Elena Kagan and the West-Wingification of the Left

How did the Democratic left, which used to be defined by progressivemore than anything else, become distinguished from the Republican right merely over differences on same-sex marriage and global warming?
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Political observers are well into handicapping the process of replacing retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the US Supreme Court. And at the top of every list of prospects for the job is Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

Also atop nearly every analysis of the process is a discussion of a looming Senatorial bloodbath as Obama nominates his liberal pick against the backdrop of a Tea Party-driven conservative zeitgeist.

From this emerging media narrative, then, is the pre-packaged conclusion that by virtue of simply being nominated by this President, any nominee automatically qualifies as liberal.

But, come on -- is that really a meaningful yardstick?

Glenn Greenwald doesn't think so, and has grave concerns that a Kagan pick will shift the court decidedly to the right at a key point in American history:

Beyond the disturbing risks posed by Kagan's strange silence on most key legal questions, there are serious red flags raised by what little there is to examine in her record... Among the most disturbing aspects is her testimony during her Solicitor General confirmation hearing, where she agreed wholeheartedly with Lindsey Graham about the rightness of the core Bush/Cheney Terrorism template: namely, that the entire world is a "battlefield," that "war" is the proper legal framework for analyzing all matters relating to Terrorism, and the Government can therefore indefinitely detain anyone captured on that "battlefield" (i.e., anywhere in the world without geographical limits) who is accused (but not proven) to be an "enemy combatant."

Those views, along with her steadfast work as Solicitor General defending the Bush/Cheney approach to executive power, have caused even the farthest Right elements -- from Bill Kristol to former Bush OLC lawyer Ed Whelan -- to praise her rather lavishly.

On the other hand, he doesn't deny that Kagan seems to be spot-on progressive on many social issues. This leads many to present the question asked a bit further up this site's front page by my fellow Huffington Post blogger Linda Monk:

...it is totally inaccurate to call Elena Kagan a conservative. What pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-First Amendment Democrat is conservative?

Without getting into the particular merits of Elena Kagan as a nominee, or of her relative progressiveness, I believe Monk's comment is worth discussing. After all, being "pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-First Amendment" was, not that long ago, perfectly respectable in many Republican circles, and a proper discussion of someone's progressive or liberal credentials simply couldn't occur without some acknowledgment of economics, at the very minimum.

In 2010, however, that's no longer the case, as this comment demonstrates. And how we got to this point has been through a "West-Wingification" of the Democratic Party.

Martin Sheen's President Bartlet was both praised (and vilified) as the American left's fantasy President during the long darkness of the George W. Bush years. With such billing, how could a good leftie like me resist tuning in? For the first few weeks of the series, I watched dutifully.

But a pattern became clear very quickly. Bartlet and his crack White House team certainly acted like liberals. They sounded like liberals. They even looked like liberals.

But with Bartlet's character's early rejection of the late and much lamented Northeast Dairy Compact as an anti-capitalist "cartel" unworthy of support, a pattern emerged of a decidedly conservative economic message. And it wasn't long before we saw the same kind of right-wing perspective on foreign policy become part of this fantasy administration.

And yet, the "liberal President" narrative continued for the most part unchallenged.

So -- defining a liberal in the West Wing context is fairly simple: you are anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, pro-choice, and vaguely environmentally conscious.

But when it comes to economics, budgetary policy, labor, war policy, presidential power -- and pretty much everything else -- the hard-right party-line is dandy for a West WIng Democrat. In fact, it's considered the wise, mature perspective. And it's clear that if you were to depend on the modern-day media for information (even much of the "new media"), this would seem to describe the modern day Democratic Party mainstream as well.

How did this happen? How did the Democratic left, which used to be defined by progressive economics more than anything else, become distinguished by the Republican right merely over differences on same-sex marriage and global warming?

Well, that's easy. Two reasons. For the first, The West Wing itself is a good example; that is, celebrity liberalism. Contrary to tea party-style whining, Hollywood is home to a range of political beliefs, including both right-wingers and plenty of old school lefties. But stepping back from the individual level into the general, there are trends. Celebrities do tend to be generally more progressive on the issues of the day -- but (and this is a very big "but") celebrities are also wealthy people, living their day-to-day lives in a wealthy culture.

No group of individuals in any cultural context live in absolute lockstep, so none of this is offered to cast sweeping absolutist judgments -- but general trends and pressures do emerge and exist within any culture. Individuals in a culture of wealth do generally tend to be inclined to want to keep that wealth rather than pass it around, and naturally develop an expectation that they have a right to the celebrity lifestyle (by which I mean, a lifestyle far more lavish than most of the rest of us can imagine).

So there is a natural pressure towards economic conservatism in Hollywood, and economic conservatism is a socio-political gateway drug of sorts, as it leads to common ground with much of the beltway punditry class who feel similarly. These are the pundits, of course, who wax admirational about right wing views on foreign policy and civil liberties. Consider: how cool was it among the left only a few years ago to namedrop Tom "suck-on-this" Friedman as one's favorite columnist in "sophisticated" liberal circles?

So you get a Hollywood liberal culture that trends left on gay rights, gender and race issues, and environmentalism, but tacks to the right on much else -- and out of this leftist culture comes programs like The West Wing that serve to define the greater American left in that same image.

But the second reason for the West-Wingification of the left is more troubling and more deeply hardwired.

For young folks in, or just out of, college, there are limited ways to get into the political world. Most do some volunteering on a campaign or two, and the more serious ones get internships in an elected official's office or jobs doing some kind of electoral organizing work.

If you've ever experienced one (or both) of those options, you'll appreciate one fact; you can't live on it. Political pay is terrible. Even staffers on the Hill don't make enough to live on their own and have to seek out roommate situations. It's a political bootcamp that no one can afford to join in unless they have some other source of income, and that's generally family money. These positions can be filled by young people who don't really need the money, which then drives down the going rate even further.

And these are the entry level positions for virtually all the major political machinery in and around the Democratic Party.

Is it any wonder, then, that the class consciousness brought into the modern liberal infrastructure is all-too-often anything but a working class, economically progressive one?

Take these two elements together and it's easy to understand the West-Wingification of the Democratic Party.

None of this is to suggest that these influences front load an anti-working class ethic. On the contrary, I have no doubt that young up-and-comers who start out contemptuous of the working class go straight to the GOP. No, what this creates is a lack of class-consciousness within the party and media machinery, and as nature abhors a vacuum, that absence tends to be organically filled with good ol' self-interest.

The result? A party floating free from traditional economic liberalism -- and that doesn't even recognize such as its traditional roots.

The new hegemony this creates is embodied in Monk's question. What the left can do to reground itself in progressive economic policies, civil-liberties-driven domestic policies, and a foreign policy whose goal is peace and cooperation rather than command-and-control is the real question.

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