As the United States staggers toward the seventh year of Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, a growing disquiet permeates the ranks of the American left. After six years of the most liberal President since Jimmy Carter, the nation doesn’t seem to be asking for a second helping. Even though the multiyear rollout of Obamacare was carefully crafted to put all the popular features up front, delaying less popular changes into the far future, the program remains unpopular. Trust in the fairness and competence of government is pushing toward new lows in the polls, even though the government is now in the hands of forward-looking, progressive Democrats rather than antediluvian Gopers.
For liberals, these are bleak times of hollow victories (Obamacare) and tipping points that don’t tip. For examples of the latter, think of Sandy Hook, the horrific massacre in Connecticut that Democrats and liberals everywhere believed would finally push the American public toward gun control. Two years later, polls show more Americans than ever before think it’s more important to protect gun access than to promote gun control.
Sandy Hook isn’t the only example. There was the latest 2014 IPCC report on climate change that was going to end the debate once and for all. The chances for legislative action on climate change in the new Congress: zero or less. There was Ferguson and the Garner videotape showing the fatal chokehold, both of which set off a wave of protests but seem unlikely to change public attitudes about the police. There was the Senate Intelligence Committee “torture report” that was going to settle the issue of treatment of detainees. Again, the polls are rolling in suggesting that the public remains exactly where it was: supportive of “torture” under certain circumstances. And of course there was the blockbuster Rolling Stone article on campus rape at UVA, the story that, before it abruptly collapsed, was going to cement public support for the Obama administration’s aggressive attempt to federalize the treatment of sexual harassment on campuses around the country.
In all of these cases, liberals got what, from a liberal perspective, appeared to be conclusive evidence that long cherished liberal policy ideas were as correct as liberals have always thought they were. In all of these cases the establishment media conformed to the liberal narrative, inundating the airwaves and flooding the cyberverse with the liberal line. Some of the stories, like the UVA rape story, collapsed. Some, like the Ferguson story, became so complex and nuanced that some of their initial political salience diminished. But even when, as with Ferguson, other follow-up stories seem to reinforce the initial liberal take (the Garner case, for example), the public still doesn’t seem to accept the liberal line or draw the inferences that liberals want it to draw. It’s becoming hard to avoid the conclusion that many Americans will continue to disagree with many liberal policy prescriptions no matter what.
Shell-shocked liberals are beginning to grasp some inconvenient truths. No gun massacre is horrible enough to change Americans’ ideas about gun control. No UN Climate Report will get a climate treaty through the U.S. Senate. No combination of anecdotal and statistical evidence will persuade Americans to end their longtime practice of giving police officers extremely wide discretion in the use of force. No “name and shame” report, however graphic, from the Senate Intelligence Committee staff will change the minds of the consistent majority of Americans who tell pollsters that they believe that torture is justifiable under at least some circumstances. No feminist campaign will convince enough voters that the presumption of innocence should not apply to those accused of rape.
These are not the only issues in which, from a left Democratic point of view, the country is overrun with zombies and vampires: policy ideas that Democrats thought had been killed but still restlessly roam the earth. The finale of the George W. Bush presidency was, for many Democrats, conclusive evidence that conservative ideas just don’t work. The post 9/11 Bush foreign policy led to two long and unhappy wars. America had lost the trust of its allies without defeating its enemies. At home, the Bush tax cuts led to an exploding deficit, and the orgy of deregulation (admittedly, much of it dating from the Clinton years) led to the greatest financial crash since World War II and the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“Could a set of political ideas be more discredited?” liberals ask. The foreign policy failures of the Bush years, they believe, should have killed conservative ideology about America’s role in the world, and the financial crisis, they are certain, should have driven a stake through the heart of conservative economic doctrine. Yet: Here we are, six years into the Age of Obama, and the Tea Party is alive and Occupy is dead. The Republicans swept the midterm elections both nationally and at the state level—and Hillary Clinton appears more interested in conciliating Wall Street than in fighting it, and more interested in building bridges to conservative foreign policy thinkers than in continuing the Obama foreign policy. (And with even Jimmy Carter lambasting Obama’s Middle East policy as too weak, and the President committing to new troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not clear that even President Obama wants to stay the course.)
The liberal rout at the level of state and local politics is even more alarming. A wave of Republican Governors in blue Midwestern states (Walker in Wisconsin, Snyder in Michigan, plus the Dem-crushing Kasich in purple Ohio) and large GOP gains in state legislatures across the country point to a widespread reaction against liberal ideas, and lend credence to the idea that, even accounting for the GOP-skewed electorate in off-year elections, the country as a whole is drifting to the right.
For some, the response is to turn on Obama. He’s not a real liberal at all, some disillusioned liberals say: he’s a technocrat, a trimmer, an elitist, and an inept politician. Some of that is true; President Obama is a limousine liberal, not a lunch-bucket populist. And, despite all those comparisons to Lincoln that swooning liberals made back in 2008, he’s neither a particularly persuasive speaker nor an effective political operative. He is more professor than politician, and more of a natural legislator than a gifted executive.
But to blame Obama for the crisis of the liberal left is unpersuasive. It was the liberal left who fell hardest for him, who praised him to the skies and who stuck with him longer than anybody else. Even today, Obama’s strongest backing comes from two of the most liberal ingredients in the American melting pot: blacks and Jews. And, from a practical point of view, it is almost inconceivable, despite the cries of “Run, Elizabeth, Run!” emanating from the gentry left, that someone more liberal than President Obama will be sent to the Oval Office anytime soon. It took the unique circumstances of two wars and a financial crash to open a path to the White House for Barack Obama; absent similar circumstances, successful candidates are likely to come from his right for the foreseeable future.
In that sense the Obama administration may represent “Peak Left” in American politics, and what we are getting from the left these days is a mix of bewilderment and anger as it realizes that this is as good as it gets. America is unlikely to go farther to the left than it went in the wake of the Iraq War and the financial crash, and while that wasn’t anywhere near enough of a shift for left-leaning Democrats, the country has already moved on.