There’s a brilliant article in NY Mag this week on President Obama, titled ‘When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?‘. I read it and agreed with most of it, with caveats (about civil liberties and the ‘war on terror’).
Jonathan Chait first makes a historical argument: that while liberals (lefties) in the US keep saying Obama sold out and didn’t do as much as promised, especially compared to earlier US Presidents, this is rubbish. In fact they complained just as much, if not more, in past decades.
Bill Clinton’s election, following a dozen years of Republican presidencies, ushered in buoyant hopes of renewal. But liberals experienced his presidency as immediate and almost continuous deflation and cynicism. Clinton did enjoy one major triumph in his first year, when he passed a budget bill that raised the top tax rate, expanded the earned-income tax credit, created a new national-service program for graduates, and reformed other parts of the budget. This was the progressive apogee of the Clinton administration. Liberals at the time viewed it as a sad half-measure.
Today, Carter is remembered as a president anchored in liberal values, a revision of history both conservatives and Carter himself are happy to leave uncorrected. But the truth is that Carter’s domestic agenda carried only small bits of liberalism, and those small bits (a consumer-protection agency, tax reform) met with total failure in the Democratic Congress. Carter’s policy accomplishments tilted right of center—he deregulated the airline and trucking industries and cut the capital-gains tax. Most infuriatingly to liberals, Carter refused to push for comprehensive health-care reform.
Kennedy’s reputation benefited from a halo of martyrdom, deepened by liberals’ rage against Johnson, which retroactively cast Kennedy as far more liberal than he actually was. In reality, Kennedy’s domestic agenda slogged painfully through a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. He campaigned promising federal aid for education and health insurance for the elderly but didn’t get around to passing either one.
Franklin Roosevelt is hard to compare to anybody, because his achievements were so enormous, and his failures so large as well (court-packing, interning Japanese-Americans). But even his triumphs, gleaming monuments to liberalism when viewed from the historical distance, appear, at closer inspection, to be riddled with the same tribulations, reversals, compromises, dysfunctions, and failures as any other.
So why does this keep happening, again and again?
Why, for the most of the past 60 years, have been in “a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage”?
And why does this not apply to Conservatives?
There is obviously the willingness to quickly forget the past. But it’s also because conservatives think differently, he says.
Conservatives, compared with liberals, have higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority and prefer order over chaos and continuity over change. They are more likely than liberals to agree with statements like “It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself.” (Interestingly, libertarians tend to resemble liberals on these measures, which may explain why libertarian politics also so frequently resemble a Life of Brian–esque farce.)
That sounds about right.
Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor, defines the contrasting moral styles of right and left like so: Conservatives excel at competition between groups—your team, your nation, your tribe—while liberals care more about fairness within a group.
He also says this is partly why Tea Partiers were able to quickly suppress racist signs at their rallies, while Occupy protests have been unable to stop a small group of anti-semites from bringing them under attack.
In contrast, Obama has managed more than every other Democratic president in the past (except Roosevelt):
- “His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades.”
- “The Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like.”
- “The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.”
And don’t forget the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Marriage Act (which said it could only be be between a man and a woman). And there’s plenty more.
If Obama gets re-elected then all the above legislation he passed, especially healthcare, gets entrenched. Otherwise Republicans will repeal it – including the legislation on banks. Next year, that alone is worth fighting for.
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