These are frustrating times for the American left. Legislative power has slipped from its hands; the states are more Republican than at just about any time in living memory, and as President Obama nears the end of his term, it seems far more likely than otherwise that, Republican or Democrat, his successor will stand well to the right of the incumbent. As I noted in the first essay in the series, the foreign policy disasters and the financial crash of the George W. Bush administration opened a path to the White House for the most liberal President in history and gave Democrats overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House back in 2008. Jubilant liberals believed that a new era had dawned, and when they weren’t comparing Obama to Lincoln, they were calling him the “Democratic Reagan” who would reset politics for the left just as Reagan once did for the right.
Six years later, the dream is looking shopworn. President Obama is deeply unpopular, the Democratic majorities are gone with the wind, and poll after poll after poll demonstrates that Obamacare, the Democrats’ signature legislative accomplishment in the Age of Obama, is more of an albatross around the party’s neck than a star in its crown.
Some of this could change. The slow but persistent improvement in economic conditions has finally begun to register with voters; consumer confidence is up and, if the economy continues to improve through 2016, President Obama’s poll numbers should strengthen. The racial polarization that so tragically spiked in the last three months could gradually fade away. And the concatenation of foreign policy and security disasters from the Libyan anarchy to the series of Syria and Iraq fiascoes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine could look less frightening and less like an implosion of America’s world position in two year’s time. The lame duck could still swagger off the stage in the end.
But right now that doesn’t look probable, even to liberals. Eric Alterman, one of the left’s most articulate advocates, summarizes the situation with his customary frankness in the Nation:
The Obama presidency has been a devil’s bargain for Democrats. Despite the considerable policy accomplishments to its credit, the administration’s political impact has been virtually catastrophic. Since Obama’s victory in 2008, Democrats are down seventy seats in the House and fifteen in the Senate, giving an increasingly reactionary Republican Party the power to stymie most if not all of the Democrats’ agenda. But this actually understates the damage. Democrats are now the minority in over two-thirds of the nation’s partisan state legislative chambers, their worst showing in history. In twenty-three of these, Republicans will control the governor’s office, too. (The corresponding number for Democrats is just seven.)
Alterman cites two core reasons for the disaster. On the one hand, Democrats haven’t recognized that many of the policies they like on “good government” grounds are political poison. In particular, Obamacare and the immigration amnesty are alienating voters:
The Affordable Care Act and the executive order expanding the rights of undocumented immigrants were certainly the right thing to do from the perspective of Democratic values, but both are politically poisonous at present. Obamacare undermines a key Democratic constituency badly in need of help: labor unions. The immigration order fires up anti-immigrant passion among working-class voters while benefiting an ethnic group—Latinos—whose voter-participation levels remain anemic, even allowing for the restrictive election laws passed by Republicans.
Beyond that, Alterman argues, the Democrats’ turn to social rather than economic issues (gentry liberalism vs. populism) hasn’t been helpful. Focusing on “immigration, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, gun control, etc.” at a time when real wages are stagnant or declining for most Americans is a recipe for political failure.
But this analysis, cogent as it is, raises another question: why were liberals so feckless in power? Why did they blow the historic opportunity that the Bush implosion gave them?
What liberals are struggling to come to grips with today is the enormous gap between the dominant ideas and discourse in the liberal worlds of journalism, the foundations, and the academy on the one hand, and the wider realities of American life on the other. Within the magic circle, liberal ideas have never been more firmly entrenched and less contested. Increasingly, liberals live in a world in which certain ideas are becoming ever more axiomatic and unquestioned even if, outside the walls, those same ideas often seem outlandish.
Modern American liberalism does its best to suppress dissent and critique (except from the left) at the institutions and milieus that it controls. Dissent is not only misguided; it is morally wrong. Bad thoughts create bad actions, and so the heretics must be silenced or expelled. “Hurtful” speech is not allowed, and so the eccentricities of conventional liberal piety pile up into ever more improbable, ever more unsustainable forms.
To openly support “torture”, for example, is close to unthinkable in the academy or in the world of serious journalism. For a university professor or a New Yorker writer to say that torture is acceptable under any circumstances is to court marginalization. A great many liberals don’t know anybody who openly supports torture, and a great many liberals are convinced that the concept of torture is so heinous that simply to name and document incidents will lead an aroused public to rally against the practice—and against the political party that allowed it.
Thus a group of journalists, human rights activists, and others relentlessly pursued allegations of CIA use of torture, not only as an important moral duty but also as an effective political strategy. It flopped. As we’ve seen, the revelations about CIA methods left most Americans still telling pollsters that they favor torture when national security is in question. “Torture” may be unthinkable to well meaning academics and human rights activists, but the argument hasn’t been won—hasn’t really even been engaged—among the broader public. The left silenced and banished critics; it didn’t convert or refute them. The net result of the liberal campaign to “hold the CIA accountable” wasn’t to discredit the Bush administration; the campaign simply undercut claims by liberals that the left can safely be entrusted with security policy. A group of liberal journalists and politicos worked very hard to make Dick Cheney’s day.
Similarly, the liberal hothouses that so many university campuses are today encourage students to adopt approaches to real life problems that, to say the least, are counterproductive. Take, for example, the recent attempts by law students at Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia to have their exams postponed due to the stress they suffered as a result of the Ferguson controversy. “This is more than a personal emergency. This is a national emergency,” said the anguished Harvardians asking for an extension. Said the fragile and delicate souls from Georgetown,“We, students of color, cannot breathe…. We charge you to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter.”
One thinks of the school beneath the sea in Alice in Wonderland, where students were taught “reeling, writhing, and fainting in coils.”
Fortunately for us all, liberalism didn’t use to be such a pallid and shrinking thing. People like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King were, thank goodness, made of sterner stuff than the frail flowers of the contemporary Ivy League. The people who actually helped black people in American history down through the centuries faced more injustice, brutality, and casual public racism than our delicately and tenderly raised hothouse elites could imagine in their wildest dreams. Serious people understand that the existence of injustice is a reason to get tougher and work harder, not a reason to whine to the dean about your emotional turmoil. Truth, Douglass, Marshall, King, and tens of thousands of others knew that the people who want to change the world need to be tougher, smarter, harder working, and stronger than the people who don’t care. This may not be fair, but having emotional meltdowns over it won’t help you or anybody else.
Are these shrinking violets and sensitive souls really preparing for careers in the law? If you are a lawyer and a grand jury returns an unjust indictment against your client, are you going to come down with a disabling attack of the vapors that keeps you from concentrating on your legal work as you struggle with the unfairness of it all? If so, the legal profession is not for you. You need another and less challenging profession, perhaps involving the preparation of fair trade herbal teas for elderly Quakers in a quiet suburb somewhere.
But liberals today face more problems than cocooning. They face the problem that, even as the ideas in liberal institutions become ever more elaborate, intricate, and unsuited to the actual political world, liberal institutions are losing more of their power to shape public opinion and national debate. Forty years ago, the key liberal institutions were both less distanced from the rest of American society and significantly more able to drive the national agenda. The essentially likeminded, mainstream liberals who wrote and produced the major network news shows more or less controlled the outlets from which a majority of Americans got the news. There was no Drudge Report or Fox News in those days, much less an army of pesky fact checkers on the internet. When liberal media types decided that something was news, it was news.
If the Sandy Hook massacre had taken place in 1975, it’s likely that the liberal take on gun violence would not have been challenged. But these days, an army of bloggers and a counter-establishment of policy wonks in right leaning think tanks are ready to respond to extreme events like Sandy Hook. After the 2014 midterm, Gaffy Gifford’s old congressional seat will be filled by a pro-gun rights Republican, and polls show support for “gun rights” at historic highs. Liberal strategies don’t work anymore in part because liberal institutions are losing their power.
Meanwhile, many liberals are in a tough emotional spot. They live in liberal cocoons, read cocooning news sources, and work in professions and milieus where liberal ideas are as prevalent and as uncontroversial as oxygen. They are certain that these ideas are necessary, important and just—and they can’t imagine that people have solid reasons for disagreeing with them. Yet these ideas are much less well accepted outside the bubble—and the bubbles seem to be shrinking. After the horrors of the George W. Bush administration, liberals believed that the nightmare of conservative governance had vanished, never to return. Aided by the immigration amnesty, an irresistible army of minority voters would enshrine liberal ideas into law and give Democrats a permanent lock on the machinery of an ever more powerful state.
That no longer looks likely; we can all look forward to eloquent laments, wringing of hands, impassioned statements of faith as the realization sinks in. There will be reeling, there will be writhing, and there will be fainting in coils. In the end, we can hope that liberalism will purge itself of the excesses and indulgences that come from life in the cocoon. The country needs a forward looking and level headed left; right now what we have is a mess.