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

What’s Left of the Left? Did the Grand Old Party Get Old? November 7, 2012

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!


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