Since the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur starts Sunday night and continues through Monday (the site won't be updated during that period), it's as good a time as any to answer the reader who forwarded along a copy of Norman Podhoretz's Wall Street Journal op-ed piece headlined "Why Are Jews Liberals?" The book was reviewed Friday in the Journal, and I have my own comments up at Amazon.
Since this is a site not about primarily about the Jews but about capitalism and the future role of government in business, I'll confine my comments here to a point made by Mr. Podhoretz that has implications far beyond the Jews. In his Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Podhoretz puts it this way:
The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history.
In the conclusion to the book, he makes the same point, with slight differences in the wording:
The great issue between the two communities turns on how they feel about the nature of American society. Again with all exceptions duly noted, I think it is fair to say that what the Left mainly sees when it looks at America is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social, and political. By sharp contrast, the Right sees a complex of traditions, principles, and institutions that have made it possible for more freedom and – even factoring in periodic economic downturns – more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society known to human history.
If this is a dichotomy that may have once been true, or somewhat close to the truth, it is also one whose accuracy, or usefulness, seems to me to have eroded recently. For the chief spokesman of the left in America today, President Obama, his own election is evidence that our country is not all about injustice and oppression. As he put it in his election night speech: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer….to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected." Now, one might argue that the whole "America can change" theme suggests that America needs to change, that it isn't okay the way it is, and that this is just another way of reflecting negatively on America in the way that Mr. Podhoretz says is characteristic of the left. But Mr. Obama's rhetorical framing is highly positive toward America and its traditions. One might also argue that Mr. Obama's rhetoric is at odds with the principles that undergird some of his policies, but that's another discussion.
On the other hand, today's political right looks at America and sees a lot of injustice and oppression, too. Senator DeMint's new book, reviewed here, refers to "America's decline" beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and bemoans the fact that a small number of American taxpayers are being forced to support a government of which he writes, "There is no example of any effective and efficient federal government program." Rep. Ron Paul's new book, reviewed here, refers to the 20th century as "the century of total war" and refers to the Federal Reserve as a Soviet-style, "ninety-five-year-old failed scheme," that is "involved in a full-time counterfeiting operation to sustain monopolistic financial cartels." He writes that "Freedom and central banking are incompatible." One could argue that Mr. DeMint, Mr. Paul, or even Robert "Slouching Towards Gomorrah" Bork are atypical of the American right, which is generally sunnier in disposition. But a lot of today's young conservatives are essentially rebels against the left wing orthodoxy they find on college campuses, while the brewing libertarian rebellion of the Clifford Asness variety is outraged at what it sees as the "abuse of power" in the White House.
Give Mr. Podhoretz credit for being provocative and for setting up categories that may help make some sense of the ideological landscape. But it seems to me if you asked right now whether it is the left or right in America that is more concerned about injustice and oppression, it's a close race, with right-wing alarm about oppressed Chrysler bondholders, overly burdened taxpayers, and overly regulated businesses right up there with left-wing alarm about the uninsured and the foreclosed-upon. Some of this may be a consequence of the right trying to learn from the successes of the left in framing issues, and of the sense of relief and hope on the left that came with Mr. Obama's election. Some of it may be a result of the left advancing its substantive agenda (with an assist from the big-government final year of the Bush administration) to the point where the right now feels more aggrieved. Anyway, it is something to watch for in the rhetoric of those who try to stand up for capitalism: will they frame it in terms of defending American tradition or in terms of criticizing recent injustice and oppression? The most successful formula probably lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Mr. Obama's own rhetorical recipe, breaking down Mr. Podhoretz's dichotomy by describing the effort to overturn injustice and oppression as exactly one of the traditions that has, over time, assured American freedom and prosperity.