Great comment by past Evans-Manning winner Edward Hamilton:
Reading Kevin Drum today (a liberal perspective nearly always worth reading!) I found him giving what amounted to a challengeto the Left to own the culture wars. The Left started this fight, the Left has been winning this fight, and (from his perspective) it’s a great accomplishment that should be understood as a nearly unqualified victory in the public sphere, despite a political system that otherwise encourages gridlock and stagnation. It was surprisingly refreshing to hear him willing to say all this in public, even as an act of what might be termed “triumphalism”. There’s a peculiar tendency for the Left not to want to embrace its own victory. It’s almost as if America and the Western Allies, already in the summer of 1945, were still obsessing over fortifying their coastal cities against an invasion of German and Japanese amphibious landing craft. The culture war is the only aspect of the progressive utopian agenda that the Left has won, but the victory seems to be purchased at the cost of pretending that it’s a victory less worthy of celebration than things like the Civil Rights Movement, which itself has left behind a far more muddled situation for millions of black American families.
The idea that Western culture is constantly on the verge of unmaking all their victories and reverting to some sort of Handmaid’s Tale dystopia is hard to retire from the rhetoric of cultural progressives. During the Bush administration, the fact that Bush himself was merely talking about unattainable objectives like a federal “marriage amendment” was proof not of cheap ploys to cheap-date evangelicals, but that such a thing was constantly on the brink of occurring. The central conceit of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America gets revisited every few years as the Left tries to imagine how a single critical victory by some charismatic figure on the Right (most recently Sarah Palin, at least in Frederic Rich’s imagination!) could apply the leverage of political office to instantly upend every American cultural trend and plunge the nation into some flavor of religious fascism. This is the usual high-stilted nonsense — but for the Left, it never quite suffers the stigma of being a conspiracy theory because it feels so plausibly similar to the less-progressive interludes of the past. (Well, along with the plausible deniability of a literary facade.) Yet at the same time, the Left feels utterly bound by a narrative that says that past was full of “good conservatives” where were of a nobler breed than the coarse ideologues who survive the primary cycle today. (Like… former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney?!) None of this adds up, yet somehow all of it seems psychologically necessary.
The predisposition to slowly savor visions of your own defeat, even at the moment of total victory, seems like an essential component of ressentiment. If you feel too much like a victor, it’s sure hard to keep hating those rotten Krauts and Japs enough to demonize them, and then there’s a risk of dismantling the powerful military infrastructure you constructed to wage war against their perfidy. Victory contains the seeds of a more magnanimous future for the victors, even as it infuriates the vanquished. So the Left can only maintain the energy it needs to harness the culture wars as a tool for electoral victory if it constantly denies that it’s winning, by weaving itself a new narrative of encroaching right-wing radicalism that’s eroding the remnants of some Eisenhowerian golden age of nonpartisan unity and cooperation.
Have any of history’s other revolutionaries been so reluctant to celebrate their own revolution? Sure, some of them have been quick to look for hidden enemies of the state waiting to unmake the triumph by contaminating its purity with moderation, but I’m talking about a refusal to even recognize that a revolution has occurred. Imagine a world in which the American citizens of 1962 still despised the Japanese as much as the Americans of 1942, and you’ll have a sense of the paradoxical political world which the Left currently sees a political advantage in trying to sustain. Well, except that for all the awful xenophobia of organizing around the hatred a remote “Other” like the people of a foreign nation, such an approach toward political mobilization still doesn’t seem as threatening to the cohesiveness of a free republic as when the “Other” meets in a church right down the street from your house.
A clip from the Drum piece:
Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.
As far as I’m concerned, the culture wars are one of the left’s greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it’s entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn’t just sell the right short, it sells the left short too. It’s our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.
I think Drum is right, of course. As Edward Hamilton avers, one big reason the left keeps winning is it believes itself always to be on the verge of losing, and presents itself as the forever underdog. As long as a fundamentalist Baptist draws breath anywhere in this country, the left will see itself as the underdog.