Conventional wisdom seems to say that the Left has gone around the bend, is jumping off cliffs, is stark raving mad. But there is a method in the madness of the Left. There has always been a method in it. The Left is not engaged in an “argument,” it is engaged in a revolution in the name of all that is just and right and good. Therefore, it does not aim to out-argue its opponents, but to shame them, to drive them from the field in ignominy, to make them figures of ridicule, moral indignation, and revulsion.
Go back and read your Lenin. Revisit the show trials. The point is that no one dares defend such bad people. (This tactic works. Think twice before defending Bush on a college campus. How much indignation can you bear?)
Better yet, watch Ted Kennedy in action. His attacks on Judge Alito, like his earlier attacks on Judge Bork, were not intended as arguments, and certainly showed little regard for fact. They were all bluster, moral indignation, character assassination, ridicule, ostracism. If words could kill, his were the words of an assassin.
This leftist tactic has worked for over one hundred years, because there are not many people who can stand unafraid before it. Most do not want to attract attention to themselves, lest its indignation and vituperation and moral ridicule be turned loose upon them. The tirades in which these words are launched—Senator Kennedy’s neck muscles bulge, his flesh turns bright red, his voice rises ever higher so as to forbid anybody–anybody–from interrupting him—are meant to enforce acquiescence, not consent. They are meant to intimidate, not to present an argument. They are meant to reduce to subservience all who are obliged to listen, even friends and associates (however embarrassed they might be).
Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin had mastered this Leninist trick himself, and turned it upon the Left. His every tonality and accent dripped ridicule and moral disdain. It is a method that can be learned by anyone. But Lenin was the first to put it in handbooks and train hundreds of agitators, organizers, cells, and units to use it.
Playing tapes of Senator McCarthy in some of his famous hearings and Senator Kennedy in the recent judiciary hearings would, I believe, be quite instructive as to the method. But why does this method work? As a method of last resort, it has the merit of intimidating good people into silence. It strikes fear into most hearts. Ridicule and moral opprobrium, and manifestations of sheer hatred for one’s very being, are not easy to bear, especially for conscientious and upright and morally sensitive people. Such persons, like Mrs. Alito, feel like bursting into tears. Those near them feel powerless and weak, unable to help, unable to make appeal.
Moreover, hatred spreads. Once the speaker licenses moral ridicule toward the accused, and destroys in him any semblance of moral character, truthfulness, or decency, on what ground will such a person stand? What shred of dignity is left to cover him? Such a person is unfit to be seen in the company of better people—the intention is to banish him. Don’t even consider him! Reject him! Cast him out!
To say that Senator Kennedy has become a bully is not enough. He is a destroyer of the moral dignity of persons.
When I was a boy, Democrats dominated everything. But Democrats since 1952 have held the White House only fitfully. They have lost the Senate. They have lost the House. They have lost the Supreme Court (which, although it is supposed to be independent of politics, was reconfigured to become the major motor of progressive reform). They have lost religious people, once their main base of support. They are losing popular appeal. But by turning back to their Old Left handbooks, the Democratic leadership has found the acids that destroy opposition. Even though the nation is in a deadly war, they constantly attack the credibility and truthfulness of the President, ridicule him, call him names, morally assassinate him. That acid seeps through society.
As to building a better country, there is not much in this method to commend it. But for destroying the moral standing of the other side, it has had proven effect for many decades. It is not crazy for Democrats to conclude that, having lost so much, they have little more to lose.
And even if it is crazy, there is method in it. Canonical method, approved method. In a democracy, alas, destroying the “in” power sometimes is sufficient for boosting the electoral success of the “outs.”
Published in First Things February 3, 2006