The American left can be divided into three distinct strands, each with its own characteristics, identifiers, and methods of operation: the wimp left, the weird left, and the hard left.
The wimp left is the largest, most amorphous, and least impressive faction. These are the people who are leftists because the neighbors are. They're the NPR listeners, the PBS watchers, the slogan repeaters. They view the left as a lifestyle choice, one that makes you a better person (as they never cease telling you). Wimp leftists usually confine their activities to bumper stickers and "trying to live a politically-correct lifestyle", but often break into sporadic bouts of activity involving recycling, marching, or posting on DU or Kos. The New York Times recently featured a story http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/us/02malaria.html about a craze for purchasing mosquito nets for underprivileged Africans that captures the wimp left in all its faddishness, self-righteousness, and futility (the nets in question are supplied in lieu of DDT, the only effective method of preventing malaria, which means that the U.S. do-gooders are actually making things worse). Even the photo is characteristic: precocious children, prematurely dowdy woman, self-conscious emotionalism.
(Obama foreign policy advisor Richard Danzig's suggestion
that we turn to Winnie-the-Pooh for expertise on counterterrorism strategy is all of a piece with this tendency. Misplaced whimsy is a major indicator of wimp leftism. Many readers will recall the craze for giving copies of Dr. Seuss to college grads a few years ago.)
We're all familiar with these types - they appear constantly in media "person in the street" interviews, furrowing their brows and pensively staring off into the distance before intoning that "arms are for hugging", "global warming is about our grandchildren", "change is about hope", or whatever the slogan of the moment happens to be. Wimp lefties don't know much about politics, ideology, or anything else. But they know what's right -- or they will, as soon as the mass media tells them. They're very nice people. They really are. That's what makes them dangerous.
To many conservatives, the weird left -- AKA the wacko left or the loony left, is the left, the perfect representation of left-wing thinking and behavior. The wacko left can be defined as leftism as personality disorder, the contemporary expression of Orwell's "nudists, fruit-juice drinkers, and sandal wearers". They tend to be obsessive single-issue types, overwhelmed with paranoia and consumed with conspiracy theories.
9/11 Truthers are the purest current example of the weird left, as are "AIDS is a CIA plot" types, principally among blacks. These are the people most often found romping on DU and Kos. Although we might be tempted to view them as a pure liability, that in fact is not the case. While their equivalent on the right -- Birchers, McCarthyites and so on -- are usually isolated or ejected, weird lefties actually serve quite a useful purpose, acting as a conduit for ideas -- gay marriage, animal rights, Karl Rove as evil mastermind -- too grotesque to be planted in any other way. Examples of the loony left include such figures as Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan.
The hard left is the core left, the armature without which the other factions would fall apart. They are directly descended from the communist groups (the CPUSA, Trotsyites, and so forth) of the ‘30s and ‘40s, through New Left organizations such as the SDS and the Weathermen. The hard left consists of intelligentsia and activists, people who spend their lives reading Alinsky http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/002/anarchism/alinsky_radical.html and Gramsci http://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/intro.htm and trying their damndest to put those dicta into practice. They are usually found in universities and surrounding communities, though they are also present in left-wing think tanks and lobbying outfits. Most of us will go through life without ever knowingly encountering one of them. Through their intellectual control over the much larger wimp left (who would be utterly lost without their direction), they possess influence all out of proportion to their numbers. The prototype of the American hard leftist is Tom Hayden.
Usually, a political candidate running on a left-wing platform will be associated with one strand in particular. For hard leftists we have Henry Wallace fronting for the communists in 1948, and George McGovern acting as point man for the antiwar movement in 1972. Representatives of the weird left are rarer, although we do have Dennis Kucinich. As in anything else, there is no lack of wimp leftists in presidential politics -- Kerry, Gore, Mondale... take your pick. Michael Dukakis' unwillingness to use the death penalty for a hypothetical convicted rapist/murderer of his wife is wimp leftism in chemically pure form.
The extraordinary thing about Barack Obama is that he's intimately connected to all these factions in a way that may never quite have been the case before. The wacko left is represented by Jeremiah Wright and James P. Meeks, with their AIDS conspiracies and related yarns, and ACORN, the leftist fringe group for which Obama served as attorney for many years. The hard left is represented by his Marxist mentor Frank Marshall Davis, http://www.aim.org/aim%1ecolumn/obamas%1ecommunist%1ementor/ who introduced Obama to left-wing politics at an early age, Fr. Michael Pfleger, an advocate of "liberation theology", the application of Marxism to Christianity, and former Weatherman Bill Ayers, who was contending that America could be set right by a few bombs as late as September 11, 2001.
The wimp left is, obviously enough, the Obama voter.
Never, I think, has any politician been so closely and equally intertwined with all three aspects of American leftism. It's as if Obama were out to corner the entire American left, leaving no room for anyone else. If that was the case, then he's succeeded.
Of course, it may not have been intentional at all. It may simply be the result of an entire life spent with the left since his early encounters with Davis. But intentionally or not, Obama appears to be adapting the methods of the left, the means by which sanitized, acceptable versions of left-wing ideas are introduced into American political discourse, as part of his campaign strategy.
The Gramscian tactics utilized by the American left were predicated on the internal takeover of various institutions (media, the academy, education) which could then be used to push a left-wing agenda. But there were limitations to this technique: these institutions were nowhere near as powerful in the U.S. as in Gramsci's Europe, where government monopolies and elitism are common. This limited the influence and reach of entrenched American leftists.
This is where the left's triune nature came in. The millions comprising the wimp left served as a transmission belt for ideas and practices developed by the hard leftists of the academy and the activist organizations. By this means such ideas were "laundered", appearing to emerge from sincere, befuddled "liberals", rather than the career apparatchiks, which eased their acceptance by the public at large. More bizarre concepts were presented by the wacko left (the most effective way to make something seem harmless is to arrange to have it said by a clown). If there was too much resistance, the attempt was curtailed, and the wimps, or alternately the wackballs, took the punishment. The hardcore lefties remained safely insulated.
This is an extraordinarily fruitful technique, allowing the introduction and cultivation of ideas -- gay marriage, terrorist nobility, contempt for the armed forces -- that could be introduced in no other way.
Obama appears to be doing much the same thing in his political strategy, selling himself -- or rather, his campaign persona -- in similar fashion. Through his connection to ACORN, Pfleger, and Ayers, Obama assures the hard left that he is one of them, an adherent of their tactics and goals. His connections to Black Liberation Theology imply at least some sympathy for the wacko left. But at the same time, he presents himself to the broader audience of wimps as a purely "liberal" figure, the second coming of JFK, if not the Redeemer Himself.
Every now and then, Obama will come up with a proposal derived directly from the hard-left playbook -- tax the rich, unilateral retreat from Iraq, "war crimes trials" -- couched in terms acceptable to wimp leftists. If a public backlash develops, he simply drops it and returns to soothing Volvo-and-latte platitudes, using the wimps in the same manner as the hard left -- as a shield for his actual agenda.
It's an interesting strategy. But can it work? It's based on several assumptions - that the U.S. is at base a leftist country, open to a leftist message; that the wimp left is a powerful influence; and that a tactic designed for use over the long term can work in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a political campaign.
But the U.S. remains a center-right country. The wimp left is an object of derision (even among themselves) as much as anything else. And the disturbing results obtained by the hard leftists have come only after lengthy effort, at times stretching to decades.
It's also extremely risky. Obama's worst moments have arisen from his relationships with members of the more radical left-wing branches, Jeremiah Wright representing the loony left, Pfleger and Ayers the hard left. In no case did his elaborately contrived latte-left facade protect him from the ensuing controversy.
Clearly, this strategy comprises a weakness. Obama is figuratively leaping from stone to stone, from a hard-left position here to a "liberal" one there, always keeping on the move, never allowing himself to be cornered, never getting his feet wet. The trick is to hit him in mid-leap and assure that he gets a good dunking. Obama has gotten an easy ride in his previous campaign crises through the assumption that the offenses were personal -- that the problem lay in his relations with Wright, Pfleger and so on. But they were no such thing -- it was the ideas that were the problem.
And Obama was never seriously questioned about those ideas. Did he accept Pfleger's vision of Christ as a revolutionary? Did he share Ayers' blazing contempt for American society? He must have expressed belief in Black Liberation Theology, a doctrine of black supremacy, when joining Jeremiah Wright's church. Did he truly believe it then? Does he believe it now? If not, when did he stop believing it?
By this means, Obama can be cornered. He does not like being cornered. As the last few months make clear, he does not take it well. Corner him enough times, and his facade will crack, his image as a genial Starbucks and Whole Foods lefty will lie in tatters, and his adherence to the cold and crazed doctrines of the core left will be exposed for what it is.
Obama is a strange candidate -- how strange we have as yet no clear idea. Revealing the depths of that strangeness calls for unconventional political tactics, and the will to use them.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker