Experience counts

George Will doubts that the Democrats can find their way back to the anti-totalitarian liberalism that characterized the party during the first twenty years of the Cold War. Will’s skepticism stems from his view that the Michael Moore wing of the party is so central to the Democratic base.
I agree with Will, having expressed my skepticism here. But let’s ask why the Moore wing is so influential compared to the party’s far left wing in the late 1940s. The answer may have something to do with experience and the seriousness, or lack thereof, that different experiences produce.
The generation of leftists who ended the mainstream left’s flirtation with totalitarianism in the late 1940s had just lived through a world war against totalitarians. That generation had also seen Stalin, the champion of the totalitarian left, enter into deadly pact with Hitler. And many leftists, such as my father, had come to despise Communists based on direct dealings with them, for example in battles for control of trade unions. In short, the anti-totalitarianism of that generation was not based on electoral calculation (the Democrats had won four presidential races in a row), but on bitter life experiences.
What about today’s left? It’s most searing experience remains the Vietnam War. The lesson of that war, leftists continue to believe, is that, in Michael Moore’s words, America “is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe.” To these leftist the Islamofascists, if they exist at all, are an abstraction. Leftists have never dealt with them (although that is starting to change); they haven’t been betrayed by the Islamofascists, as their fathers were by Stalin or by his puppets at the local union hall. For all the baby-boomer left cares to know, 9/11 really could be about 19 crazy guys and a few bearded backers.
If this theory has merit, the Democratic party’s real problem may be that it’s the captive of its baby-boomer wing, of which Michael Moore is only an over-sized manifestation.

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