The Myopia of the Left: An Invitation the Right Must Decline

Andrew E. Busch

May 1, 2008

Anyone following the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries cannot have failed to notice the ill-concealed rage with which Barack Obama’s defenders in the media have responded to the emergence of Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers as issues in the race. In this view, concerns about Obama’s connections with Wright and Ayers are mere distractions at best, if not smear by association. Anyone so much as bringing up the topic, Hillary Clinton or ABC debate moderators included, is guilty of McCarthyism.

Indeed, the dust-up occasioned by Wright and Ayers has not appreciably slowed Obama’s march to the Democratic nomination. Clearly, large numbers of Democratic primary voters simply do not care.

However, one must distinguish the response of commentators from the response of voters. Obama’s voters do not care mostly because the supporters in the electorate of both candidates have been fixed in demographic voting blocs. For voters on both sides—but especially for black voters, who gave Obama more than 90 percent of their votes in North Carolina and Indiana—the nomination contest has become a team sport in which nothing will shake them from their team. This lack of concern about Wright and Ayers is not rooted in ideology but in anti-ideology. That is, issues and governing philosophy have played little or no role in their voting decision, and that is not about to change.

On the other hand, the pro-Obama commentators disdain any consideration of Wright or Ayers not in spite of ideology but because of it. That is, they find it deeply offensive on ideological grounds that Obama, their preferred candidate, might be derailed because of associations with far-left ideologues. In their heart of hearts, they cannot find it in themselves to be much bothered by what Wright said or by what Ayers did. This reaction tells us volumes about the left in America.

It illuminates the fact that the kind of anti-American rantings and conspiracy theories that mark Wright’s or Ayers’ contemporary pronouncements are a dime a dozen in the American academy and the left blogosphere. Wright could be a sociology professor nearly anywhere in America; Ayers is an education professor.

More broadly, it also illuminates the fact that the left has not grown any more introspective since the end of the Cold War. European leftists used to be famous for their insistence on the proposition that “there are no enemies on the left.” Ever since the Mensheviks and various socialist “deviationists” were obliterated by Lenin and Stalin, this proposition has been self-evidently absurd. Yet clearly the American left clings to it today. This leads to a total failure of imagination in which commentators on the left find it impossible to picture a reversal of circumstances and hence impossible to put themselves in their opponents’ shoes. (Of course, this is a difficult task for anyone, and conservatives are sometimes far from exemplary on this score either.)

Imagine, for a moment, that John McCain declared that his spiritual mentor for the past twenty years was a pastor who was openly anti-Semitic and hated blacks. Imagine that a political fundraiser was held for him at the home of an unrepentant radical who had bombed abortion clinics, or of a former leader of the German-American Bund who had gotten off of federal charges in World War II on a technicality. It is inconceivable that commentators on the left would agree that none of this matters and that voters should not let themselves be distracted from the really important issues of how to win in Iraq and how to rein in federal spending.

Yet, not to put too fine a point on it, Wright is an anti-Semite and a racist, and Ayers is a traitor and a terrorist who self-consciously sought to open up a domestic front of the Vietnam War to facilitate the victory of communism in Indochina. Worse, neither man seems to harbor any doubts or regrets about his conduct. Because there are no enemies on the left, Obama’s supporters in the commentariat do not see anything wrong with this picture. Yet millions of Americans do.

These issues will not go away, even if CNN chooses not to talk about them anymore. Among the general populace outside of the Democratic primary electorate, they are going to hurt Obama. At the very least, they may well deprive him of the sort of resounding margin of victory that Democrats hope will result in big congressional coattails.

Yet Republicans must also tread carefully. Americans are now on guard, but they are still going to expect a campaign that acknowledges the challenges the country is facing and offers principled and effective solutions. An all-Wright-and-Ayers-all-the-time campaign, as tempting as it may be, will lead voters to wonder if Republicans have anything else to say. In a year when so many other signs point to a Democratic win, it will not be enough. Nor should it be: After eight years of blurring, Republicans owe it to the country to make clear what it is they stand for. It would be ironic if, having cut Obama down to size, Wright and Ayers suck Republicans into a campaign to win on the cheap that ultimately proves counter-productive and futile. The left has already proven itself myopic on this subject. The right must be careful not to do the same.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.