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Gary Younge
Bring back the lash

This did not necessarily make the backlash more palatable or justifiable. The backlash is something rightwing people do. Like "kempt hair" and "couth behaviour", references to a "leftwing backlash" are rare indeed.

But the notion that a backlash from the right should first be provoked by a lash from the left certainly made the backlash more logical. It was a function of the ebb and flow of the political tide. In order for reactionaries to react, radicals first had to act. So the lash did not only precede the backlash, it was the premise for it: not just a matter of sequence but consequence.

And while no one on the left necessarily liked it, everyone expected it and understood it for it what it was. For, like the call and response at a good Baptist service, the backlash had symmetry, if nothing else, on its side.

But at some stage the equilibrium got wildly out of synch. As the power and influence of the left have diminished over the past 20 years, the lash has all but disappeared; but somehow the backlash never seems to end.

Somewhere along the way those who once masqueraded as the leadership of the liberal left or who sought, at least, to confront the right, quite simply stopped making demands. Far from this being a strategic retreat in the face of the right's superior numbers and resources, it has turned into a full-scale meltdown.

Take last week's confirmation hearings of George Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales helped orchestrate and approve a blueprint for torture that was later exposed in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and, by all accounts, Guantánamo Bay. He also described the Geneva convention's limitations on questioning prisoners as "obsolete" and "quaint".

Under interrogation, Gonzales developed a faulty memory on his involvement in both these matters and was evasive about many others. There is ample material here, you would think, for a reasonable liberal lash. A man seeking office who is connected to unseemly, brutal images that occurred as a result of an increasingly unpopular war seems fair game.

A leading Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, Joseph Biden, stuck his teeth in by reassuring Gonzales that he would be confirmed regardless of his answers. Biden then went on to tell the nominee. "This is not about your intelligence, this hearing is not about your competence, it's not about your integrity, it's about your judgment and your candour. We're looking for candour, old buddy. I love you, but you're not very candid so far."

Biden's gentle prodding will no more protect him from rightwing accusations of being unpatriotic than John Kerry's vote for the war prevented Republicans from portraying him as weak on defence. The fact that the left did not make use of the lash does not stop the right from resorting to the backlash.

Indeed, even the relatively mild inquisition Gonzales underwent was enough for Republican senator John Cornyn to brand the hearing as "unnecessarily partisan, even cruel" and claim that "only in Washington would a good man get raked over the coals only for doing his job".

The problem here is not that Gonzales will go on to be confirmed - given their slender numbers in Congress, this is not something the Democrats can do much about. It is that with each failure to promote its principles and values, the liberal left ends up on the defensive, ceding the ideological foundations it needs to build any substantial comeback. As a result the national conversation ends up taking place almost entirely on the right's terms.

Once upon a time, those who assumed leadership of the liberal left described these capitulations as pragmatism. At some point, however, they became a dogma. In 1997 President Bill Clinton described his approach in a speech to the Democratic leadership council. "We had to go area by area to abandon those old false choices, the sterile debate about whether you would take the liberal or conservative positions, that only succeeded in dividing America and holding us back."

This is not a particularly American disease. At some point the Tories will return to power and start a backlash, and we will wonder where our own lash went. For the past 20 years leading social democrats around the world have been burying the terms "left" and "right" as though they were as obsolete and quaint to their own constituencies as the Geneva convention is to Gonzales's.

The trouble is they forgot to tell the right, which has carried on fighting for the interests of those it cares about most - the rich and powerful - even while the left has abandoned them.

Compare Clinton's speech a year after being re-elected to Bush's, just a day after November's election. "I'll reach out to everyone who shares our goals," said Bush. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it. It is my style."

In the words of comedian John Stewart, before he starts on the capital he should first pay back the interest for the four previous years. But why should he? As Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist, once said: "Power concedes nothing without demand." Since liberals stopped demanding, the right has stopped conceding.

The absence of the lash simply changed the nature of the backlash. It is no longer an act of political retribution: the right has turned it into an art form.

First it finds an enemy - preferably a weak minority - gays, unmarried mothers, Muslims, the irreligious, international law or small countries that break international law, asylum seekers, Gypsies etc. In the inconvenient instance that a real enemy, no matter how exaggerated, cannot be found, it constructs one: the "liberal establishment", the "armies of political correctness", the "liberal media" or "feminazis". Then, with the enemy, real or invented, in place, it simply creates and inflates the crisis to suit, and bingo - the bespoke backlash. No lash required. Add venom and mix recklessly.

While the right's distortions, lies, scapegoating and cheating are all contemptible (and that is before we get to its actual politics), its chutzpah and determination in this respect are not. It has an agenda, and it sticks to it. It has a constituency, and it serves it. If the liberal left wants to be taken seriously, it will have to stand for more than office alone. It's time to bring back the lash.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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