstream to enduringly marginalize right-wing ideas? I think this is increasingly the goal.

Some lefties, generally the more savvy and (I hate to say this, because it's subtler than this) more intelligent, see the irony in these efforts. Right-wing pressure groups in the 1970s and 1980s railed against the left-wing media. The "problem" was solved in part by technologies that allowed entrepreneurs to serve this disgruntled audience, e.g., talk radio, Fox News, etc. An ironic left recognizes that the so-called "MSM" isn't "right-wing" the way Reed Irvine believed it to be "left-wing," yet it also knows that MSM personnel are more susceptible to the kind of subtle social pressures they can exert. (As Jon Chait memorably argued, the "MSM" is upper-middle biased more than right- or left-biased: the same neoliberal consensus enshrined by the Clintons, but maybe a little more conservative on entitlements.) So the ironic left creates parallel pressure groups.

Here's the thing: the first ironic generation is supplanted by a second unironic generation that is "activist" in the same way the kids at CPAC are "activist": unreflective, tough, eager to strike back. (Note that young people can be part of the ironic left: Matt Yglesias is one of its standard-bearers, though of course the ironic left can't have a standard-bearer by its very nature.) The ironic left seeks to marginalize, in the hopes of "achieving our country." The foot soldiers put the plan into effect, often without understanding the nature of the project. Many hail from monolithically right-wing communities, where they were among (or at least perceived themselves to be among) a small minority of tolerant, bright people. So the war against the other team maps onto a complicated, shifting set of personal resentments and rivalries.

My sense is that Perlstein, clearly a brilliant writer, is part of the ironic left. He recognizes himself as part of a longer-term historical project designed to make the United States a more just, egalitarian, robustly democratic society, and I'll bet he sees a continuity between the progressives of today and the abolitionists and Tom Paine republicans of the past. For America to move forward in what he sees as the right direction, he needs to engage in gloves-off intellectual combat against a powerful ideological machine backed by corporate America, not marred by false consciousness, and furthered by armies devout religious believers and other people who are marred by false consciousness.

As someone who has strong sympathies with social-democratic politics and with conservative politics (I'll have to explain this at some point, but my guess is that only my mother would find this to be of interest), I find Charles Beardian thinking from the left and right alike mostly depressing and unedifying, but I do want to see how it all plays out. That's why I think of myself more as an omnivorous observer than as an activist. I haven't voted since 2000, though I should say that this mostly reflects a deep disdain for my options. (I was a big believer in proportional representation, and I'd vote for it tomorrow if I could.) I go where the most odd and interesting debates are happening. Were I ever to engage in more-than-mild criticism, it would be directed against the smug and self-satisfied and mean-spirited. But there's so much of this going around that policing it would be exhausting, not to mention profoundly unfun.

One tragedy of contemporary conservatism is that there's no such thing as an ironic right, apart from a few dozen people, most of them quite amusing.