|Huey Long, radical economic populist.|
Monday, October 15, 2012
The American Passion
There’s been much speculation as to why President Obama did so poorly in the first presidential debate, why he failed to fight back against Romney. Compare Obama’s passive performance with Joe Biden’s spirited debate assault on poor Paul Ryan. Biden took the fight to Ryan and, by extension, to Romney. He was smiling, dismissive, aggressive; he clearly enjoyed the malarkey out of himself! Obviously, Biden’s forcefulness was deliberately meant to counteract Obama’s passivity, but it underscored that passivity as well. So where was Obama’s passion? Some commentators, such as Jim Fallows, claim it is typical of incumbents to under-prepare, to be rusty debaters, to feel themselves above such flashy political theater. Some, such as Jonathan Chait, wonder if it was a deliberate (if overdone) tactic; i.e. “the reason for his passivity was that he wanted to avoid appearing angry and unpresidential.” Some blame Obama’s personal psychology, particularly his aversion to conflict. Here’s Laurence Tribe, Obama’s mentor at Harvard Law School: “Barack Obama’s instincts and talents have never included going for an opponent’s jugular. That’s just not who he is or ever has been.” That is, Obama’s response to aggression is to be conciliatory. He doesn’t fight back, he reaches out. He doesn’t get angry, he gets reasonable. Biden smiles while he sticks in the shiv; Obama quotes statistics while he extends the open hand. He really believes that facts and reason, responsible and moderate policies, will sway his opponents. He’s not called “no drama Obama” for nothing.
We can wonder what it is about Obama’s experiences and upbringing that drained the drama out of him. But here’s a better question: Why did the Democratic Party, in 2008, pick such a passionless leader? Is there something in the nature of the Democratic Party, or contemporary liberalism, that invites someone so bloodless? Consider John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, bloodless technocrats all. But what about Bill Clinton, didn’t he have passion? Yes, of course, as he reminded us so powerfully with his speech at last month’s Democratic Convention. He wasn’t personally bloodless, but he was bloodless in policy. As a New Democrat he was essentially a moderate Republican (a creature that nowadays one can find only in the Democratic Party). He balanced the budget and forced welfare recipients to work, and in perfect triangulation he protected Medicare and Medicaid from the Gingrichian onslaught. Conservative apocalyptic paranoia to the contrary, Obama is just as moderate as Clinton; he pushed Republican-inspired legislation on healthcare and the environment and prosecuted a war started by Republicans. But unlike Bill Clinton, and like Kerry, Gore and Dukakis, Obama’s moderate personality matches his moderate program.
And there’s the tension between liberalism and the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party with its (now dwindling) New Democrat faction, its funding from Wall Street, its Congressional moderates who vote conservative, is hardly the perfect vehicle for liberal ideology. Peel away those institutionally anti-liberal elements and what’s left? Exactly: what’s left? What is the soul of modern liberalism? Now we’ve arrived at the real question. The program of modern liberalism has two parts: pragmatic intervention in the economy designed to encourage widely shared prosperity, and the protection of identity groups. The first component is articulated in the modern regulatory-welfare state; think minimum wage and Medicare. The second is articulated in social policies like homosexual marriage and affirmative action. The first is designed to help all non-rich Americans, i.e. the middle class and those hoping to rise into the middle class. The second is designed to protect particular groups – blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, the disabled, etc. – from any oppression directed at them by the affluent, white, male power structure. For the most part, real liberal passion is found in the second set of issues. Consider that Democratic presidents have a pro-choice litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, but not a pro-union one.
But it was not always so. As insightful writers like Thomas Frank and Michael Lind have observed, before the 1960’s the essence of American liberalism was government intervention serving the interests of working people. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson supported unions, regulation and social insurance programs, and they bent the economy to human purpose. They were passionate that capitalism be tamed, that the laissez-faire wilderness be plowed into the social democratic garden. To them the American dream was about the common people getting a new deal, a fair deal; that is, fair reward for their hard work. They were willing to use the tools at hand to make the country work for everyone, not just the rich and powerful and the connected. They were pragmatists in the service of egalitarianism. Economic justice was their passion and technocracy was their method.
But everything changed in the 1960’s. And when I say everything I mean race. The economic liberalism of the mid-20th century worked quite well for white Americans, but it left a lot of people out. In the 1960’s liberal passion migrated from making capitalism equitable to protecting oppressed minorities: first blacks, then women, then gays, Hispanics, etc. This happened partly because back them almost everyone assumed that broadly shared prosperity would continue forever. But also, much of the white working class rejected liberalism’s attempt to purge the system of bigotry, and the new breed of liberals began to reject the white working class in return. Conservative politicians – first Goldwater and Wallace, then Nixon and Reagan – learned to appeal to the white working class, stoking and exploiting its resentments on issues like race, religion and sex, making them feel like they were the truly oppressed class. Since the 60’s, all politics is identity politics. Forget shared prosperity; what tribe do you belong to?
Liberalism is now mostly just a coalition of the non-straight-white-male tribes. But there isn’t much to unite those tribes other than their shared oppression. There is no liberal movement. Meanwhile the conservatives have nurtured and furthered a powerful, coherent and effective political and cultural movement. And they have won most of the elections. Since the late 1960’s and the dominance of identity politics, white populism has moved over to the conservative side of the aisle. It used to be working men fighting against the bosses for decent pay and working conditions. Now it’s straight, white, Christian men fighting against high taxes that go to fetus-killing welfare queens. The white working class had long understood they were being exploited by a capitalist elite; they were receptive to the conservatives notion that they were really being exploited by a statist one – even worse, claimed conservatives, it was a statist elite that coddled non-whites at the expense of whites. And when conservatives transformed populism they transformed American politics. Historically, the passion in American politics has resided in populism. The American passion is populism; there is no real American political passion without it. We are always the regular people, fighting against powerful elites who ignore our interests, dismiss our values and overlook our strengths. For most of our history that populist passion resided on what can loosely be called the Left: Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ. Since the 1960’s populist passion is on the Right: Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bush’s.
Post-60’s liberalism is still quite pragmatic, still quite willing to intervene as needed in the economy and society. But it has lost its passion, because it has lost its populism; all it has left is its technocracy. This is why no one quite knows what Democrats stand for; this is why they’re so vague and uncertain: they’re muddled about who they’re fighting for. Obama is the perfect expression of modern liberalism: pragmatic, moderate, urbane, prudential, multi-racial and quite bloodless. Compare Obama to George W. Bush, who perfectly represented modern conservatism; he was impetuous, ideological, pious, sanctimonious, bold, and full of the crusading righteousness and rank foolishness that only moral certainty can confer. He knew himself to be the vessel of American folkish purity and he acted upon that knowledge. Obama is the un-Bush. This is the real meaning behind his much-mocked slogan from 2008: Hope and Change. The hope was that he would make government work. The change meant he was nothing like W.
But it also meant change from the entire post-60’s bitter political combat. Obama thought that he could just propose practical, reasonable, compromise solutions and his opponents would meet him half way. He thought that moderation could tame ideology. But he never understood the populist passion that animates his conservative adversaries, and he never understood the power such populism bestows. Passion beats reason every time, and the passion is still on the right. In 1980 it was the Moral Majority and in 2010 it was the Tea Party. The names change but the game remains the same. We still live in a conservative era, liberal hopes that Obama would be the next FDR notwithstanding. At the time it seemed that 2008 might be what’s known as a re-aligning election; i.e. an election that changes the game for a generation or more, an election in which large demographic groups change from one coalition to another. In 1932 the white middle-class, angry at Hoover’s passive response to the Great Depression, switched to the Democratic Party, becoming one of the main pillars of the New Deal Coalition that dominated American politics until the 1960’s. But Obama’s election was not re-aligning. He simply expanded the almost-majority that Democrats have enjoyed since the days of Michael Dukakis. Obama won all the states that Gore and Kerry won plus a few teetering ones: Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado. He managed that because whites are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the population; also, of course, because George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency had so badly damaged the Republican brand. Think of Obama as a demographically-strengthened (and much hipper) Dukakis.
Obama has some sense of the utility of populist rhetoric, but his heart – I speak loosely – is not in it. Nominated and elected because he’s Dukakis-plus, he is not temperamentally capable of full-throated populism. His instincts are vaguely egalitarian, his temperament is conciliatory, his policies are moderate and his methods are technocratic. Obama playing Huey Long is like Dukakis playing George Patton: it looks forced, and more to the point, it has little chance for a real constituency. In a democracy all politics is grassroots and a liberal populist politician without a grassroots liberal movement is just standing upon thin air. Liberal populist sentiment – anger over the iniquity and brutality of unregulated capitalism – has genuine potential; it’s waiting to be tapped. As conservatives discovered to their delight in the 60’s and 70’s, conservative populism is really only a step or two away from liberal populism. Liberals need to learn that those steps can be walked in reverse. But until that potential is realized, for Democrats to win the presidency they must run as moderates and pray that the demographics keep slowly moving their way. The only thing that Democrats possess which approximates passion is multicultural tolerance and that is, by definition, both too parochial and too uninspiring to work nationally. Modern liberalism simply fails to stir the American passion. That’s why Democrats fail to choose nominees with passion. And that’s a big part of the reason our Democratic president had no fire and no force in that debate. Liberals picked him because he has no passion, and liberals picked someone without passion because they have so little of it themselves.