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The Reactionary Left

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The wistful left reaches back farther when it mimics the class politics of the 1930s. The “99 percent” versus the “1 percent,” Warren Buffett’s secretary versus Warren Buffett, Obama’s attacks on nameless “millionaires and billionaires” are echoes of the rhetoric of Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and Franklin Roosevelt. What is puzzling is that the strategy of division and resentment has not had a good track record. To be sure, it worked for FDR. But Roosevelt had 25 percent unemployment, a minuscule federal government, and a sunny disposition. Since LBJ, the spokesmen for American liberalism have been dour and passive and condescending. Their populism has lacked bite because it is a pose. The public has seen through their attempt to rehash the old formula for what it is: “the shield and slogan of the cunning who will rule in the name of equality,” as Martin Diamond once put it.

The longing for the culture of the ’60s, the economy of the ’50s, and the politics of the ’30s is evidence of the left’s failure. No longer able to inspire with a utopian vision of the future, the left has been forced to return to its past. The left’s failure, then, is the right’s victory, because a return to the past is what we’ve been calling for all along.

But which past? Certainly not the left’s. But neither should conservatives indulge in their own nostalgias. What Americans should be trying to recapture is not any particular set of historical social, economic, or cultural conditions but a lost philosophy of government, a missing understanding of politics. In this understanding, the equality that matters is the equal protection of natural rights. The government that levels inequalities of property or condition necessarily intrudes on those rights. Lucky for us, this view of government depends on self-evident truths that are the same in every time and every place.

Nostalgia? Reminiscences? Schmaltz? No thanks. Leave them for the progressives.

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