I had a great time at the GOP caucus on Saturday in Seattle's Belltown district. Being a Brit, I could not participate, but I enjoyed watching this brand of direct and participatory democracy that differs profoundly from anything that goes on in the country of my birth.
Belltown is a hipster-lite district in one of the most liberal cities on the Left coast, and it went hard for Ron Paul on Saturday. Eight (I think) people from my precinct turned up. All but one had voted for Obama in 2008, and all were there for Paul. Indeed, throughout the caucus (comprising almost 200 people and 30 precincts) almost everyone under 40 voted for Paul, and almost everyone over 60 voted for Romney. Accordingly, overall, my legislative district -- very urban and very blue -- came down solidly for Paul.
It was all rather encouraging for me, since I've been flying around the country promoting the Blue Republicans, but it was not half as satisfying as a particular thought that has been floating around my head in the last week or two: the only anti-war movement with any visibility, political influence, savvy and momentum is around a white, male, Republican, American septuagenarian: in other words, the most politically active peace movement in the western world has coalesced around exactly the kind of person who, on paper, should be starting wars.
How deliciously unlikely. How handsomely ironic. How perfectly pragmatic in its seizing of the moment.
And for all those reasons, how wonderfully American.
The times, they are a-changing.
But whereas the change Dylan was singing about when he penned those words was both cause and effect of the birth of the modern American Left, now the change is both cause and effect of its death. America hasn't quite noticed it yet, but its effect will be every bit as far-reaching.
The death of the Left may sound a bit dramatic, but look around. What is the Left if it has ceded the politics of peace to an old, male, conservative who caucuses with the party recently of Bush and Cheney?
Anti-war movements have throughout my lifetime been creatures of the Left. Think back to the Vietnam protests. That was the generation of the summer of love that went on to oversee the transformation of the USA to a social democracy. Think of the protesters against the second war in Iraq. They were overwhelmingly Democrats. Similarly, the symbol of the British Left during my younger years was the women of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who chained themselves to the fences around the nuclear missile bases -- and their goal of unilateral disarmament was part of the official platform of the leftist Labour party.
Fast-forward to today. In our nation -- the most militaristic in the world, and therefore the country where the peace movement matters the most -- the single passionate pro-peace presidential candidate is an old Republican who would run against a leftist president who, like his predecessor, authorizes un-abating military action all over the globe.
If the fact that the Left can no longer lay philosophical claim to peace does not suffice to declare it dead, then let's look for another sign of life. There is, after all, much more to the traditional Left than peace.
The instinct for peace on the Left has historically been very followed closely by a passion against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
Yet, the Democratic party now oversees arguably the greatest transfer of wealth to those few that the USA has seen in generations, and to make sure it goes smoothly, it has a few of those few installed in some of the most important public positions in the country, including in the central bank and even the Treasury.
But what about the Left as the guardian of our civil rights?
That's gone too. The American Left has extended the Patriot Act and brought us the National Defense Authorization Act. It is militarizing the homeland. Even as it tries to give us easier access to contraception, it forgets that someone who is indefinitely detained without trial probably won't have much use for it.
And the few citizen-warriors who are actively fighting for our civil rights are not having any success within the Democratic party -- assuming there are any there -- and all of those whom I meet talk an awful lot about that old Republican.
As the Left splutters out of existence, the only fire in its belly seems to be for legislating in support unionized workers at the cost of the rights of those who prefer not to have anything to do with organized labor.
Simply put, there is no Left left.
The politically engaged young people who flooded the GOP caucuses on Saturday would, a generation ago, have formed the energetic core of the Left. They are educated. They are under 30. They are typical of their age and class throughout the ages in being driven by peace, civil rights and the urgent desire for a brighter future. They are in all these ways, liberal, in the true sense of the term.
Unattached to old political parties and tired labels, an increasing number of this group have discovered the fundamental piece of the puzzle that many Left-leaning Americans have been missing right up until the time they leaned so far over that they fell flat on their faces: the way in which power is exercised determines the direction of a country more than do good political intentions.
History is rhyming, as it is wont to do. Today's young activists are excited. They are still marching in the street, as they did in the '60s. They still hold banners against unnecessary wars, as they did in the '60s. They still fight against corporate and political corruption, as they did in the '60s. They still demand their civil rights, as they did in the 60s. And because they are serious about these liberal values, not only are they not carrying "Obama 2012" signs: they are roundly rejecting statist Liberalism altogether.
Those unsympathetic to the Left -- who don't see its principles as much as its methods of control (those mechanisms that put power in the hands of the few to enable them to implement their vision of social justice) -- may of course say that the Left is not dead at all. After all, these big-government types are still concentrating power and imposing themselves on Americans everywhere. In that, they would be right (pun intended), of course. But that is to argue my point: for this is not how the Left has ever seen itself nor what it seeks to be.
Of course, the original liberal thinkers foresaw this outcome. They taught that true liberalism must hold up peace, civil rights and a just economy not only as declared goals, but as principles that constrain political action -- or else those goals, they warned, will become just liberal-sounding abstractions to distract a population from a reality increasingly shaped by the illiberal policies and increasingly powerful politicians and their friends.
Does that ring any bells?
American Liberalism is dead. Long live American liberalism -- the proper kind.