Jon Stewart, Chuck Schumer, and the Clash Over Left-Liberalism's Soul

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"Steroidal Democrats." That’s how Jon Stewart described the Republicans partying it up in Washington, D.C.

And I cheered. Before that line I had been bracing myself, almost not wanting to watch. Stewart was interviewing Chuck Schumer, and I had worried that it would deteriorate into a fluff segment.

Stewart, the iconoclastic left-liberal, who has, with The Daily Show, a news parody program on Comedy Central, presented perhaps the most critical, most focused and least fictitious news coverage on television, especially of the Iraq war, is no partisan tool. He has proven himself capable of trenchant and critical analysis of the failings of his own party, and particularly its failure to stand up to the Republican war machine. But here he was talking with Schumer, and I had feared that the senior senator from New York would get off easy.

Schumer, unlike Stewart, has contributed perfectly nothing positive to American society, so far as I can tell. Whereas Stewart is cautious and hesitant toward foreign interventions and wars, Schumer is a bloodthirsty imperialist. Whereas Stewart is a thoughtful left-liberal, seemingly unsettled by the advent of red-state fascism, Schumer is one of its most rabid proponents among the blue-state politicos, only offering a difference in façade. Ten years ago, Schumer disgustingly made the government out to be the victim during the Waco hearings. Stewart is about the best we can expect from the mainstream Democrats, while Schumer represents the Democrats at their absolute jackbooted worst.

Last week, Stewart had Schumer on The Daily Show to discuss the senator’s vote against confirming Judge John Roberts to be Supreme Court Chief Justice. Uh oh, I had thought. Supreme Court judgeships are just the kind of issue that unifies the Democrats and Republicans against each other and relegates the real and urgent political issues as second priority to superficial culture war fighting. I had worried that Stewart would expose himself as a Democrat first, an independent and critical journalist second.

They discussed the political opinions of Roberts and Clarence Thomas, and the partisan solidarity was somewhat visible, albeit not too obnoxious or unyielding. But then, after the commercial break, about five minutes into the interview, Stewart asked Schumer why it is that the Democrats are offering so little opposition to Bush’s bumbling administration, especially given its widely exposed scandals and current low approval ratings. After stumbling a bit, Schumer responded with the same tired, disconcerting and surreal talking points we often hear from the militant New Dealer Democrats; and then Stewart responded in a way that at once calmed all my apprehensions about the interview. Here’s the exchange:

Schumer: We did do some good things. Uh. We stopped them on the nuclear option. We stopped them on Social Security. On judges, we’ve made it clear — I think that the president, had we not made a fight and had he not been weakened, he would have nominated Scalia to be Chief Justice. And so, even though I voted against Roberts in a sense it’s —

Stewart: Right.

Schumer: — it’s a little bit of a victory. But, listen, they hate government. They really don’t care about governing. Whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s Katrina. And it’s finally catching up with them.

Stewart: But doesn’t it seem that — (applause)

Schumer: So our job is to say what we’d put in their place. (applause) And we have to do that, in order to —

Stewart: Uh, right I see that. But it almost seems like, I mean, in a sense of — It’s not that they hate government, it’s that they hate government they’re not controlling. Because clearly their plans have been: They’ve nation-built.

Schumer: Yep.

Stewart: They’ve increased federal spending. It seems like, they’re almost steroidal Democrats. In a way —

Schumer: It should be so nice.

Stewart: I mean, it — It took you forty years of control to become corrupt. They’ve done it in five —

This exchange is incredibly revealing of the disconnect between Schumer’s establishment "liberalism" and Stewart’s anti-establishment liberalism. Their critiques of the Republicans are so fundamentally different that it’s difficult to think of these two men as on the same side. And, in fact, they aren’t.

Schumer pulls out the same nonsensical — and dangerous — criticism we hear these days, especially after Katrina: namely, that the problem with Bush and the Bushies is that they genuinely “hate government,” that "they really don’t care about governing." Of course, looking at Bush, quite possibly the biggest aggrandizer of government power and the public sector to occupy the White House since Harry Truman, nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, not just Democratic politicians with a stake in the power structure echo this wholly inaccurate critique of the Republicans. Many progressives who genuinely hate most of what Schumer stands for have fallen for the claptrap that Republicans are the party of smaller government, which somehow explains the ballooning deficits and foreign misadventures. That Schumer chose to make this point on The Daily Show, and that many presumable left-liberals applauded it, show just how out of touch much of left-liberal America is, and how cunning are the Democratic politicians who are warming their constituents up to the idea that as soon as they take power, the real government spending and social engineering can be resurrected like never before. Schumer’s comment encapsulated all the problems with and dangers evident in the Democratic establishment, its political apparatus and rhetorical strategy.

Stewart’s response was equally symbolic of its own major current in modern left-liberalism. Stewart did not let Schumer off the hook. Instead, he threw him a hardball: "It’s not that they hate government, it’s that they hate government they’re not controlling." The Republicans’ wars and "increased federal spending" show that "they’re almost steroidal Democrats."

The significance of this insightful remark and to whom it was directed is earth shattering. Stewart looked a chief Democratic Senator in the eye and effectively said, "It seems to me, actually, that the thing with the Republicans is that they’re like Democrats but even more so."

Zing! Stunned and disarmed, Schumer changed the subject with a non sequitur:

Schumer: And you’ve got to worry about Tom Delay

Stewart: Why’s that?

Schumer: Because you know what people in Texas think about the death penalty.

Touché, Senator. You have successfully deflected Stewart’s not-so-rhetorical question — aren’t Republicans just hyper-Democrats? — with a cheap shot. Talk about Tom Delay. Talk about the Texas death penalty. Heck, why not talk about Dan Quayle’s misspelling of "potato"? Anything to restore the circumstantial and rocky romance between the Democratic Party’s most vile faction and the faction so well represented by a comedian-turned-serious journalist who, unlike many in his party, would probably oppose the Iraq war even if Hillary waged it.

We see here the two sides of the left-liberal divide in America. There’s the one side, singing the same old song and dance, saying that government is the answer to everything, laughably blaming Bush’s multi-trillion dollar regime for being too anti-government. It’s the side that cheered on the massacre at Waco and every one of Clinton’s bombings, and hails gun-grabbing, eminent domain, the persecution of medical marijuana users — anything that empowers the state. This side, comprising the establishment Democrats, has nothing against the Iraq war in principle; in fact, it is hoping to soon take over the imperial powers of Washington so conveniently expanded by Bush. This side of modern left-liberalism would have no problems even with the awful Vietnam War. Heck, it was this side that was responsible for the Vietnam War.

Then there’s the other side, typified by Stewart, in which we find allies against the Republican-Democrat war machine and even prospective libertarian converts. It is not so hateful of private property as its more socialistic ancestors, nor so spiteful of liberty so as to applaud every single action of a Democratic administration. It is beginning to question the conventional wisdom that the Republicans are the party of teeny-tiny government. Looking at the massive spending and war-making of the dysfunctional Bush regime, the thoughtful liberals on this side are having their doubts as to the omnipotent power of government itself to do good. It is not a slave to the Democratic Party, and does not pretend the organization is free of corruption. This side is more inclined toward the political credentials of a Russ Feingold — who voted against the Iraq war and, unlike any other Senator, the Patriot Act as well; who wants to pull out of Iraq and even questions the Democratic sacred cow of gun control — than it is inclined to root for a Charles Schumer who voted for the worst atrocities conducted by Bush and who promises only that the Democrats will make better administrators for the imperial police state.

The battle over the soul of American left-liberalism has begun. Neither side is libertarian, of course. But one is clearly better from a libertarian perspective. One offers a potential return to normalcy — to take the steroids away from the "steroidal Democrats" in the Republican Party — to retract, at least somewhat, the U.S. empire to more tolerable and less globally dangerous levels; to demilitarize the American police at home; even to keep cleaner accounts for America’s financial house and temper the tyrannical extraction of wealth from the taxpaying class for gorging by the corporate state. Yes, it is not totally libertarian. But on the other side, also fighting for the soul of left-liberalism, is the worst of all worlds in American politics: sanguine for war and the nightstick, and intent on inflating taxes on the rich so as to stabilize and better manage the total state and empire. In other words, just as Bush has been a "steroidal Democrat," Schumer offers a glimpse into a future Democratic administration of steroidal Republicans. Let the battle commence, and let us hope that if the popular left ever rises again in this country, it is more inclined toward the sensibilities of Jon Stewart than the jackbooted thuggery of Chuck Schumer.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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