His left arm trembling, his back stiff, and his gait still nearly regal, The Greatest held the torch aloft and lit the flame. Millions–several hundred million, in fact–watched, and many cheered. Here was Muhammad Ali, representing America on the highest world stage. This was Atlanta, 1996, at the opening of the Olympic Games; 25 years had passed since his last match, and the wounds he used to delight in opening appeared to have healed. In his prime, Ali stood for all that divided America. Now, he was its appointed representative to the world. Ali’s ascent to mainstream respectability would be completed nine years later, as George W. Bush draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.
One could view this tale skeptically: As they age–and few have aged as visibly as Ali–our rebels are robbed of their edge and repackaged as benign role models. But one could also view Ali’s path as emblematic of a broader shift in our culture. Ali was, of course, at the center of the paroxysms of the 1960s. His refusal to fight in Vietnam–”I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”–his alliance with the Nation of Islam, and his denigration of Joe Frazier as an Uncle Tom sealed his status as perhaps the counterculture’s most famous torchbearer. How is it, then, that later in his life, he would come literally to bear the torch for the culture at large?
Ali’s grand trajectory, from defiant foe of America on matters foreign and domestic to knighted symbol of the same nation, bespeaks a largely unheralded verdict in the “culture war,” a phrase that pundits and politicians use incessantly. And on matters of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, the brawls of the past half-century might be best understood as one continuous war. But what the about-face in Ali’s status indicated, Barack Obama’s presidential election only confirmed. The left has won the culture war. We would do well to acknowledge and celebrate this victory, however belatedly; and then we should consider what it portends for the future of politics on the left.
Broadly speaking, there were two central planks to the conservative cultural philosophy that dominated belief in this country well into Ali’s time: an allegiance to traditional institutions, primarily marriage and the church, and an allergy to legally enforced egalitarianism. This conservatism was advanced by proclamations like Barry Goldwater’s: “It may be just or wise or expedient for Negro children to attend the same schools as white children, but they do not have a civil right to do so.” William F. Buckley’s voice was also essential.
The left, on the other hand, was predicated–and still is–on the suppositions that, while institutions have their role, they must evolve with the times, and they must not undermine the individual’s right to self-expression; and that egalitarianism must be encouraged by law if necessary, and that the diversity egalitarianism produces is something to find joy in. (There are tensions here, quite clearly, between the left’s admiration for the individual with its support of government programs; these tensions are serious but do not undermine the point that, for the left, individualism remains a principle of first priority.)
Judging by the evidence, there can be little doubt that the second philosophy has prevailed. Even if Obama had not been elected, the progress witnessed in the fight for racial equality has been astonishing. As civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry put it once in these pages: “Racial discrimination—in our laws, if not in our hearts and minds—has been eradicated.” Repairing our hearts and minds is not easy, and will take generations; but it is a far cry from the legalized racism that prevailed only a half century ago. Meanwhile, affirmative action, a bugaboo to so many so recently, has become a virtual non-issue. The women’s struggle has unfolded similarly: In 2006, the Census Bureau reported that the majority of students in both undergraduate and graduate programs were women. Marriage is occurring later than ever before, indicating it is more of a choice than a social obligation. Attendance at houses of worship has also declined–religion, too, is now simply one option among many. When queried, the vast majority of Americans–71 percent, to be precise–support the right of gays to serve in the military, and thus openly join civic life. Gay marriage, inconceivable as recently as the Clinton Administration, is steadily advancing as well. And consider that the Supreme Court, the pinnacle of elite success, once impenetrable to those not in the Protestant aristocracy, now stands a chance of being populated entirely by Jews and Catholics. Imagine! My great-grandparents probably could not.
We have come a long way. The American mainstream is more diverse–and more eager to embrace difference–than ever before. Egalitarianism is now standard practice, having swung the door open to our most elite universities, our top corporations, and even the White House. The values of the left-wing counterculture, in other words, have become the values of the culture, period. (There will be those who point to the more inflammatory values of the left–think of the Weather Underground and free love–as evidence that, in fact, the left has not triumphed. But that part of the left simply never defined the movement or represented much of it.)
As with anything regarding a subject as amorphous as culture, not every sign is positive. One need only look at the recent immigration law in Arizona to find an example of the defeated conservative culture still breathing–and breathing fire at that. Yet the outpouring of opposition on both sides, including by conservatives Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, only goes to show that, on the whole, this kind of thing may work as short-term politics but will only marginalize the right in the future, as America becomes ever more diverse. Vigiliance in these battles will remain necessary, but a sense of defeat would be inaccurate and unhelpful.
For its part, the right acknowledges that it is now fighting a losing battle. “Sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos,” groused Irving Kristol in 1991. The more recent apoplexy of the Tea Party embodies the same defensiveness; as Andrew Sullivan has written, the Tea Party is a “cultural revolt against what America is becoming: a multi-racial, multi-faith, gay-inclusive, women-friendly, majority-minority country.” The Tea Party is but the rearguard action of a withdrawing right-wing.
Yet rather inexplicably, some elements of the left would prefer to live in denial–choosing the defensive posture. At times, defensiveness is the necessary cynicism of political organizing; for electoral purposes, it is usually better to raise the stakes than emphasize what’s already been accomplished. Moreover, no one can deny that the setbacks, exemplified by the ravages of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, have also been glaring and deservedly put a damper on any celebration.
But something deeper is at work in the left’s reluctance to claim victory. Call it the spirit of oppositional politics. A legacy of the angry and more than merited anti-conformist spirit that undergirded leftist thinking in the immediate postwar decades, oppositionalism’s creed is straightforward enough: that America, while not to be outright resisted, is never worth trusting. Instead, better to mutter about “the system;” if you vote, do so for Democrats, but always half-heartedly; and assume that any signs of progress are more mirage than reality. Fetishize the avant-garde. Bomb the suburbs. Liberal scholar Todd Gitlin once called this “negative faith in America the ugly,” but that’s too harsh a term for what I’m talking about, which is more precisely understood as un-faith. (In his essay in this issue, Michael Tomasky refers to the exponents of this belief system as “professional disgruntleists.”)
The ecumenisms following Howard Zinn’s passing showed how strong this un-faith still is. While Zinn ought to be credited for popularizing American history, and exposing the dark underbelly that is indeed inextricable from it, his story is monotonously one-sided. In his telling, America is a litany of abuses and a synonym for exploitation. In many respects, it once was. But can anyone still claim that this is so? Well, yes, people do, especially on the left, and not just anyone. The recent primary victory of the dreadful Rand Paul was endorsed by none other than long-time liberal journalist Robert Scheer. “What’s wrong with cutting back big government that mostly exists to serve the interests of big corporations?” asked Scheer, apparently having decided that our country is so indefensible on progressive grounds it might as well not have a government at all. Russell Banks, the celebrated novelist, went even further, publishing an essay last year on America that argued that the nation has “dismantled the City on the Hill and replaced it with El Dorado…we’ve become the Conquistadors of our own suburbs. It is possibly the end of the Republic.” We are living, you see, in a “fascist plutocracy.”
This is, if it really needs to be said, absurd. One wonders what Walt Whitman would have thought–he who was wise enough to deplore “vulgar and materialistic American democracy” (for who can doubt that it sometimes is?)–while maintaining his belief that America would offer “threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown…”
The evidence is in. On matters of American culture, Whitman’s vision is closer to reality than not. It’s past time for the left to show a little faith.
To return to Ali’s era. Protest music, from the cornball catchiness of Barry McGuire to the timelessness of Dylan, was part of the soundtrack; Columbia students walked out of their graduation to “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” And when Mick Jagger sang about a street fighting man, he was being descriptive, not fanciful. As its music evinced, Ali’s was a time of cataclysm and rage, when the many bubbling frustrations of our history exploded into social unrest. Our protest music today, meanwhile, is rare and neither memorable nor consequential. Its absence is an accurate reflection of our times. Because the left has been victorious, mainstream American culture no longer demands our opposition, at least in any way comparable to the degree it once did. And if our music has changed, then surely our politics must, too.
The battleground, for one thing, must be different. Our fights will now often be at the level of the technocracy–proposing granular fixes to federal and state programs, and proposing new programs as necessary. The health-care fight was in many ways of a preview of what post-culture wars, post-oppositionalist politics might look like. On the one side was a unified right, determined to block any expansion of government power, even if the upside of such expansion was increased coverage and marginally decreased costs. On the other side was a less unified left.
The fissures on the left were revealing. The bill’s left-wing opponents showed that oppositional leftism was still in full swing, passionately arguing that passage would result in a “neo-feudal” America, where the masses would be obligated by law to pad the profit margins of major corporations. This was oppositionalism at its essence, dependent on a vision of America where the worst is always true. On the other side were the supporters of the bill who, while acknowledging its defects, believed that nightmarish neo-feudalism was a highly unlikely scenario–and that the considerable economic benefits of the bill were too much to pass up.
The latter camp prevailed, in both the legislature and among everyday citizens who identify themselves on the left. Hopefully, this decision to privilege economics is neither accidental nor one-off. For if the left has won the culture war, it has practically surrendered on matters of economics. Here the facts are perhaps better known than those relating to race, sex, and traditional institutions, and they have the opposite effect–they do not inspire. Private sector unionization has declined rapidly in the past several decades, to the point where, as of this past January, it reached its lowest point since 1900. Between 1979 and 2006, “the richest 1 percent more than doubled their share of the country’s total income,” the Economic Policy Institute recently reported. As the top marginal tax rate plummeted, income inequality increased exponentially, to previously unknown levels. The sea of abundance America has swam in for the past four decades has not been shared on anything remotely resembling an equitable, fair basis.
All of this is the definition of disquieting. But remember: We have won before. And not just on isolated issues; on a panoply of cultural flashpoints, the left has prevailed. If it drops its oppositonalism, stops worrying and learns to love its own successes, perhaps the same will one day be said of the class war that now urgently calls our attention.