Communism produced an entire literature of work by those who woke up one day to find that its allure had worn off. The God that Failed contains six essays by leading Western intellectuals of the mid-20th century detailing their infatuation and subsequent break with Communism. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon describes a loyal son of the revolution’s last day, as he awaits execution at the hands of the revolutionary government that he helped bring into power. Witness by Whittaker Chambers, the accuser of Alger Hiss, describes Chambers life as an underground Soviet agent and his subsequent break with the Communist Party and the USSR.
In our own time, David Horowitz is certainly the most prolific such “convert.” He describes himself as consumed by an Ahab-like monomania to expose the roots of “progressive thought.” A red-diaper baby, Horowitz was a leader of the radical Students for a Democratic Society and one-time co-editor of Ramparts, the journal of the radical American left. He has now published The Black Book of the American Left, the first of a projected nine-volume collection of his writings anatomizing the political left.
Horowitz attributes his shift from the left to conservatism to two events. The first was the murder of a woman he had helped obtain a job as a bookkeeper with a Black Panther-run school by members of the Black Panthers, revolutionary darlings of the left, in December 1974. Five months later, his leftist faith was again jarred by the bloodbath that ensued in Southeast Asia after American withdrawal from Vietnam. He felt personally implicated in the first murder and indirectly in the wholesale slaughter in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The key word for Horowitz is “consequences.” His lifework centers around his split from the New Left after “the consequences became clear to me in the mid-1970s.” Elsewhere, he describes himself as having known the left from inside as one of its “theorists” and then subsequently as its nemesis by virtue of confronting “it with the real world consequences of its actions.”
For an earlier generation of Communist-sympathizers, too, it was the experience of being brought face to face with the “consequences of their commitments” – e.g., the Moscow show trials of the late ‘30s, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany – that led them to break with the left. Joachim Klein, a member of the far-left German Baader-Meinhof Gang, decamped after finding himself in a Middle East country training for attacks on Israel with European neo-Nazis. But too often, those who make the break are in the minority.
WHY DO PROGRESSIVES SHRINK from confronting the consequences of their deeds? Those on the left like to think of themselves as members of the “reality-based” community, but in truth they often suffer from an aversion for examining real world consequences. One reason is that for them, politics have taken on the redemptive role of religion in their lives. The purpose of politics is to make the participant think well of him or herself – what the late Oriana Fallaci called the “goodist” impulse. Good intentions serve as justification for refusing to focus on consequences.
President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs were undoubtedly motivated by good intentions. And President Obama’s recent speeches on income inequality are the harbinger of more proposals to expand the reach of government to lesson income inequality.
An increasing body of evidence suggests, however, that the primary source of income inequality and declining social mobility is no longer external barriers, such as racism, but cultural ones. In assessing a child’s life chances, one of the greatest predictors of future success or failure, of whether the child moves up the ladder of economic success or down, is whether he or she is raised by one parent or two. Research by the Economic Mobility Project shows that of children born into families in the bottom third of income distribution, those raised by two parents are twice as likely as those with divorced parents to exit that bottom third in the course of their lifetimes. Two-parent homes develop a higher level of “human capital” in terms of such qualities as education, knowledge, habits and willpower.
Since his path-breaking 1984 work Losing Ground, sociologist Charles Murray has been arguing that the welfare state itself contributed to the growth of an underclass that is characterized by large, easily quantifiable cultural deficits. In Breaking Apart, Murray examines the chasm in rates of marriage, divorce, and religious attendance between the upper-fifth of American homes and the bottom quintile.
Welfare payments lessen incentives to work and help create a culture of dependency. The male products of that culture are less and less attractive as marriage partners, having lost their role as providers. In 1965, Daniel Moynihan fretted about the consequences of one-quarter of black children beginning life being raised by a single-mother. Today, that rate for black children has nearly tripled, and even the rate for all children is 60% higher than the black rate of 1965.
Dependency fosters anger and bitterness among its beneficiaries. While they may accept the benefits, the lack of doing anything to earn those benefits is emasculating and creates anger at the system. It is no wonder that such a high percentage of young black males are in prison at any given time.
Expanding and raising the level of the social safety net has resulted, then, in expanding the welfare rolls, as well as a near quintupling of the numbers of those claiming disabilities. But the result has been to make the problem of the underclass ever more intractable, and to narrow the promise of America for more and more of its citizens.
But confronting the impact of culture is more than many on the left are prepared to contemplate. It’s easy to vote for new transfer payments. It’s almost impossible to figure out how to reverse huge cultural deficits at birth.
ANOTHER FACTOR THAT SHIELDS self-styled progressives from taking responsibility for the consequences of their politics is a tendency to abstraction that reduces real people to social or racial categories. Only those in favored categories – “poor,” “black,” “uninsured” – are worthy of solicitude, for only they convey a sense of virtue to their benefactors. Horowitz provides an example from his SDS days: “Trashing the windows of merchants on the main streets of America seemed warranted by the notion that these petty-bourgeois shopkeepers were the cogs in the system of capitalist exploitation… Fantasizing the death of local cops seemed warranted by the role they played as an occupying army in America’s black ghettos.”
The bombs set by spoiled rich radicals like Obama-friend Bill Ayers and Kathy Boudin had no more chance of triggering the revolution they longed for than the Republican shutdown of Congress had of eliminating Obamacare. But the people killed by their antics were flesh and blood human beings. The Brinks security guards and two policemen gunned down by the armed robbers for whom Kathy Boudin drove the getaway car left behind them nine orphans.
A THIRD FACTOR BEHIND THE DETACHMENT from reality of progressives is that so few have any experience of the real world and how things work. Does one laugh or cry when the president who oversaw the overhaul of one-sixth of the American economy announces that he has discovered that buying insurance is complicated? Only ten percent of the Obama cabinet has any business experience – i.e., a connection with the world of producing value – compared to 50% of George W. Bush’s cabinet. Perhaps they really did believe that it is possible to add vast new goodies to the minimum insurance basket and yet bring down the costs of policies or that 30,000,000 formerly uninsured people could be guaranteed affordable insurance while government health care spending would be reduced.
One of the finest people I know told me a couple of years back that she was prepared to suffer a decline in the level of her health care so that others would have healthcare insurance. But, unfortunately, Obamacare wasn’t a tradeoff between her care and those previously uninsured. She is well enough off to make up any deficit inflicted by Obamacare. Tens of millions of Americans, who have already been, or will be over the next two years, hit with higher premiums and much more restrictive policies in terms of their health network do not have that luxury.
They may not have been uninsured, but their reduced freedom and higher costs count as well. The trap of Obamacare for progressives is that it does not provide clear benefits to almost all citizens, with the costs being spread out across the population in the form of higher taxes, as with social security and Medicare. Rather, it will palpably worsen the healthcare of the majority of Americans, in some cases in life-threatening ways, at a cost that will be crystal clear to them in the form of higher premiums, co-pays and deductibles.
And the final irony is that the “uninsureds,” in whose name Obamacare came into being, have, to date, shown minimal interest, with only about a quarter signing up so far. Ironically, the number of uninsureds by virtue of dropped plans or employers giving up coverage has actually grown under Obamacare rather than declining.
As the unexpected disasters of Obamacare pile up, its progressive authors may never admit its multiple follies, but having witnessed progressive governance at work, the rest of the population may be cured forever.