The Curious Political Vocabulary of Ross Mackenzie: A Guide (In Progress) For the Perplexed

There are certain days of the week when one can pick up the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and think, “well I may disagree with much of what these folks have to say, but at least they are speaking in intelligible terms, and are recognizable members of the same cognitive universe as myself.”

 Then there are the days Ross Mackenzie’s column runs. Read his work, and one is transported to an entirely different cognitive universe, one which intersects at important points with our own but that is also unique, idiosyncratic, and at times requires translation.

Take today’s column on Senate candidate Jim Webb, describing his “leftism, temperament, and inconstancy.” At one point Mackenzie writes, “Webb says he and Allen ‘are so opposed on every major issue that is confronting the country.’ Yet Webb’s positions display no originality. They’re largely leftist platitudes right out of the Democratic playbook.”

This prototypical Mackenzie formulation is puzzling on several grounds. For instance, why the “yet”? Given that Allen is a staunch Republican, and Webb is saying that they are opposed on the issues, doesn’t it logically follow that Webb’s positions would in fact be those characteristic of the Democratic Party? The “yet” makes it seem that there is some logical inconsistency in this, some failure or contradiction on Webb’s part where none exists.

Secondly, Webb is here taken to task for lack of originality of ideas. Does this mean Mackenzie is prepared to defend George Allen as an original policy thinker, with many innovative ideas that are not simply pulled from the conservative playbook but reflect original thought and study? If not, why the double standard?

Third, in the column Mackenzie goes on to note that Webb “would use the tax code as a hammer to enforce `economic justice.’ He has railed against corporate profits and says corporations should pay greatly more in excess-profits taxes. He would roll back ‘some’ of Bush’s tax cut . . .”

All of this is accurate enough, but then Mackenzie in the following paragraph says that this position is an instance of “going wobbly.” Surely Mackenzie cannot mean “wobbly” as a synonym for flip-flopping, since Webb has been quite clear and consistent about his views on excsessive economic inequality throughout the campaign. But what does he mean, then, by the phrase “going wobbly”?

That one, I’m not sure I can answer. I am starting to come to grips, however, with Mackenzie’s repeated use of the term “leftism” and “leftist” in recent columns, to describe a wide variety of Democratic politicians.

Here is a clear-cut case of Mackenzie using a different political vocabulary than most of the rest of us. In the cognitive universe I inhabit, for instance, “leftists” are people who advocate fundamental restructuring of the political and economic institutions of capitalism, and replacing it with some version of economic democracy or democratic socialism. Occasionally activist folks who are simply anti-corporate or pro-labor in some generic sense–folks who challenge aspects of corporate hegemony (there’s an authentic leftist term for you)  without necessarily challenging the system itself–can be counted as “leftist” as well without excessive confusion or distortion of meaning.

People who simply support higher taxes on the wealthy and better pay for the poor, but don’t challenge the fundamentals of the political-economic system itself, are not “leftists.” They’re liberals. Webb is (at least on economic issues) a liberal, and so are John Edwards and similar figures. Because of the right’s success in tarnishing the world “liberal” such figures may these days be more likely to describe themselves as “progressive,” but in most cases that’s a distinction without a difference.

But back to Ross Mackenzie’s universe. In his world, there is no meaningful distinction to be made between liberals and “leftists”–they’re all the same. (Perhaps Mackenzie has in his unique vocabulary a special word to describe folks who really are leftists, but I haven’t seen it yet.) Anyone who would use the lever of government in a proactive way to lessen inequality, poverty, or the like can be grouped together as one and the same.

Now, it’s hardly necessary to belabor the obvious point that such a reductive analysis blurs over the huge variations among different varieties of liberalism, social democracy, and radicalism–as well as masks the fact that all modern economies (including the United States) are mixed economies, involving a mixture of government and private enterprise, planning and the market. (I see nothing in Mackenzie’s work yet indicating that he’s ready to disband the Federal Reserve system or put an end to federal insurance of bank deposits.)

But what’s most curious to me is why Mackenzie defines his terms this way. Politically, from a conservative perspective, it makes little sense. The attack on the word “liberal” was a brilliant success, because not long ago many Democratic and progressive politicans did call themselves “liberal” and proudly so. Now, for the most part, they don’t embrace the label or bother to defend the term.

But very few significant Democrats (or even third-party figures) have ever described themselves as “leftist.” A figure like Webb is not going to be put on the back foot if asked in a debate, “are you kind of a leftist?” Webb, I submit, would be utterly perplexed by such a question and might ask the questioner, “what are you talking about?”

Put another way, attacking an ideology that one’s opponent does not in fact embrace doesn’t seem very useful as a political tactic. This leaves two other possibile interpretations of Mackenzie’s vocabularly.

One is that he simply doesn’t see any meaningful distinction between liberal and more radical positions.

The second is that the word “leftist” is a deliberate exaggeration or smear intended to get his conservative readers fired up and reminded how very, very dangerous it would be if a place like Virginia ever elected a Democratic senator.

Either one of those interpretations appears quite plausible, and they’re not mutually exclusive. But perhaps those who’ve read Mackenzie’s work for much longer than myself can contribute your comments on how to interpret the columnist’s  highly unique political vocabulary–any further insight on this highly perplexing question readers can provide would be most welcome.

Published in: on November 2, 2006 at 5:26 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think the second reason you give captures his motivation. It’s deliberate exaggeration and an ad hominum smear.

    Has Al Franken seen this blog?
    Your analysis is in the same spirit as ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them’ and MacKenzie as easy a target as Bill O.R. thanks to his total intellectual laziness.

  2. This is a really useful deconstruction of the RTD editor’s use of hyperbole. Clearly, they’re using the politics of fear to paint their ideological opponents as unAmerican monsters and scare the public into embracing the status quo and fearing change. And yet, change is clearly what is happening all around us, for better or worse. Too bad out newspaper doesn’t do more to help people understand exactly what those changes are and how they’re likely to affect us.

    When I saw this posting, I had hoped that you were going to get into some literary criticism of the editorial page. I mean, those editorials are just plain over-wrought. The prose is dense, pompous, flowery, and inaccessible. Can average readers even figure out the point by the time they’re done reading? It’s like they’re purposefully painting an antiquated characiture of themselves in a smokey back room pulling puppet strings. Maybe some Richmond readers long for the good ol’days of white rule and segregation, but it’s strange to see this re-enactment repeated daily on the pages of our city’s newspaper.

  3. I stopped reading the RTD at any appreciable level months ago. This has given me cause to go back and start looking at their attempted journalism one more time.

    Great piece!

  4. “(Perhaps Mackenzie has in his unique vocabulary a special word to describe folks who really are leftists, but I haven’t seen it yet.)”

    My guess is that he’s just softening us up with “leftist” so he can break out “bolshevik” someday.

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