Upside-down politics

Our political vocabulary is so out of date that we call the true revolutionaries among us "conservatives" and the reactionaries "liberals."

Published July 27, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In the political landscape, seismic shifts first occur below the surface. Only after accumulating a critical social mass do they become visible. Until then, one can track their movement in the growing incoherence of the political language, and in the terms we use to describe our political choices, like "liberal" and "conservative."

But, as even the most casual observer knows, these terms no longer identify a consistent set of political positions. Instead, they increasingly refer to policies that are almost the opposite of what the terms themselves imply.

Take the late, unlamented tobacco bill, the most passionate liberal cause of Clinton's second term. Why should this qualify as a liberal bill except in the trivial sense that a coalition of self-identified "liberals" spawned the campaign to (in effect) outlaw the noxious weed?

What is liberal, for example, about a bill that would use the power of the state to crush an industry that is otherwise legal, and whose customers voluntarily pay billions a year to purchase its product in full knowledge of its medical consequences? What is liberal about a strategy that would achieve such social agendas by regulating what people can see and hear, and by imposing a regressive tax whose burdens would fall principally on working people and the poor?

But then, what is liberal about liberals at all anymore, except their attitudes toward drugs and sex?

What the obsolescence of the political language reveals, in fact, is how profoundly the parties themselves have changed; how much they have in effect traded places. The opponents of the tobacco legislation -- the "conservative" party in contemporary political discourse -- is in practice the party of liberal values (deregulatory and individualistic) and of social reform.

It is Republicans who want to shrink the power of the federal bureaucracies and devolve it through the states to the people. It is the liberal party that is dominated by a faction of political reactionaries and puritan busybodies fighting tooth and nail to obstruct this process, and to reinstitute the kind of moral prohibitionism that was proven bankrupt more than a half century ago.

The reactionary character of the "progressive" left in American politics extends well beyond the tobacco follies. In the area of so-called civil rights legislation, it is liberals who have turned back the clock to the segregationist era by instituting governmental race preferences.

It is liberals who have promoted cultural separatism to the point that our most "progressive" and elite academic institutions have become the centers of segregated life right down to separate (but equal?) graduation ceremonies. It is liberals who are fighting a rear-guard action to defend these political anachronisms even after they have been declared unconstitutional by the courts and rejected by electoral majorities at the polls.

Nor is it only civil rights issues that bring out the troglodytes and Neanderthals of the left. It is liberals and progressives who have had to be dragged over the bridge to the 21st century while clinging to a welfare leviathan that in 30 years has only deepened and broadened the ranks of the poor, while destroying the family and community support systems for minorities trapped in the inner city.

It is liberals who, like deranged Energizer bunnies, seem only able to repeat the past -- the endless demands for money to fund systems that are obviously bankrupt; the resistance to reforms that would break up the educational bureaucracies that exploit minorities and the poor, whose children are the only ones still trapped in the public schools. It is liberals who fight to preserve bankrupt bilingual education programs that prevent children of immigrants from learning English -- their best hope of unlocking the door to economic opportunity and the American dream.

By contrast, it is increasingly apparent that the conservative and Republican opponents of liberalism compose the new party of social reform. It is conservatives whose self-conceived mission is to return power usurped by government to the American people, and to chip away at a cultural and political status quo that has not worked, and that has been rejected by the American public.

Liberalism, now and for some time, has been having a hard time facing the social future. It is not for nothing that liberals were either promoters of, or at best ambiguous toward, the monstrous socialist experiment that collapsed in ruins just a decade past. Even liberals who rejected the means of socialism were willing to go along with the idea that social planning and redistribution of wealth were noble, progressive ideals. Now that the Marxist moment has passed, brutally exposed as a wrongheaded and destructive social delusion, liberals are demonstrating that they are unable to replace it with a better idea.

The primary institutional bases of the left are the trade unions and the universities. The unions are a declining 19th century behemoth, preoccupied these days with the threat of immigrant labor, with defending outmoded native industries against the competition of industrious foreigners, with retarding change in the private sector and with expanding featherbeds in the public.

The liberal arts divisions of American universities, whose closest antecedent is the medieval monastery, constitute the last natural refuge for the socialist left, a place where the catastrophe of Marxism may not register for another 100 years or more.

Beneath the surface, however, the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted. This event first registered on the political Richter scale in 1994 with the Republican victory in the midterm congressional elections. At the time, the odd, oxymoronic term employed to describe what had happened was "the conservative revolution."

It was a term for which Newt Gingrich and his Republican radicals -- such are the ironies of history -- were made to pay a heavy political price by the liberal left -- a fact that only underscored the obsolescence of the political terminology. It is true that thanks to the effective and hypocritical attacks on Gingrich by liberal reactionaries in the Democratic Party and by the defenders of the ancien régime in the nation's press, there was a temporary slowing of the progressive tide that the Contract With America had unloosed.

After all, President Clinton was reelected in 1996. That was the superficial restoration. For it was only because of his surrender to Gingrich's balanced budget and welfare reforms (and possibly illegal campaign contributions from reactionary dictatorships overseas) that Clinton was able to survive at all. The simultaneous re-election of the Republican congressional majorities -- the first time this had happened in 60 years! -- consolidated the underlying trend even more profoundly and established it as an epoch-making fact of American political life.

In the four years since the Gingrich revolution, 357 Democratic elected officials have switched parties, including the only Native American ever elected to the United States Senate. Just last month, Herman Badillo, the most prominent Puerto Rican political leader in New York City -- a metropolis that was once a stronghold of Democratic liberalism and is now the power base of a Republican reform mayor -- became a Republican too.

For 30 years, Badillo had been a party-line liberal Democrat, as congressman, borough president and deputy mayor. But now he has had second thoughts. In a statement explaining his conversion, Badillo wrote:

Many Democrats believe that some ethnic groups, such as Hispanics, should not be held to the same standards as others. This is a repellent and destructive concept, a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Fortunately, the ethnic groups hurt by these patronizing policies are beginning to understand that low standards mean low results -- a realization that will move people in these groups to the GOP.

Democrats don't see that this is happening, because they take their historic constituencies for granted. They believe that Hispanics will vote Democratic in the future because they voted Democratic in the past. In the Hispanic community, however, there is a real desire for change -- the kind of change that Democratic policies cannot achieve. Indeed, Democratic policies harm minorities by permitting students to graduate from college without college-level skills, allowing crime to go unpunished and making welfare an absolute right regardless of one's ability to work.

It would be hard to find a more succinct summary of what has been happening under the surface of American politics for the last two decades, all in preparation for the political earthquake ahead. Modern conservatism is a movement of "leave us alone" libertarians, middle-class entrepreneurs and ordinary American workers rebelling against the bureaucratic elitism of the welfare state.

The liberal party, the party of trade-union apparatchiks and government bureaucrats, of academic monks and kitsch Marxists, is the party of political statism and racial spoils systems. It is the party of political reaction. In contrast, the conservative party in American politics is the party of new ideas. It is the party of reform, and of little people -- small business entrepreneurs, blue-collar workers, upwardly mobile immigrants and cyberspace libertarians. It is a party described by Newt Gingrich as one that wants "to break down the old system and return the power it has usurped to the people for whom it was intended."

In the context of American-style democracy, you can't get much more "revolutionary" than that.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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Bill Clinton Democratic Party Liberalism Newt Gingrich Republican Party