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.