23 April 2010

Left and Right Against War

Paul Buhle is a progressive historian and activist who took part in the American Conservative's recent symposium on the chances for antiwar collaboration between forces on the left and right of conventional American politics. In The Nation, he gave his own account of a strange-bedfellows encounter of editors from both journals and other figures from the supposed ideological poles. Without expressing either optimism or pessimism, Buhle sees in this potential coalition a kind of reunion of elements who were marginalized at the start of the Cold War. He notes that back in the late 1940s, progressive Democrats (including one, Henry Wallace, who formed a third party in 1948) and conservative Democrats (including one, Robert Taft, who could plausibly be called "Mr. Republican) agreed on opposition to the country's growing inclination toward interventionist politics around the world. These figures were excluded from what Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a historian of the liberal establishment, called the "Vital Center" of American politics. Admission to the Vital Center, apparently, depended on accepting an American obligation to combat Communism globally. Republicans like Taft were as anti-communist as they ever came, and no friends to organized labor in the U.S., but their suspicion of state power led some to question the consolidation of what some call the "national security state" and others call the "global warfare state." Buhle is happy to see a revival of this tradition among some Republicans or conservatives. If anything, he finds antiwar conservatives more clear-headed, because they were less taken in in the first place, about the shortcomings of President Obama on the foreign-policy front. Apart from Ron Paul, however, they have little voice in the government.

The practical question remains whether the full-spectrum antiwar movement can be motivated into uniting behind candidates who would run on an almost exclusively antiwar platform. It seems unlikely this year. As Iraq slowly calms, Afghanistan isn't generating enough American casualties yet to distract most people from domestic debates. The movement disagrees on too many other issues for it to coalesce behind a single slate of candidates. The next-best-case scenario would be to ensure that antiwar progressives and antiwar conservatives win elections and then vote together against intervention and excessive military spending. The prospects don't look good here, either. Antiwar progressives will be pressured to swallow their differences and defend the President at all costs, while antiwar conservatives will find themselves confronted by the usual neocons as well a Tea Party movement easily goaded into jingoism by pro-war radio. Things will have to get worse in Afghanistan or elsewhere before war becomes a hot issue again.

The good news about efforts to build antiwar coalitions across partisan and ideological lines is the truth they reveal about our political system. They pit people of the left and right against a "center" that pretends to be both at the same time and stages very convincing combats to prove the claim. If more people see such forces arrayed against each other, they may finally question the whole political nomenclature. If "left" and "right" can stand against the "center" on even one issue, can the "center" really be what it claims? Even if they can do nothing else, antiwar opinionators of all persuasions can keep raising that question in the hope that other people will start asking the same questions themselves.

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