What the Hedgehog Knows

The left is at it again. Liberals, progressives, and populists of all variations are busily carving one another up and saving conservatives the trouble. Such internecine warfare has gone on since time immemorial, but it seems particularly virulent now, a result, perhaps, of losing an election in 2000 that should have been won and being immobilized since then by the Bush war on terrorism. Segments of the left, frustrated by their failures, are taking it out on each other.

Nowhere is this self-defeating exercise more evident than in certain liberal journals of opinion &emdash; The Nation and The American Prospect come to mind &emdash; where the nasty Gore-Nader dispute is still being revisited a year and a half after the fact. Otherwise sensible columnists, such as The Nation's Eric Alterman, continue to hurl barbs at the Green Party's standard bearer and play the retrospective blame game for all it's worth; they just can't let go.

Aside from its search for scapegoats to explain the loss of the White House, the left is engaged in any number of other fruitless pursuits. The Pacifica Radio imbroglio continues to fester, Jewish and Gentile liberals are at loggerheads over Middle East policy, and prominent progressive writers like Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal are in intellectual combat with, it seems, everyone this side of George W. Bush.

Ordinarily, chronic verbal fratricide could be safely ignored and written off as just one more penance progressives have to pay for inhabiting the left portion of the ideological spectrum &emdash; a messiness that simply comes with the territory. Lately, however, the ongoing petty disputes have begun to impinge on practical politics and potentially affect the 2002 and 2004 elections. Case in point: the wholly unnecessary and unwarranted attack on prospective Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich by The Nation's resident feminist agitator Katha Pollitt.

Kucinich, the one-time "boy mayor" of Cleveland, who sacrificed himself politically in the 1970s to save that city's municipally owned power system, has recently returned to prominence as a populist Ohio congressman and head of the Progressive Caucus in the House. He has not only employed populist rhetoric on the campaign trail, but (unlike a certain almost-successful Democratic presidential nominee who also employed it) has fought actively for populist goals in office: public power, national health insurance, environmental safety, an end to tax cuts for the rich, and (most courageously) limits on the administration's vaguely defined, open-ended terrorist war. All in all, not a bad record, but insufficiently pure for certain spokespersons of the feminist persuasion.

In Katha Pollitt's view, Kucinich has committed one unforgivable sin: He has voted in Congress against unrestricted abortion rights. That he's done so with qualms and reservations, and without real enthusiasm matters not. Kucinich, a strong Catholic representing a socially conservative Catholic constituency, dared to touch the third rail of national Democratic politics, and he must be held to account; no deviation from feminist dogma is to be permitted. Unless he recants, Pollitt insists, the Ohio congressman must for his transgressions be stricken from the list of permissible Democratic presidential nominees and stripped of his progressive credentials. In her view, the economic left's pursuit of "the white male working-class vote" must be sacrificed to the interests of "pro-choice women."

In a perfect world, Dennis Kucinich would have a different stance on abortion rights; I wish he did. But it's not a perfect world, and there are no perfect leaders. Studs Terkel, a Kucinich partisan and also a supporter of choice, holds to the position that the Ohio representative is too good to lose as a progressive spokesman, that his ideas on abortion are in flux, and that his basic fairness will cause his views to evolve over time in a direction more palatable to liberals.

Terkel's tolerant perspective, an appeal for the left to live and let live, and get beyond single-issue politics, is a minority view at present. The recent Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, for example, exposed the deep fissures existing among Democrats. It pitted Robert Casey Jr., a dedicated economic populist with conservative positions on social issues, against Ed Rendell, a social liberal with a somewhat New Democratic economic program. As usual of late, social themes predominated, and the divisive campaign led to the winner, Rendell, being seriously weakened for the fall struggle against the Republicans, while Casey's important populist message received short shrift, disappearing in the uproar over guns and abortion.

Again, the core issue was choice. Casey, whose pro-life father, then- Gov. Robert Casey, Sr., was famously (and stupidly) denied the right to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, was the anointed anti-abortion candidate; Rendell, who urged moderate Republicans to cross over and support his social agenda, was the anointed pro-choice candidate. The cacophony over choice meant that, once more, economic issues with the potential to unite Democrats were shunted to the background in favor of the feminists' favorite cause.

This begs the question of whether feminism in its present incarnation (single-issue, pro-abortion politics) is really part of "the left" and should be granted continued deference &emdash; veto power, really &emdash; in the selection of Democratic candidates. The recent history of political feminism is that it exhibits limited leftist solidarity, crosses party lines at the least provocation, and has little interest in bedrock economic reforms of a populist nature. It appears to view working-class Americans as expendable on such issues as trade, minimum wage, and health care, preferring to focus on the one true issue of abortion rights, the concern that presumably motivates middle-class "soccer moms" in affluent suburbs.

In this respect, the current stranglehold of abortion-fixated feminism on progressive politics and the left agenda is analogous to the influence exerted by the anti-prohibitionist or "wet" movement of the 1920s, which in the process of battling its arch-enemy, the prohibitionist "drys," prevented the Democrats for a decade from focusing on economic issues that could have united their party; only the subsequent Great Depression and the coming of FDR broke the logjam. Like the liquor question of that era, the largely symbolic choice issue is a destructive distraction the so-called left can ill afford.

At the end of the day, a concentration on individual social issues &emdash; abortion, gun control, drug legalization, or immigration policy &emdash; will doom the left to untold years of wandering in the political wilderness. "The fox," a wise man of antiquity once said, "knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing." Like the single-minded hedgehog, those on the left (especially in the Democratic party) need to rally around their one great idea, economic populism, the idea that has historically united them, and agree to disagree on the lesser things that politically divide them. That's their only hope of ending the reign of George the Younger.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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