Strange Alchemy

Strange Alchemy

In A Conservative History of the American Left, Daniel Flynn can’t decide whether to ridicule the left or fear it.


One should avoid the temptation to dismiss Daniel Flynn’s new book, A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, $27.50), as merely another blunt weapon in the perpetual clash of ideological adversaries. It’s true that Flynn generally views the history of the left through the crude lens of a propagandist: he considers the Unabomber a member of the environmental movement, claims Lee Harvey Oswald was a “communist assassin” and insists that federal largesse makes Medicare recipients “a burden to everyone.” And Flynn so loathes the sexual libertinism of the Beats that he resorts to physiognomy, of all things, to explain the most flamboyant among them: “If ever a face projected the seediness and perversions of the brain behind it, Allen Ginsberg’s did.”

But these are predictable moves–tics, really, is the more accurate term–for any author who decides to stamp his political faith on the title of a history text. From the other side of the aisle, Howard Zinn has long been lobbing a different, but no less explosive, grenade. In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn eschews personal slurs in favor of vulgar Marxian ones, such as the charge that the American Revolution and Civil War were both elite devices for holding off “potential rebellions.” Neither he nor Flynn bother to consider their retrospective enemies, be they alive or dead, on their own terms, lest a few inconvenient facts compromise their sense of certainty.

For the past three decades, Zinn’s book has drawn millions of readers and inspired thousands more. Flynn is unlikely to enjoy such success, in part because the market for agitprop history from the right is already glutted with apologias for Joe McCarthy and odes to Ronald Reagan. What’s more, anyone who has swallowed what Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly and Bernard Goldberg write about the sins of the contemporary left will probably find little additional nourishment in Flynn’s buffet of assaults.

His book is, nonetheless, one worth taking seriously. Unlike his fellow partisans, Flynn has spent some time in libraries and archives, and he strains to turn this erudition into a larger interpretation of the phenomenon he detests. Occasionally, an insight does pierce through the fog of his rhetoric: “The American Left is at its most effective when it accepts that it is an American Left,” he writes. “When it forgets where it comes from, the American Left plays to an internal audience eager for purity but unconcerned with persuasion.” On the whole, however, his book is an intriguing failure–one that reveals a certain bewilderment among conservative activists at the persistence of their enemies’ influence.

Flynn cannot decide whether to ridicule the left or to fear it. His chapters on the nineteenth century are filled with odd details about utopian socialists (he labels them “communists”) whose loony antics presaged future tyrannies. Flynn is particularly scornful toward John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida Community in the 1840s, where the practice of free love and a ban on private property were “a dress rehearsal” for the “utopian delusions of Russia and Germany.” (Hitler did away with capitalism? Well, no matter.) Predictably, Flynn also has fun at the expense of “the loud and colorful sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin,” who, in the 1870s, tapped the wealth of Cornelius Vanderbilt to start a weekly that dabbled in spiritualism and radical feminism and battled with Marxists who thought the duo incurably “bourgeois.”

But as Flynn’s narrative enters the twentieth century, it takes an abrupt and unexplained turn. By some strange alchemy, the ineffectual far left turns into the progressive movement, and then the New Deal. No longer ridiculous or marginal, the left has secured the power to impose its will on a curiously receptive, or at least docile, populace. Flynn frets that the “fantastic” muckraking of socialist Upton Sinclair in The Jungle alarmed the public and forced Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act, the opening wedge for a “regulatory state.” He views the job creation agencies of the New Deal–the WPA, the CCC and the PWA–as akin to Hitler’s construction of the autobahn and implies that FDR kept winning elections only because he put so many Americans on the dole. Roosevelt “transformed America into Tammany Hall.” Before Americans realized it, the left was running the country and running it into the ground.

During the heyday of the New Deal, GOP politicians and corporate publicists made similar charges about “creeping socialism.” But those attacks failed to turn back liberalism, and conservatives learned a critical lesson from their failure: you can’t defeat a popular opposition by blaming the people for supporting it. So the right took a populist turn during the post-World War II Red Scare. Activists started to brand the left–whether liberal or radical–as elitist, weak and un-American. From Joe McCarthy to John McCain, they have seldom looked back. But Flynn, gloomy about the apparent triumph of statist programs, never got the message. “Just as Social Security absolved individuals of the responsibility to save for retirement,” he writes, “Medicare absolved them of the responsibility to save for medical care when they needed it most.” The consequence is that Flynn can only fulminate against the widespread backing for universal social programs, a sentiment he can neither abide nor understand.

Flynn is trapped by an ideological contradiction that, unlike his unpopulist stance, has also snared many of his brethren on the right. He condemns the left for undermining individual freedom with its coercive, leveling state and also for advocating individual liberty in sexual matters–gay liberation and abortion rights, specifically. The Warren Court’s epochal ruling in the 1965 Griswold case, which found a right to privacy in the Constitution, was, he declares, “the slippery slope upon which state laws reflecting the traditional morality of the people fell.” Flynn claims to belong to the “cowboy” heritage of America–“open, freewheeling, mind-your-own-business”–against the “Puritan” one that assures citizens that “We know best.” But his book reveals that, depending on the issue, he belongs to both traditions.

His passionate, undeveloped assertions about the past may even puzzle his intended audience. After all, even those Americans who tell pollsters they are conservatives–a plurality for decades now–take for granted the limited welfare state constructed from the era of World War I to the 1960s, which has been protected, on the whole, by every administration since, even by ostensibly “conservative” ones like those of Reagan and both Bushes. Few Americans praise “big government,” but most expect, or at least hope, that public officials will keep the economy prosperous, deliver good education to their children, a decent income and cheap medical care when they retire, and provide swift and efficient aid whenever disaster strikes. Rhetorical fashions come and go in politics, but FDR’s vow to deliver “security” and “freedom from fear” still conveys what most Americans want from their politicians. An increasing number–particularly among the young–also reject Flynn’s brand of puritanism.

Conservatives, of course, can still gain a hearing and votes by talking about traditional resentments and fears–whether of tax-eating bureaucrats, illegal immigrants or a liberal, black presidential candidate who spent part of his childhood in a Muslim country. But those who worship at Reagan’s altar no longer hope to “make the world over again,” the line their icon used to borrow from Tom Paine. True to their name, they cling once more to the supposed virtues of old.

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