For progressives, the only sensible way to approach Byron York’s new book is by giving it “the Washington read” — index first — to find the names of your friends and allies. It’s like cracking open a high school yearbook, except the homecoming king is George Soros.
Unfortunately, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy isn’t nearly as enjoyable when read from page one. York, the White House correspondent for the National Review, promises “the untold story” of “the biggest, richest and best-organized movement in American political history.” But, alas, the conspiracy is neither as vast nor as cunning as advertised.
This breathless bit of reportage goes “behind-the-scenes” to “the Chinese restaurant where MoveOn was born” and “the Washington restaurant where Democratic operatives hatch their plans.” In between meals, York takes in a few flicks by Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, and uncovers a plot hatched by EMILY’s List, Al Franken and a motley crew of “anti-Bush” bloggers “to bring down the president” by — gasp! — voting against him.
York’s capable of quality journalism, such as his sympathetic but serious article on the downfall of the American Spectator in the November 2001 Atlantic Monthly. So it’s regrettable that The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is riddled with sloppy analysis, fuzzy statistics and convenient straw men because the left could benefit from a serious critique by the other side. Rather than puncturing preconceived notions or exploring whether the “anti-Bush” cabal’s innovations truly represent a sea-change in American politics, York resorts to the all-too-easy portrayal of his political opponents as a “delusional” band of “extremist” wingnuts. York’s plan of attack is death by a thousand cuts — using petty nitpicking, misleading quotes and rhetorical sleight-of-hand to portray the left as a junta of out-of-touch elites.
For instance, York paints MoveOn as part of the “peacenik” fringe for daring to question the bombing of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. (Warnings that, in hindsight, look awfully prescient with both Osama and the WMDs still at large.) York says the group has done little more than “connect a bunch of people who already agreed with each other.” He means it as an insult. But one could say the same thing is the very definition of movement-building. After all, before MoveOn, millions of people didn’t have a vehicle for their political views and hadn’t gotten involved in electoral politics, made a campaign donation or called their member of Congress. But York insists that MoveOn mistakes its rapid membership growth — the envy of almost every interest group in Washington, left or right — for a genuine political movement. “As it became more successful and better known,” he writes, “MoveOn’s list of members grew to about 2.5 million people. It was an impressive number, but not that impressive compared with the votes one needed to be elected president.”
Which is sort of like saying, sure, Moore made the most successful documentary of all time, but it doesn’t matter because more people saw Spider Man 2. Oh wait, York says that.
In a bizarre chapter devoted to debunking the notion that Fahrenheit 9⁄11 was truly a nationwide hit, York is enraged that Moore’s fans packed the theaters on opening weekend in a devious scheme “to create the sense that the movie was a phenomenon sweeping the country.” Not so, says York, who spends five pages on a series of charts showing that the film did better in Blue states than Red ones. Of course, the statistics don’t disprove Moore’s box-office records or deny his success of getting played in multiplexes everywhere. It merely shows, unsurprisingly, that Fahrenheit 9⁄11 did better in Seattle than Dallas. (The real shocker is York’s revelation that Karl Rove watched Fahrenheit 9⁄11 on a bootleg DVD. Call the MPAA!)
And on he goes, using the same type of distorted comparisons to impugn Robert Greenwald, director of the best-selling, low-budget documentaries Outfoxed and Uncovered, who’s dismissed because he “didn’t change the political climate and influence the presidential race in a land of 120 million voters.” Air America’s Franken is mocked for being “too sensitive” about being misquoted. And he claims the Center for American Progress is a “talking points factory” rather than a real think tank like the Heritage Foundation. He proves this by reprinting pages of headlines from The Progress Report e‑newsletter and comparing them to the boring titles of Heritage documents. Case closed.
York does raise legitimate points about the questionable accounting methods of 527s like Americans Coming Together. And he calls out former campaign finance reformer George Soros, correctly summing up Soros’ claim to be operating in the “common interest” as little more than “they’re bad because I say they’re bad, while I am good because I say I am good.”
No one, even with the best intentions, can pour $27 million into a political campaign without undue influence. There should be serious concerns about whether the left can build a viable grassroots movement if it’s beholden to the whims of a few rich individuals. But York only milks this dilemma to portray the entire left as a band of Hampton-summering socialites. Plus, it’s hard to take him seriously as a campaign finance reform advocate when he ignores the dubious activities of his own party — with their Swift Boat Veterans and big-money bundling Rangers and Pioneers.
In fact, completely missing from the book is any detailed comparison or examination of the right. This is a fatal flaw given that the most promising elements of the “Vast Left Wing Conspiracy” are explicitly modeled on the successful tactics of the right (which, once upon a time, stole them from the left — but that’s another story). After 25 years of being steamrolled, progressives are finally awakening to the need to build infrastructure, nurture intellectuals, work outside the Democratic Party without abandoning it, invest in its own media and take advantage of new technology. But you can’t duplicate decades of work in just 18 months.
York claims that the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy failed to defeat George W. Bush because they resided “on the fringes of American political life, even though they thought they were near the middle.” He concludes: “One could have a large following — say 2 or 3 million people — and still be firmly on the fringes. But it doesn’t look that way from the inside. If you are running a Web site or an advocacy group, the sheer size of your membership … might convince you that your influence is enormous.”
But York misses the big picture. Political change in this country doesn’t come from the center. The energy, ideas and innovation originate at the fringes — right or left. Can a well-organized group of “extremists” shift the center of political debate and seize power? Well, it has happened before.