What’s Left of the Left? Did the Grand Old Party Get Old?

The election has passed. Obama won the big one and the list goes on and on from there. Casualties in every direction. 2014 and 16 loom thick and heavy already, as depressing as that seems.

What did we learn? I hope someone learned something. Especially the so-called “Left” and the GOP.

Now remember: I’m a Catholic mercenary, unbeholden to either party. I have no dogs in this nation-state fight. At least not right in the middle of it. Just howlin’ on the fringes, the margin. A Conservative Leftist. That’s me. As such, I experienced two different kinds of emotions last night: a heavy dose of Leftist confusion and frustration and a sense of sympathy and sorrow for what used to be the Grand Old Party.

Some background first:

I didn’t acquire my lefty sentiments from Marx. I got them from the Catholic Church. Not liberation theology. I got them from a very in-your-face, firsthand reality: the Church itself couldn’t care for the poor, my family. We gave our life to the Church in full-time service and we lived on less than a shoe string budget. We used WIC and other government programs when we could and we still just barely got by. I saw priests (employed at the same parish) drive nice cars we could never afford, cars that I felt ashamed not to have, and live in houses two or three times the size of ours. This wasn’t always the case; in Brady, Texas we lived in the parish rectory, which was nice by comparison, but, time and time again, I saw my most trusted and beloved institution neglect to provide for those who sacrificed everything to and for it. After a while it began to contradict the free market politics I grew up listening to on the radio, on the EIB network, and hearing from the Republican party. If the Catholic Church couldn’t provide adequate health care benefits and a living wage to it’s own employees, then how could we rely on a privatized, free market to care for the poor? The idea that the rich would freely and gladly give to the poor was, for me, unthinkable because the Church was mostly unable to provide for us because parishes and dioceses were suffering from fiscal woes that came from a lack of support from those rich people. To this day, my Dad tithes 10% on his gross income, faithfully. Taxes, for me, function like tithing.

I am a Leftist because the Church’s own neglect forced me realize the absolute need for something, anything, to care for the poor when my most intimately cherished institution cannot. I hate to give the state credit for anything, but, in the right proportion, I don’t see how it cannot provide for the poor, even through controlling and pacing the gains of the rich. I do not see the poor as parasites, but I do know how vulgar and exploitive they can be. I have no romantic sense of the lower classes. There is a sad pathology of poverty that makes people do and be very ugly things. But I do know what this looks like from the bottom up. I feel most at home with the poor sometimes. I can relax there. This is the foundation of what I call my “Leftism.” Marx just added some meat to those bones, later, and discredited himself in other ways, too.

My Conservatism does not come from Limbaugh or Buchanan or Goldwater. No. I got it from books. Grand, old books. The golden, Richard John Neuhaus age of First Things (which, I think, is making a comeback). The ideas drew me in. These minds drank deeply from wells of the West all the way down to Homer, filled with waters from antiquity, the Early Church, the Middle Ages, Early Modernity, into the present. There was a fearlessness about these books and I’ve always taken that to be the great virtue of Conservatism. A certain immodesty. Often on the wrong side of history, but always for interesting reasons. The Conservative tent was wide and wild but, most of all, it was intellectual, in the very best sense. Conservatives were, to me, people who cared about big ideas and were willing to be indecent about them if they had to. Conservatives read and wrote books and required that conversation be rigorous and grounded in a passionate, uncompromising intellect. And they had fun, too.

I am a Conservative because I still believe that. I think every major academic turn in recent years — from the theological turn in phenomenology (Jean-Luc Marion, et al) to the ontological turn in continental/postmodern thought (Alain Badiou, et al) — shows this Conservative legacy is still viable. These big ideas have redemptive value in politics and we should require that politicians have some familiarity with them. The GOP was once the party where those ideas made their home, for the most part, especially after the culture wars of the 60′s and 70′s. That was where one could find heady, bookish things. For me, that was the allure and grandeur of the Grand Old Party: ideas.

Last night I found both lacking.

On the Left, the only voice (on my Twitter feed) that spoke cautiously and with a sense of bitterness about Obama’s disastrous four years for the poor, immigrants, and more, was Erykah Badu. Everyone else was cheering and happy and enthusiastic. How far we’ve come since ’68. How easily and cheaply the so-called Left is now pleased. How fat and satisfied we are now with our good jobs and schooling and technology. Obama should have been thrown out of office by the Left, not the Right. He should have been rejected for his war crimes and neglect of the poor, immigrants, and more. He is no friend of the Left. Not the one that I know and love. And he’s certainly no friend of mine. He is a special embarrassment to the rich and storied tradition of Leftist Black thought and political activism. He shows his lack of historical ties to slavery and Civil Rights. And he is certainly no Marxist, despite what the empty-heads say on the Right.

On the Conservative side, things are perhaps worse. The ideas are gone. The GOP is driven by cults of personality. Palin and other know-nothings. The Hispanic vote is sought through tokens who say things the anti-intellectual base likes to hear. Rubio would be a disaster. Whereas Conservative intellectuals used to make their home in this party, most thoughtful intellectuals sit outside its doors, locked out by the Tea Party idiots and the Fox News and talk-radio shouting heads. They’ve build a cottage industry of bad books, drug-like media, and populist propaganda, but they are losing elections because the business of politics is not the same as the business of business. It sells, but win elections it does not. This political industry has many flaws, but its most debilitating one has been to align itself with the lowest-brow Christian group in the country: Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalists. These evolution denying, global warming outraged, ahistorical nativists have single-handedly driven the GOP into a reactionary defensiveness that once belonged on the other side of the aisle. In the process they will continue to alienate thinking people and people who are threatened by their constant caricatures of themselves, even when the caricature isn’t wholly true. Hispanics don’t vote for Republicans because they don’t trust their general image. And why should they! Listen to their fearful fetishizing over the English language many of them can barely speak and don’t seem to read. Or their ignorance of the history of Hispanic culture and heritage native to this country.

Catholics are the the only hope for both sides. We’re the last best hope. We can articulate the challenges of the Left in a voice people can hear and understand. We can do it without Marx or Obama or Chomsky. We don’t need OWS. But we need to be more creative. We can include women and the unborn, together, in a way that is sensible and beautiful.

And most assurely we are the only hope for the GOP. If they ever hope to regain their honorable Conservatism of yesteryear, then they’d better get in touch with the greatest Conservative intellectual tradition of the West: the Catholic intellectual tradition. Plus, Catholics understand the ever important Hispanic population as well as anyone. We are them, they are us. The greatest challenge here is getting the right kind of Catholic: many Catholics within the GOP have become more Republican than Catholic. But this is a quick, easy fix. And there are plenty of serious Catholics out there. Distributists are making a come back, they say.

To my sisters and brothers on the Right: put down or turn off the Bob O’Reilly (yes, I know he’s Catholic) and open the G. K. Chesterton. Do your homework. Period. Don’t settle for the drivel that is making you — a fine, dignified Roman Catholic — into an irrational Protestant.

There’s almost nothing left of the the Left and the GOP is older than it is grand. Until the Left finds its long lost soul and the GOP find its brain again, I fear that serious Catholics must remain on the margins of American politics — which is not such a bad place to be!


  • Ted Seeber

    Je Suis Marxiste, Tendance Reinhard.

    Look up Reinhard Marx and you’ll know why I say that.

    In a world where 50% of Catholics, including my own wife, voted for Obama, and another 48% voted for Romney….I despair.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m doing much better today- I see some action items in my future for a way out of this trap.

  • http://ereadingromanticism.wordpress.com Bernadette

    Thanks for this—I think you hit several nails squarely on the head. I couldn’t help but wonder all election season if one reason that this campaign was so particularly negative was that, if we spent all day long being reminded how awful the other guy was, then we’d never have to face—to critique and to confront—the serious lack of coherent and fruitful vision on our own “side.”

    Unfortunately, party line-towing seems to have fully replaced meaningful inquiry on both sides to such a degree that it is seen of little short of blasphemy for a Republican to argue that we might have positive obligations towards anyone other than ourselves and for a Democrat to argue that the rights of the unborn and the rights of women are rights that travel hand-in-hand, not ones that must be pitted against one another in a winner-take-all battle.

  • http://survivingourblessings.com Abbey

    This is the first thing I have read this whole election cycle that has made sense to me. I am exhausted from conversations with self-described Republican Catholics who want to gut social programs. I am equally worn out trying to convince Democrats that we can protect both women and unborn children. You have made me feel like there might be more people like me…like we could carve out a place in politics for those of us who want to be sure there are safeguards in place for all vulnerable people, not just the ones that aren’t yet born. Whether anyone with this mindset could garner a nomination from either party, I am not sure, but thank you for your clearly articulated thoughts.

    • Petro

      There are more of us than you think. We just remain quiet because we are nonpolitical in nature.

      A major issue here is the baby boomers. They are very political, and they are still fighting the culture wars. They cannot see how their political identities might be keeping them from listening fully to the message of Christ.

      This isn’t to say that there aren’t Gen-Xers on both sides, but they typically aren’t driving the bus. If we nonpolitical, uninvolved, slacker Gen-Xers can make any contribution to the future, it’s by trying to give a little of our perspective to the warring factions that preceded us.

      • Ted Seeber

        I’m a very political Gen-Xer; but I despair quite frequently over what passes for politics in the sexual revolution and me generation.

        My only hope- 20 years from now they’ll all be dead and gone. We’ll still be here. Will there be anything left to fight for though?

  • Hilary

    This was interesting. I have nothing but contempt for the politcal heirarchy of the Catholic Church, but enough sense not to judge Catholic individuals automatically, and there is a lot to respect in this post. But I have a question for you:

    Regarding not pitting unborn children against their mothers, code for abortion, wouldn’t one of the best, first and easiest ways to do that would be to garentee free or sliding scale affordable pre-natal counciling and healthcare for all women? Garanteeing that pregnancy would not be a pre-existing condition that would deny a woman health insurence if she lost her job while pregnant? Paid maternaty leave at all income levels, so a pregnant woman living paycheck to paycheck with two children dependant on her already doesn’t have to look an unexpected pregnancy as potentially a devistating loss of a job that her family depends on? Ending loosing health care coverage because of pre-existing conditions that are managable with decent maintenence care, so that a pregnant woman without coverage doesn’t have to consider if her health is up to surviving a pregnancy when she already has untreated medical isssues, like diabeties maybe?

    Are there any bishops or priests fighting for this? Any Republicans? I didn’t see any this election cycle, but maybe I missed it. Or were they all too busy fighting against civil marriage rights for gay people?

    • srocha

      I missed that too, Hilary. I missed that too.


  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Hi Sam,
    I just saw your post, and something caught my eye different from what seems to have caught others’ eyes, or even yours. I worked as a full-time church worker, and one of the reasons I left was precisely because it does not pay a wage that can support a man, let alone a family. But that’s not the Church caring for her poor, it’s the Church paying her employees.
    The distinction is important. It also provokes the question of whether the Church ought to have lay employees, or so many of them. It also provokes the question – without and particular respect to your parents – of whose responsibility it is to provide for one’s family. Do parents provide for a family, or their employer? If I continue to work for an employer that does not adequately compensate me, when I have other options, it is hardly the employers fault or even concern.
    In fact, to a great extent, the Church has a difficulty providing better wages and better caring for the poor because of large government social service programs. Economists have shown how Americans have tithed less as the income tax revenues, as share of GDP, have increased. That is, the more the government takes from me, the less I have to share. Now, with debate reopening the question of taxable-income deductions for charitable giving, what we will see is the government getting more revenue and non-profits, including the Church, getting less. This effect is not an unintended consequence, but very much a part of the Left’s historic agenda to monopolize social service work.
    The problem of clergymen living overly well is not a new one and hasn’t been particularly exacerbated by the rise of capitalism in the last 500 years. It is a spiritual one as old as Judas, who “kept the common purse,” (Jn 13:29). In point of fact, it wouldn’t make much difference in most parishes. If the priest makes $24k plus housing and food expenses, he has plenty of money to play with, sure. But if you distribute, say $16k of that among his 4 lay employees, we see an easing of their situation, but not a radical change – especially if they have dependents.
    Marxist observations are often sound; their critiques are based on a wildly flawed anthropology; their proposed solutions are based on ethics entirely repugnant to a Christian, indeed, to any honorable soul; and their agendas inevitably feed into and reinforce precisely the terrible problem they are trying to solve: capitalism. In his “The Service State,” Hilaire Belloc demonstrates very tidily why socialism in any form cannot cure capitalism. History has since then provided numerous examples of the framework he sketches out.
    Lastly, though, your observation that both the Left and Conservatism are bankrupt is, of course, dead on. How can they display any creativity when they have in their hearts either killed or become ashamed of their Creator? Conservatism is based, to a large extent, on the same flawed anthropology and ludicrous ethics that socialism is based on, and so it is, naturally enough, powerless to stop it. THAT has been the history of the last 150 years. Socialism making steady progress with conservatism only occasionally managing to apply some brakes. You are correct, that we need a revolution of grace, of love, and of freedom.