Michael Lind: A New


Texas Observer: You have a theory about modernists and traditionalists in political thought.

Michael Lind: The whole notion of left and right we’ve had since the ’60s, revolving largely around sexual issues and drug use and censorship—that is just irrelevant. The deeper division within Texas and similar states in the South and West is between the ones who wanted to use the resources of government directly or indirectly to modernize the society, to turn it into a high tech, middle-class, meritocratic society and the others, the traditionalists, who want to retain a familiar, conservative, largely rural social order, while incorporating bits and pieces of modernity. They had no objection to roads, an interstate highway system which benefits them economically if they were a cotton plantation owner or a rancher or whatever. But when it comes to, let’s say, teaching Darwin in public schools, so you can have world-class biotechnologists, they draw the line at that. So it is a selective appropriation of modernity by the traditionalists and a whole-hearted embrace by the modernists.

TO: What would a new grand narrative for liberals be?

ML: The grand narrative for liberals since the ’60s was the civil rights grand narrative which replaced the New Deal grand narrative about production. All of these mass movements of the early 20th century, whether it was liberalism, social democracy, Marxism, fascism, were mainly about increasing production by industrializing and mechanizing backward, agrarian societies. By the ’60s, it’s a success and so the conversation changes. On the left it gets eclipsed by the civil rights revolution; the black civil rights movement becomes the model for all other movements. Then you get this period of about 30 years of identity politics, where in order to get a place at the table of liberalism, you have to represent a minority group that is a victim of discrimination … All of that was perfectly legitimate. You had to have the civil rights revolution—that was the great accomplishment of the past 30 years—but at the end of the day, if you have an exploitative economic system where the exploiters are pro-gay, pro-choice, and PC, you still haven’t solved some fundamental problems in the economy like the class structure and the distribution of wealth.

The problem is that there hasn’t been a liberal ideology since the New Deal. There have been liberal interest groups. In fact, this is what Democrats in Washington call them. They call them “the groups” in private conversation. As in “the groups wouldn’t like this,” “the groups wouldn’t like that.” They are now the environmentalist groups, the NAACP, La Raza—the AFL-CIO doesn’t quite fit in but it is treated as one of the member interest groups that has to be appeased. … What you need is a mass movement at the grassroots level. And the financing of the left is part of the problem, too. Because it is based on these big foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation which have founded many of these Liberal interest groups. So the way that you get a million dollars is that you go and talk to one program officer in Manhattan. Where as the movement conservatives, since they were not popular in the business community when they started off, had to explore direct mail. They became membership organizations. … The conservatives are a minority in the United States. There is a natural center-left majority and there has been since the ‘70s, but the problem is that a minority majority defeats a disorganized majority if each of the groups is actually smaller than the conservatives and chiefly interested in its own issue. … The answer is enlarging the middle class, which is something else the left has forgotten about.

TO: The left today does focus on the middle class through issues like living-wage campaigns. That benefits the middle class.

ML: Which I think is very important. It’s sort of an uphill battle. But the problem with the left is that it’s so paralyzed on the immigration issue. They cannot cope with reality of how low-wage unskilled immigration has been driving down wages at the bottom of the labor market since the 1960s. Whenever multiculturalism collides with the interests of labor, multiculturalism wins. If that’s the case, then who should follow the left? They’re not even a left any more in the sense of being egalitarian, thinking about working people. They’re essentially a racial/ethnic coalition that’s more concerned about increasing the numbers of this or that group. Which is fine as a by-product of sensible foreign policies. But the truth is, if you are importing a million largely poor people from Third World countries every year and putting them in five states and a dozen cities, this will lower wages.

TO: What about the rising influence of fundamentalism in politics?

ML: They are overplaying their hand. They are a limited and dwindling minority of the population. The country is slowly getting more secular. This is not reported, but it’s true. Church attendance is going down. They are not going to be able to reach out to whites in other parts of the country much less blacks and Latinos. Like I say, I think there is an emerging center-left majority if somebody can articulate a single vision. There has to be a hopeful vision. … The left—since I was eight years old—has said “Oh, there is going to be a nuclear war any minute, and cars are terrible, and we should sell our cars and go everywhere on foot, and let’s have racial quotas that will penalize everybody, and people in the third world are starving because we are consuming so much.” Who would vote for somebody with a message like that? It’s just depressing. And I think that ultimately has religious roots. Apart from Marxism, the other big influence on liberalism in the United States tended to be evangelical Protestantism—in the social gospel sense, not the fundamentalist sense. There is this strain of American liberalism that comes out of this sort of millennial Puritan tradition where unless it’s painful it’s not virtuous. … I come out of the Southern Southwestern populist tradition. If it’s fun—do it. If it’s painful—avoid it. The only thing the populists want is for everybody to share the wealth, kind of a Huey Long approach.

TO: You have been slammed for overgeneralizing and broad-brush analysis. What do you say to your critics?

ML: The book is about the constituencies and their worldviews. It’s not a day-by-day analysis of the Bush presidency, which I didn’t set out to write ….The other thing that is interesting with the reviews is what happens when they give the book to what I call the Court reporters—not the courtroom reporters but the royal court, the Washington press corps. They complain that the tone is uncivil. What is happening in American journalism—and the left got this wrong too, because they thought that corporate control of the press was leading to all of this self-censorship—is the main problem is power. Most of the news chains like Gannett and so forth don’t have their own reporters, so they are getting their stories from the wires. And the political reporters in Washington will all lose their access to the president, any president liberal or conservative. And then they lose their job because they missed the scoop that Rumsfeld or Rove or somebody gives to their competitors. But it’s not a person thing. If I had written a conservative book criticizing Bill Clinton it would have been the same response from the same people. “Oh, he’s exaggerating; he’s too harsh.” a meditation on long-term trends in American history and politics. … My hope is that it will outlive its moment, that the historical chapters in particular will be relevant long after George W. returns to private life. Which I hope will be in 2005.