How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
On the day in late April when Barack Obama gave his speech at Cooper Union urging financial regulation reform, The Huffington Post, one of the most important liberal websites we have, could hardly have made more clear to its readers what it thought about Obama’s appeal to his audience. “Two Presidents, Two Messages to Anti-Reform Bankers,” ran the headline over photographs of Obama and Franklin Roosevelt an hour or two after the President wrapped up his speech. Obama, the sub-headlines explained, urged bankers to “Join Us,” while Roosevelt had said: “I Welcome Their Hatred.”
Substantively, I can’t say I disagree with the editors’ assessment that Obama’s approach to the Wall Streeters in attendance at the Great Hall was more conciliatory than it should have been. And the reform bill itself, like much of what we have seen in the past year-and-a-half, contained several good and much-needed measures but fell short in significant ways. HuffPo, which I read daily, is right to point that out, just as it was right to cast the proverbial disinfecting sunlight on the White House’s deal with the pharmaceutical lobby during the health-care debate.
The juxtaposition and the wording struck me as representative of a kind of liberal stance that’s been common since Obama took office and that does not serve liberalism’s long-term interests, into the Obama years and beyond them. It’s one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair–as reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But I’ve read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation. One noticed it in the days after the passage of the health-care bill in late March. There was a brief geyser of euphoria, and then, in two or three or at most five days, skirmishes broke out over why Obama didn’t make more recess appointments than the 15 he shoved through on March 27. By March 31–10 days after the House passed health-care reform–when Obama announced his since re-thought plan to open many coastal areas to offshore drilling, things on the liberal side were more or less back to the dour normal.
The despair has taken many guises. There is the disappointment, wholly ingenuous and therefore shot with some pathos, of the rank-and-file progressive voter who really did get swept up in the overbaked rhetoric of 2008 and came somehow to believe that Obama possessed unearthly powers and ought to have been able to set everything right in seven or eight months, a year tops. There is in other instances the welled-up anger of what we might call professional disgruntleists: people on the left who “just knew” that Obama wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be–or, more pointedly, that he cracked himself up to be–and have taken each apostasy and sell out, on single-payer or the banks or the Copenhagen summit or what have you, as proof that they were right all along. There are many colorations in between: some worth taking seriously, some not; some of them authentic, inasmuch as they represent the legitimate and proper statements of principle from people who work every day in support of certain bedrock ideals and expect some adherence to them, and others the kind of peanut-gallery semaphoring performed more for the sake of constituencies or donors or page views than of the polity.
There has been plenty to be frustrated about. From the too-small size of the stimulus package to the Afghanistan policy (which I support, while I recognize that most progressives don’t) to the lethargic-at-best pace of the dismantling of the Bush-Cheney security state, Obama has given the disgruntleist caucus lots of material. The Democrats in Congress have been–if anything–worse. They passed the health-care bill all right; but could they have contrived in their wildest imaginations to make the process uglier? And that was their signal accomplishment! More generally, the last year and a half has shown the congressional Democrats to be at odds with one another, at war with the concepts of competence and cohesion, and leaving us wondering in some cases why they were even Democrats in the first place.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this tendency. About why, for example, Harper’s Magazine, just six months into Obama’s term, rendered the verdict that he was Barack Hoover Obama; about why the influential Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos was advising his vast audience late last year that the health-care bill deserved to die (to his credit, he changed his position by March and favored passage); about why Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake declared jihad against the bill right to the end, even allying at one point with conservative opponents of it.
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