There is a segment of the liberal establishment and activist community that is still going through some kind of post-partum depression. For nearly a year, there was this halycyon period, where popular and left-wing revulsion at the right coalesced disparate groups around then-Senator Obama, despite centrist behavior, corporate fundraising, and DC-establishment campaign apparatus. Finally, the liberal establishment was cool, for lack of a better word. The traditional left kaiboshed all the third-party talk and Kucinich-celebrating and everybody came together around a particularly skillful political salesman.
They want it back so badly you guys. So badly. Remember the good old days? Where activists and intellectuals put aside their skepticism and principles and threw their cash and energy at the establishment, and we all watched will.i.am videos and cried and stuff? It must be that the extent to which the left is dissatisfied with the President (and Democrats generally) is calibrated precisely to the degree that those activist and thinkers are intellectually dishonest, naive, or, my favorite, “emo.”
But this rationalization that dissatisfaction is due to anything besides the facts that President Obama is killing U.S. citizens without due process, uninterested in prosecuting corporate criminals while exporting record numbers of immigrants, bringing Wall Street functionaries into his cabinet, and privatizing public schools is getting confusing.
If my tone seems dismissive, I don’t intend it that way. The impulses are rational. It’s also something of a forest/trees problem. When you spend all day around people who are there in the Committee meetings and halls of power tearing their hair out dealing with obstreperous opponents, casual denunciations of the President and Democrats in general can seem ill-informed or naifish. But take a breath and look at the big picture: either Democrats don’t actually want to pursue fundamental reform of our economy and society, or they do but are so wildly inept at it they can’t communicate it to a public that they insist “really” wants the same thing. In either case, they aren’t worthy of the support (and money) of activists.
The latest bit of this comes from a New Yorker article by Jonathan Chait. Chait is an apologist for the President, though he would consider himself merely a realist in the face of unhinged or intellectually dishonest critics. Chait argues that lefty dissatisfaction with the President comes from…well, I’m not wholly sure exactly what he means. Here’s his thesis statement:
Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
Maybe. There is an alternate way to characterize this, of course. Firstly, it isn’t just dissatisfaction of the President as the executive of government. It is dissatisfaction with him as symbolic and practical leader of the Democratic Party. That’s important, because Chait and others who argue in the same vein like to point out that many of his failures are attributable to the Senate, which was (and is) controlled by his Party. Secondly, the “plausible baseline” the left compares him to maybe isn’t necessarily a once-living breathing person (like FDR), but principles, like, “Don’t kill American citizens without due process.” Or, “prosecute the corporate criminals who destabilized the world economy, got rich doing it, and then started to fund your political opponents.” Or, “forcefully support the right to collectively bargain as a means to end income inequality.” I don’t want Obama to be like Roosevelt, because Roosevelt is a rotting corpse in the ground. I don’t want him to be like President Martin Sheen from whats-it-show, because although I never saw it, I assume he was as annoying as President Michael Douglas from that movie. I don’t want him to be like Harry S Truman because although I have no evidence, I assume Harry Truman used the n-word a lot.
I want “him,” meaning I want the Democratic Party, to at the very least try to do these things and articulate them to the public. Chait responds to this by saying that these things aren’t politically possible. Well, if that is so, it is so because (a) our political leaders are unable to make the case to a public to support policies that would benefit them, despite raising enormous sums of money and with unprecedented activist excitement behind them; or (b) they don’t really want to, because they don’t want to risk being able to raise enormous sums of money particularly from extremely powerful industries.
If it’s (a), why should we support them? Because maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll stop being inept? If it’s (b), well that’s precisely why we should criticize them: to get them to stop that behavior and change.
It’s true, as Chait points out, that the left has always hated its liberal Presidents. Leftists criticized Roosevelt for not going far enough. Of course, in the 1930s, “not going far enough” was “not coming just short of abolishing private management of capital,” whereas today it is “not privatizing the social safety net and education.” The sort-of parlor trick Chait is engaging in here is that he asks, “Well, who was an ideal President?” Waits for you to name one, and then says, “Well, liberals hated him, too.”
I really don’t care if liberals hated John Kennedy for cutting taxes on the rich. That has literally nothing to do with President Obama’s taking on health care reform instead of a jobs program first, and then starting out that reform process by initially jettisoning the public option. It has nothing to do with growing the security state, it has nothing to do with deporting record numbers of immigrants, it has nothing to do with those principles. I bet Harry S. Truman would have opposed same sex marriage, for example, because he was born in the 1800s. So I don’t really care to use another past President as a baseline for anything.
When you lose the historical baseline and use a policy or principled one, the response comes that those policies are politically impossible given GOP opposition. But that speaks to the Democrats’ ineptitude, and is also Panglossian: the only thing that was possible to do was precisely what was done, so exactly what the President did was perfectly right. Or rather left. So get over it and get in line.
The implication there of course is that we shouldn’t criticize the President for not pursuing in some way or another policies we the public want. Which…is that a democracy any more? Isn’t that the whole point? Is the idea that the Party leadership knows what we want, but then divine precisely what the public (or at least, Republicans) will accept, and then come out and say that’s what they want?
If you think I, rather than Chait, am the one ignoring reality, consider the examples he gives of Roosevelt’s apparently Obama-like situation:
Liberals frustrated with Obama’s failure to assail Wall Street have quoted FDR’s 1936 speech denouncing “economic royalists,” but that represented just a brief period of Roosevelt’s presidency. Mostly he tried to placate business. When he refused to empower a government panel charged with enforcing labor rights, a liberal senator complained, “The New Deal is being strangled in the house of its friends.” Roosevelt constantly feared his work-relief programs would create a permanent class of dependents, so he made them stingy. He kept the least able workers out of federal programs, and thus “placed them at the mercy of state governments, badly equipped to handle them and often indifferent to their plight,” recalled historian William Leuchtenburg. Even his greatest triumphs were shot through with compromise. Social Security offered meager benefits (which were expanded under subsequent administrations), was financed by a regressive tax, and, to placate southern Democrats, was carefully tailored to exclude domestic workers and other black-dominated professions.
So, Roosevelt shouldn’t be a model, because, look, while creating Social Security out of thin air he compromised on its benefits. Because, look, while using the federal government to directly employ millions of people, he didn’t pay them all that much. After creating the National Labor Relations Act and telling people to join unions, he didn’t fully empower the NLRB. Take a moment with that.
I’ve come around on some of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act–that it does set the stage in one sense to incrementally alter health insurance to operate more like a public utility than a rapacious private market–with reservations. But the Affordable Care Act is no Social Security-minus-compromises-on-benefits. It is industry-friendly-regulation-plus-desperately-needed-reform.
Maybe the left is upset because it has some general principles that we want to see politicians hew to, and to differing degrees we are unhappy with failures to so hew.