Politics, power, ideology, and unity

David Horowitz has written an important article for NRO called “Uniting the Right.” The thrust of the article is set forth in its subtitle: “Freedom is the idea that can bring our fractious movement together.”

I agree to this extent — if anything can do it, “freedom” can.

I want to focus, though, on Horowitz’s premise that the left has an inherent advantage when it comes to unity because of progressivism’s ideological thrust. Horowwitz writes:

How do [the Democrats] do it? What unites them as they go to battle?

It is the power of a unifying idea. A unifying idea is not a consensus over policy or an agreement on tactics; unanimity in these matters is difficult to achieve and impossible to sustain. Instead, their unity is inspired — forged actually — by a missionary idea. . . .

Th[e] idea of transformation is what unites the Left. Unity in embracing a future goal — the fundamental transformation of society — is what motivates them to march together. It is what makes them “progressives” in the first place. It is their identity in the same way “Christian” and “Jew” are identities of people with a religious faith. . . .

The goal of the crusade is “social justice,” or its equivalent: equality. The quest for this utopia of social and economic equality is what forges their alliances, defines their allegiances, and justifies the means they use to get there. They may differ on particular policies and tactics to advance the cause, but if they are Democrats or supporters of the Democrats, they see the party as the practical vehicle for making the idea a reality. . . .

The reasoning behind such behavior was revealed by Leon Trotsky when he explained why he would not leave the Bolshevik party even after Stalin — who would eventually murder him — became its absolute leader: “We can only be right with and by the Party,” Trotsky said, “for history has provided no other way of being in the right.” “If the Party adopts a decision which one or other of us thinks unjust, he will say, just or unjust, it is my party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end.”

Non-Bolsheviks may not share Trotsky’s metaphysical certitude, but they will recognize the principle. If the cause is about changing the world and there is only one party that can acquire the means to do it, then even though it may be wrong on this or that matter, its fortunes must be advanced and its power defended. . . .

Because Democrats and progressives regard politics as a battle of good versus evil, their focus is not on policies that work and ideas that make sense, but on what will make their party win. Demonizing the opposition is one answer; unity is another. If we are divided, we will fail, and that means evil will triumph.

There are plenty of valid insights here. The left’s will to power via an established political party does currently exceed the right’s, and this imbalance has deeper roots than just the politics of the day. To that extent, the left has a built-in advantage.

But in my view, Horowitz overstates that advantage. Electoral politics do not permit the kind of perpetual unity Horowitz ascribes to the American left. Sooner or later, that which will “make their party win” will appear to many as insufficient to advance the underlying left-wing religion. At that point unity will dissolve.

After the 2010 “shellacking,” President Obama decided not to tack towards the center, as President Clinton had done in 1995. Clinton’s “triangulation” may have saved his presidency, but it didn’t go down well with the left. The resulting discord gave Ralph Nader the votes that arguably prevented the election of Al Gore. In a sense, ideology divorced the will to power.

Obama did not follow Clinton’s path. Instead, he tacked to the left, for example by promoting policies that favor gays and illegal immigrants.

Obama’s steadfastness did not lead to defeat for him, his Party, or his ideology. Unity was preserved.

But what if Obama had lost? Would Democrats still be united, Trotsky style, in saying they “support the consequences of [Obama's tactical] decisions to the end”? I don’t think so. That’s not how politics works in this country.

Sooner or later, circumstances will conspire to bring about the defeat of the Democratic presidential candidate. When that happens, the debate that plagues Republicans today — pragmatism vs. purity — will resurface among Democrats. And the religious nature of the left’s belief in equality (in the abstract) will be the cause of more, not less, disunity. In the long run, fervent conviction, like fervent love, can produce bitter discord almost as easily as it can produce harmony.

Moreover, even before electoral defeat occurs, a Democratic president may conclude, as Bill Clinton did, that important portions of the left-wing agenda must be postponed indefinitely to avoid such defeat. In this scenario too, Democrats will be considerably less unified than they are today.

If, against the odds, Republicans can manage to unite, it will hasten the day when the pressure of electoral politics creates disunity among the Democrats.

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