Paul Gottfried has often argued that the left will never have any interest in collaborating with non-leftists, particularly old-style conservatives and libertarians, when it comes to opposing war. They have much more in common with the neoconservatives, who are very much at peace with federal power, fear decentralization, defend a strong presidency (as liberals did during the Clinton years), and accept all the major politically correct pieties. If the media presents the neocons as the only “right-wing” opposition in America to speak of, that’s just how the left likes it.
I didn’t initially accept this argument, partly because I had received friendly correspondence from a number of people on the left who sympathized with some of my arguments on the Iraq war. Doug Fuda’s Antiwar League, for instance, is genuinely committed to working with people across the political spectrum who oppose what has come to be known as the War Party. And there are others.
But Professor Gottfried may be right after all. Over the weekend I was the subject of an attack on a left-wing website that monitors the likes of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity. (I’m going to violate Internet etiquette by not linking to the offending piece, partly because I’ve been over this again and again for a year and a half now, and partly because it’s really beside the point, since I’m concerned less to answer this particular critic than to look at some persistent blind spots on the left.) What a surprise: I was denounced as an evil and dangerous person because I’m on record in support of the right of secession, and we all know that’s just crazy. (Oh, and you’ll never guess: it probably also means I’m sympathetic to slavery.)
Believing in the right of secession actually isn’t that crazy (which may be why so many Americans of importance supported it), and there are morally serious reasons for supporting it both in 1861 and today. The American Revolution itself was less an act of revolution than an act of secession from the British Empire. Donald Livingston points out that the American Revolution did not correspond to any of the three major conceptions of revolution that have dominated Western thought. It was not a Whiggish revolution, as with the Glorious Revolution, since it did not seek the restoration of anything. It was not a Jacobin revolution, since it did not seek the total transformation of society. And it was not even strictly a Lockean revolution, since it did not overthrow the existing government, and it involved territorial dismemberment — something nowhere envisioned by Locke. Ludwig von Mises put the principle simply: “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.” That is the idea we are all supposed to fear and repudiate.
Once again, Max Boot’s opinion of my book as “absurd” was cited against me. (I replied to Boot here, by the way.) It’s probably worth noting that Max Boot thinks we should offer free citizenship to anyone in the world who comes here and joins the U.S. Army, so they can fight all his wars. Why, I wonder, would a leftist (or anyone else) care about this man’s opinion?
For my part, I’ve written at length on the illegality of the presidential war powers that have been claimed not just by this administration but by half a century of chief executives before it. I’ve been more consistently antiwar than just about anyone on the left. I’ve also argued here and here that there was once a saner tradition on the right that would be embarrassed by the militarism and anti-intellectualism of so-called conservatism today (and here that in fact the left has historically been at least as far out in front as the right in calling for American military intervention). What exactly have I said or done that was worse than calling for immigrant cannon fodder for an endless string of imperial wars?
Now consider the main problem our country now faces: We have a debacle in Iraq involving tens of thousands of deaths, to say nothing of the chaos and instability that plagues the country, the superb terrorist recruitment tool the invasion has become, or the destruction of America’s reputation abroad. Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz estimates the cost of the war, when all factors are taken into account, as $2 trillion. We live under a regime that cares nothing for public opinion, international opinion, or American law. And nothing is going to happen. We all know perfectly well that we’re stuck with the Iraq debacle for at least another couple of years, and probably longer.
In the Washington Times, in fact, we read: “Military Leaders Foresee Iraq Exit in 2016.” On Meet the Press, Newt Gingrich just called for all-out war in the Middle East, with his alleged opponent Joe Biden nodding inanely, stopping only to add that “we” (as if any of these deliberations have anything to do with you and me) should try to get the support of our allies. “Even today,” wrote Dinesh D’Souza two years ago, “there is surprising consensus of opinion regarding Iraq within our national leadership. Even the New York Times recently reported that the Iraq policies of Bush and Kerry share many similarities. They both support the June 30 transition to civilian power, an increase in U.S. troops if necessary, and no deadline for bringing our troops home.” (And still, much of the left looks to the Democratic Party as the great antiwar force in America: Michael Moore, for instance, supported John Kerry for president, even though Kerry pledged to send more troops to Iraq.)
How exactly does the left expect this situation to go away? Since it’s a hate crime to ask any fundamental questions about the regime — the presidency and the federal government being basically wonderful institutions that only a secret oppressor of minorities would want to weaken or dismantle, and that in the right hands can once again be great engines for progress — we’re pretty much left with collecting signatures on a petition, getting ballot access for Ralph Nader, or just wishing really hard.
Yes, I suppose there’s also the possibility of electing a Democrat. But who would that be, exactly? Hillary Clinton, the nominee we’re obviously going to get? Does it matter that she has been a vociferous supporter of the war in Iraq, and that she has tried to outdo the president on the question of Iran?
There were once some people on the left who were genuinely skeptical of the federal government and favored political decentralization. A few can still be found — Kirkpatrick Sale, for example, and some of the people behind the Second Vermont Republic. But they are a small minority. If radical decentralization is off the table, what does the rest of the left suggest? From what I can see, the left’s plan is to keep the federal government as powerful and irresistible as it is now, but just hope it behaves responsibly in foreign affairs.
While it’s been said that for the neocons it’s always Munich 1938, for the left it’s always Birmingham 1963. Calls for political decentralization or states’ rights are viewed, even now, as secret code for all kinds of sinister right-wing plots against minorities. (What the left overlooks, or perhaps doesn’t know, is the forgotten history of how Northern states employed the doctrine of states’ rights in struggles against war and injustice; Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster even suggested that the states should resist the federal government on states’ rights grounds if it should attempt to carry out military conscription.) Dismantling any portion of the federal government is out of the question entirely. For all their criticism of the federal government today, the left does not seem to want to change it in any permanent and fundamental way; the Bush Administration, they are sure, is a strange aberration that will eventually go away. What is to stop something like it from coming back in the future we are never told.
The big problem in America right now is not the existence of a small pro-secession organization somewhere. The problem is that we live under a bipartisan regime with a foreign-policy agenda that spells nothing but disaster and impoverishment for the American people, and a supposedly “liberal” media that consistently provides moral cover for these adventures. Since it has nothing else to suggest, the left apparently thinks this problem can be solved by putting nice people into the White House, the kind we used to see on The West Wing. Leftists can talk a dramatic game about bringing the empire down, but they seek to do so while at the same insisting on its absolute supremacy over all other institutions and power centers, such that the very invocation of states’ rights — or, heaven forbid, secession — is enough to render them apoplectic. There is something wrong with this picture.