Politics & Policy

Corrosion of Conformity

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) speaks at a news conference with House Democrats to reintroduce the Paycheck Fairness Act on Capitol Hill, January 30, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
After all those years of complaining about Republicans “marching in lockstep,” the Democrats have a new program: marching in lockstep.

There was a time, not that long ago, when Democrats used to decry “voting in lockstep.”

That was a big talking point during the George W. Bush years, with a couple of unspoken qualifiers: “Voting in lockstep” was bad when Republicans did it, and very, very bad when Republicans did it while in the majority. That line of rhetoric lasted for a few months, until somebody did some actual reporting and found that the data demonstrated the opposite: In spite of all their humble-bragging about being more diverse and less disciplined than Republicans, Democrats in Congress in fact voted with their leadership more often than Republicans did at the time.

There were some pretty obvious reasons for that: Ron Paul and other libertarian-leaning Republicans often opposed the Bush administration, fiscal hawks voted from time to time against go-along/get-along spending bills, etc. That continued into the Obama years as more ideologically rigid Republicans from safe districts increasingly bucked at the leadership of more moderate Republicans such as Speaker of the House John Boehner. As Ryan Lizza put it in the New Yorker in 2013: “Boehner has lost his ability to control his caucus.”

There has been a general trend toward more en bloc congressional voting for decades, and the parties have become more ideologically uniform: Republicans still have a number of important ideological cleavages as the culture warriors work to gut the Chamber of Commerce crowd, and the Democrats have been showing some cleavage lately, too, as the socialists grow annoyed with the Democrats who are dumb enough to call themselves socialists in public. But how many real wild cards are there? Not many: Justin Amash on the Republican side, maybe Joe Manchin on the Democratic side. The Free-Thinking Caucus is not exactly a growth enterprise.

But after all those years of complaining about Republicans “marching in lockstep,” the Democrats have a new program: marching in lockstep.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is embarrassed, to the extent that she is capable of being embarrassed, by the fact that Republicans pulled a humorous little switcheroo on her. House Democrats were on the verge of passing a bill that would require you to get clearance from the federal government before selling your old deer rifle to your brother-in-law for 50 bucks, and Republicans got a couple dozen Democrats to join them in support of a last-minute amendment that would have required alerting immigration authorities when those mandatory background checks turned up illegal immigrants, who are not permitted to buy firearms.

Keep in mind that this was a symbolic flip of the bird to a piece of legislation that itself is a symbolic flip of the bird: Senator Mitch McConnell isn’t going to be letting any Democratic gun-grabbing legislation come to a vote in the Senate. So it’s symbolism about symbolism about symbolism, but Madame Speaker flipped her wig, anyway. She called those moderate Democrats, many of whom represent districts carried by Donald Trump, in to a meeting to berate them. Never mind the quality of the legislation, this is about party discipline: “Vote no, just vote no, because the fact is a vote yes is to give leverage to the other side.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, is a self-proclaimed socialist who apparently is ready to move straight into the Stalinist phase of her political career, promising to organize purges against Democrats who don’t do as she says. She’s even calling herself a “boss” these days. No doubt she’s already looking for her Trotsky.

Writing in Jacobin, a socialist magazine (100 million dead in the 20th century, but socialism never loses its appeal to the worst), James Muldoon of the University of Exeter works to revive the thinking of the Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky, particularly the idea that “democracy must extend beyond the state level itself.” To extend the reach of “democracy” beyond the public sector and into the private sector amounts to the abolition of private life entirely, putting formerly private affairs (by no means limited to economic organization) under political discipline. That is something close to a working textbook definition of totalitarianism.

The purges that Representative Ocasio-Cortez envisions for the Democratic party already are a part of ordinary life thanks to the efforts of progressives. If it should happen that you have a child who was once photographed standing in proximity to another child who had a look on his face that someone with political power disapproved of, there will be an organized effort to have you deprived of employment and ruined economically and otherwise by whatever means are available, as happened in the Covington affair. The rule of absolute conformity is by no means limited to elected members of the Democratic party answerable to partisan leadership: “Democracy,” as they like to call it (it is more ochlocracy), is to be extended into every aspect of life. That is the vision of the Left in 2019: Mob rule under a dollop of ideological frosting.

That a liberal political culture cannot survive enforced homogeneity is obvious enough. The assault on free speech already is well under way, and the Democrats are poised to impose sweeping restrictions on political communication and organizing as soon as they have the votes.

“The personal is the political,” they used to say. The slogan is intellectually flaccid but no less authoritarian and totalitarian for that. Progressives, once the partisans of “diversity,” “tolerance,” and social liberalism, have become the partisans of absolutism, conformism, and moral hysteria. Part of that is cynical politics: It was predictable that the same people who championed toleration when they were a relatively powerless minority would discover the attractions of homogeneity as soon as they got a taste of political power. But there is more to this than cheap opportunism: The emerging left-wing fanaticism gives every appearance of being mostly genuine. Genuinely asinine, genuinely dangerous, but genuine.

Poor dopey gawping old Joe Biden apparently thinks he’s going to get out in front of that parade, and that the red banners will be furled on his say-so. He is in for a shock. So are the rest of us. “Voting in lockstep” isn’t going to be enough for these new totalitarians. What they have in mind is living in lockstep.

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