“people holding flyers during daytime” by Josh Howard on Unsplash

My political position has thus always been of the Left, and most often though not always opposed in practice or principle to the politics of the conservative or, especially and always, reactionary Right. What does that mean, though, “of the Left?”

That noun comprehends a host of differing and often hostile positions: anarchism, Communism, socialism, social democracy, feminism, liberalism, pacifism. At one time or another I have been good friends with persons of all those persuasion. What do we have in common?

What makes a person “of the Left” in the US is two dispositions. One is the positive belief that something needs to be done, and something can be done. How that belief plays out in practice is a resultant of many causes: local or national histories, available institutions, accidents of demography, and so forth. But it is always in play, except perhaps in moments of total despair. It is the origin of the word “progressive.” Second, is the negative belief, whether or not it is always followed in actual practice, that all forms of discrimination or bigotry are wrong. In this second sense the US is what Louis Hartz called it, “born liberal.” On the basis of personal experience I would add to this that everyone I know, and I’m sure everyone who is still reading this blog, is in a sense “cosmopolitan,” that is, thinking at times that there is somewhere else they could be,, discovering something different, and happy to do so. We are all in some sense exponents of progress; and we are not purely localists.

In that sense, at the deepest sense American politics has almost always centered on a conflict between liberalism and nationalism. That said, though, the present moment is monumentally different from the one in which most of us came of age. Then the Democratic Party was the home of brutish Southern racists, while the Republican Party from time to time featured such representatives of liberal civility as Wayne Morse, Harry Cain, Clifford Case, Margaret Chase Smith, and many others. Now the latter Party has been taken over by a rightwing mass movement that goes even beyond authoritarian reaction and rabid nationalism into the pit of nihilism, of which the political representation is Fascism. Persons such as myself and I imagine whatever readers may be here, who uphold the fundamental value of civil society even when it is at its worst, as ours has been many times in the past, are now the targets of the nihilistic Right’s hatred.

What is “nihilism?” Moral nihilists assert, as Wikipedia puts it, that “there is no inherent morality, and that accepted moral values are abstractly contrived.” It may also take the form that “knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.” This is what confronts us today. If there is no meaning or value , no solid foundation then, as Ivan Karamazov put it, “anything goes.” The worse the better, though not quite the way Lenin meant it.

The historical origins of a nihilistic movement may be of intellectual interest, and in this case clearly arise from the sense of diminished “undeserved privilege,” as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw calls it. But it’s not as though this or any version of causation will help in dealing with its contemporary results. The point is that, in sharp contrast to either is the Left approach to political life, or the classical conservative approach of slowing down a rate of reform that is though to be too optimistic about human nature, political nihilism now dominates our discourse, setting the agenda for what has to be discussed or worse, refuted. It is what we see when manifestly false, obviously counter-factual, or deliberately vicious or immoral statements are applauded and echoed by Donald Trump’s audiences.

That audience is not interested in what can be done, nor moved by analyses showing that he has broken his promises to them: they only want to know what can be undone, what can be destroyed, who can be harmed. The charge of “hypocrisy” about issues such as the National Debt is unwarranted, therefore. A burden for our “grandchildren?” So what? As the 2nd Murderer in Macbeth replies when the 1st Murderer says, “it will be rain tonight”–“Let it come down!” Or as Louis XIV (who today would undoubtedly be a dear friend to whom the strongman-worshipper Trump would be duly obsequious) might have put it, “Après nous le déluge.”

That is the “other side” today of our political culture. What it believes is of no interest, or inherent consistency, or even real substance. It can only be outvoted, or contained when it resorts to the violence it insistently applauds. I will hear no counsels of wisdom on this subject. Except, as they say these days, “Resist.” And never, ever, fall for the comme il faut New York Times-style or TV-news style bullshit that there are “two sides,” to every question, each of which “ought to be represented.” Nihilism and Fascism need no representation, and deserve no hearing.



Emeritus Professor of Gov’t, Smith College, 40 years Editorial Board, The Nation,

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