Michael Walzer’s piece entitled “Missing the Movement” is so relevant and smartly written that I felt inclined to read it through four times before beginning to thinking about formulating an adequate response that would do it justice. I am overjoyed to find someone who has managed to put forth a strong, sound hypothesis as to why recent reform efforts tied to a resurgent liberalism have been so limited while setting out cogently what we ourselves ought to do to fix the problem. Having identified what went wrong, let us now proceed to take on the hard work and soul searching necessary to get past it. For as it is written, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.”
Liberalism is the American version of social democracy, but it lacks a strong working-class base, party discipline, and ideological self-consciousness. None of these are in the offing, but we need to be aware of what we are missing, and we need to begin at least the intellectual work of making up for it. European social democrats are on the defensive right now, but they have a lot to defend. Liberals here are in catch-up mode, and not doing all that well. We know more or less what we have to do, but we haven’t managed to give the American people a brightly colored picture of the country we would like to create. There is a lot of wonkishness on the liberal left, among American social democrats, but not much inspiration. We haven’t found the words and images that set people marching. As an old leftist, I can talk (endlessly) about citizenship, equality, solidarity, and our responsibility to future generations, but someone much younger than I am has to put all this in a language that resonates with young Americans-and describe a “city upon a hill” that may or may not be the same hill that I have been climbing all these years.
It is this section in particular which resonates most strongly with me. I notice this kind of stultifying dullness among those who have, for reasons unknown, exchanged wonkery for truly impassioned discourse and inspirational rhetoric. The result produced is robotic and bloodless, for one. For another, it’s downright Pharisaical. In this circumstance, Dictionary.com defines Pharisaical as “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit.” I have noted, sometimes with anger, sometimes with frustration, never with satisfaction, that this is true not just in gatherings of religious liberals, but also quite evident in multiple settings and causes comprised of vocally secular liberals. Going through the motions without understanding the passion will never serve anyone’s cause well and indeed, it is partially why we find ourselves in the mess in which we are now. Layering laws upon laws, formalities upon formalities, and procedures upon procedures might seem to be helpful upon first glance, but they end up separating ourselves from each other, not pulling us together.