My father has told me for years that the history of the American Left amounts to this: Whenever the left decides to form a firing squad, it stands in a circle. It's hard to disagree.
I thought about that adage watching the reaction to Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural convocation. The whole episode, I suspect, will pass after January 20, but the teapot tempest the selection has created among "progressives" does not do us much credit. It suggests that some, at least, on the left are simply going to recourse to the old habits rather than embrace the opportunity we have to change the direction of the country.
A quick, potted history: Since the late 1960s the American left has been defined by two commitments. On the one hand, a politics of personal identity - identity being defined largely on the basis of biological essentialism (race, gender, sexual orientation); on the other, opposition and critique rather than the exercise of real political power. The left fell in love with losing, felt comforted by it, addicted to it. (Winning, after all, suggests power and power corrupts). Not coincidentally, the left has been largely irrelevant to American politics for a generation. (Todd Gitlin, among others, has written quite perceptively about all this).
This was the left I grew up in, through the late 1970s and 1980s, and it all came home to me early in the Clinton administration. As the Clinton health-care plan died an agonizing Congressional death, as welfare "reform" was fought, as Newt Gingrich closed the government not once but twice, and as Congressional Republicans attempted a coup d'etat by impeaching Clinton over a tawdry sexual affair (yes, Hillary was right - it was a vast, right-wing conspiracy) this issue that most motivated grass-roots progressives was. . .gays in the military!
To the best of my recollection, the largest public demonstration to take place during the Clinton years was 1993's gay rights march which was designed, among other things, to generate support for permitting gay Americans to serve openly in the military. I was at that rally - along with several hundred thousand of my closest friends - and I remember having a queasy feeling.
As a kid, I grew up in the anti-Vietnam, anti-military left. I grew up believing that the Pentagon was the problem (I still believe that) and that it needed to be shrunk, not expanded (I still believe that too). I spent my college years talking people of all kinds out of joining up, and yet here I was on the mall with people who wanted in. Meanwhile, health care reform vanished, and Newt Gingrich took out a contract on America.
The lesson of the Clinton years for me was this: Clinton was no progressive, but he was certainly better than the alternative and he got precious little support from us. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush, we had a chance to get some of what we wanted, but we didn't know what to do.
The reaction to Rick Warren feels a bit like that 1993 rally to me. Angry opposition based on the easy reflex to the old identity politics. For the record, I'm disgusted by Rick Warren too, not simply because of his vile homophobia, but because I resent bitterly any intrusion of religion into our public life - whether it is Warren's brand of feel-good ol time Christianity, Lieberman's Judiasm or Scalia's catholicism. Why do we need a religious invocation at all??!!
So here we are, after 8 years that have made the Reagan-Bush years look positively utopian and how will we respond? The question I pose here is not whether Obama will disappoint some on the left - he will. Rather, I wonder if what constitutes the left is prepared to trade purity for victory, compromised accomplishment for lost causes.
I propose this New Year's Resolution for progressives. Say it out loud with me: In 2009 I will not pit "better" against "best." I will concede some in order to achieve more. I will not fall on my sword just because some piece of legislation or some presidential appointment does not score 100% on my ideological purity test. I will enjoy winning, even if the victory is incomplete.
Change was the mantra of the Obama campaign. Were progressives listening? Are we prepared to change as well?