The battle of the twenty-first century is a continuation of the last century’s fight, Greg Camp argues.
First published in December 2019.
As a child of the Cold War, I am used to thinking of the twentieth century as a conflict of opposites. The pairs come in many names, but in essence, it is inspiring to think of the period as a battle between popular and authoritarian forms of government. There was a brief moment in the early 90s that felt like the vindication of democracy. The Soviet Union collapsed, colonialism appeared to be a thing of the past, and free trade zones were growing.
Then came the Balkan wars, the Rwandan Genocide, the rise of oligarchy in Russia and China, and the emergence of fundamentalist Islam as a world player. I also must not forget that the rosy account that I gave always came with caveats, since what America and Western Europe were fighting for was too often predatory capitalism, rather than free societies.
But as a long-time fan and more recently writer of science fiction, I recognize the uplifting effect of a good story. We on the left need to learn this lesson, as we do frequently devote more time to the technical details of subparagraph five, footnote nineteen than on the big vision.
I say these things after seeing the results of the general election in the United Kingdom that gave the Tories a gain of sixty-six seats for a total of three hundred sixty-five, giving them an outright majority in Parliament. Attempts to explain what happened have given a lot of attention to how Jeremy Corbyn is portrayed in the media, but there is a strong argument to say that Boris Johnson is interpreting things correctly when he says he has a mandate to get Brexit done.
At the heart of the victories of Donald Trump and of Brexit and Boris Johnson is a rejection of centralized control, be it in Washington or Brussels, a rejection of being ruled by our distant and unresponsive betters. There is much wrong with this in detail, but if progressives cannot counter this view with our own overall narrative, we will continue to lose — as the many right-wing populist movements in the United States, in Europe, and in Latin America illustrate.
We have allowed the right wing to perpetrate the combination of an Objectivist celebration of the rugged individualist tycoon and the nagging fear of white people being replaced as the masters of the world. Out of fear of being labeled socialists, we have mumbled while explaining the benefits of programs like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, ceding to the right the symbolism of freedom.
Countering this requires good policy, but it also demands a good statement of values and good stories. Washington and Brussels may feel impersonal and far away, but the villains in corporate board rooms pose their own threat to democratic government and our personal lives.
A comparison between their wealth and the wages of the workers who make being wealthy possible should be made by every politician on the left, along with the observation that if money is freedom, as Republicans keep telling us, a few among us have a whole lot more freedom than the rest.
I am told regularly that patients in countries with universal healthcare systems have long wait times to receive services. The truth is not so simplistic, but there is a much easier point to make here: Many Americans have to wait so long for healthcare that the only doctor they get to see is a coroner. Evangelicals complain constantly about the persecution of Christians in the America and dream of tearing down the wall between religion and state, and we should respond by pointing out that our religious participation rate is one of the highest in the developed world, despite — or in my view because — our nation is not supposed to give official support to religion.
“I am told regularly that patients in countries with universal healthcare systems have long wait times to receive services ... Many Americans have to wait so long for healthcare that the only doctor they get to see is a coroner.”
All of this is to say that we on the left need our own Great Communicators. We may disparage Ronald Reagan’s glib manner or the magnetic attraction of Margaret Thatcher’s iron, but theyshifted public discourse. Neoliberalism was the answer of the Democratic and Labour Parties as to how to regain power, but its practical effect was to accept the right wing’s framing, turning the left into conservatives who say nice things to minority voters.
The battle of the twenty-first century is a continuation of the last century’s fight, and the winners will be those who can offer a more convincing platform of individual liberty and progress. As a leftist, I see what my side has to promise and then fulfill is to flatten out the government pyramid, rather than maintaining the narrow pinnacle in the hopes that we will sit there in time. Until we win the conflict of vision, however, the details of our policies will be lost in the noise.🔷
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