It may seem hard to believe now, in the aftermath of the thunderous partisan rhetoric accompanying the vote on the healthcare bill, but in mid-February small sections of the right and left found major points of unity. The subject was Empire. Specifically, the crisis of the American Empire.
The participants, meeting in a Washington hotel conference room, ranged from Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel to her counterpart at The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy. The Nation‘s William Greider was there, as was Ralph Nader, assorted left-wing peaceniks and Cato-niks and former advisers to Gary Hart, Robert Taft Jr. and Ronald Reagan–along with various others, including your intrepid reporter.
The meeting took place, auspiciously, the day after the Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Representative Ron Paul stole the show with denunciations of war (punctuated by a defense of Eugene Debs against his persecutor Woodrow Wilson!). Nation readers may not have noticed, but no unhappy neocon was likely to have missed the fact that in the CPAC presidential straw poll, Paul came in first. The next day, at the conference on Empire, sponsored by Voters for Peace, college activists from Paul’s Young Americans for Liberty sat cheek by jowl with a current SDSer from the University of Maryland. They described a lot of common grievances.
The specter in the room was the exploding national debt.
For the first time since Robert "Mr. Republican" Taft and Progressive leader Henry Wallace opposed the Big Security State sixty years ago, the all-devouring Pentagon budget could be identified as a common enemy. Another was the financialization of the economy. Together the bankers and the military chiefs–along with their bipartisan enablers in Congress and the White House–have been emptying out the hard-built productive economy and launching one pointless war after another, followed by occupation after occupation.
It was a remarkable thing, then, to hear from both sides of the table the growing resentment over dilemmas so long disguised as the other party’s fault. The "nobodies" on the left and right, described as irrelevant and unwanted in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1949 cold war classic The Vital Center, were talking again.
This is not to exaggerate the ability of any disempowered group of intellectuals, editors and sympathetic organizers to alter the policies of the major parties, let alone change foreign policy or military strategy–or to minimize a host of differences over domestic issues as dear to the left as to the right.
But it didn’t take too much effort for Progressive Review editor and veteran peacenik Sam Smith to recall examples in which such coalitions had actually had an effect. Community groups against highway expansion or big civic projects using tax money for tourist destinations (from sports arenas to convention centers) have included left-right coalitions. Generations earlier, as the "Sons of the Wild Jackass," Progressives across party lines united behind Franklin Roosevelt for social programs while muckraking the death merchants and bankers and their role in dragging the United States into World War I. Still earlier, in the American Anti-Imperialist League, Boston Brahmins and some of America’s most prestigious novelists, along with The Nation‘s founding editor, E.L. Godkin, tried to halt the murderous US invasion of the Philippines. Some of us at the conference were conscious of following in the footsteps of Mark Twain.
We were also aware of polls that regularly show large majorities against war, majorities regularly ignored in the big media (not you, Rachel Maddow) when they are not demeaned on the op-ed pages by Vital Centrists like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. More urgently, we were following our own instincts. Here in my Upper Midwest (Wisconsin), it seemed Obama crossed the finish line ahead of McCain because of Republican abstentions, including lifelong GOP loyalists and military families. They were sick of these wars, and of George W. Bush. They were not likely to be less sickened by escalation in Afghanistan, and not likely to avoid voting against the president who sent troops one more time into the pit of Empire.
One immediate and striking difference in that conference room was that rage at Bush was not matched by anger at Obama. We on the left were still in mourning, perhaps more accurately in shock, since the president’s right turn over Honduras and Plan Colombia, and his assertions of American right and responsibility to make life and death for anyone and everyone else on the planet. Some of us still nursed the hope that the promise of an Obama Era of Good Neighbors would be redeemed.
Here, at least, our paleocon friends had the better of us. We had been too credulous, perhaps because we had lost the critical edge of our younger years. The disappointments suffered around the world echo the unraveling of what the New Left analyzed as "corporate liberalism." But it was not conservatives or the New Left that pulled apart that project; it was the Vietnam War and all that it represented. Liberalism’s comeback, with global policies unchanged, has been a retread, and just as worn as any other old tire.
The Washington conversation didn’t get to the ecological angle of global militarization, but it is easy to see how the US-backed spraying of Colombia’s Naya River Valley and its indigenous tribes offers, along with the narco-nirvana of Afghanistan, more terrible examples. So long as the American Empire gives first place to maintaining control, questions raised by narcotics networks seem unanswerable.
When it comes to the military budget, however, peacenik right and left are on the same side, stridently against the budget-busting center. Without serious reductions in that budget and in its disbursement in every corner of the world resource market, we will almost certainly have reached a premature end to the Obama promise. Conservatives, and not just these conservatives, would like to dump him; the rest of us would like to see him driven to do the right thing. Can the emerging peacenik dialogue between right and left make a difference? The odds are great, but it was a good beginning.