Blogs > HNN > Why are Liberals Always on the Edge of Despair?

Aug 21, 2010 10:58 pm

Why are Liberals Always on the Edge of Despair?

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Food for Thought

Michael Tomsky

...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....

There are many answers. Occam’s Razor suggests the obvious one–that people are in fact disappointed, which is understandable, and they should say so. I don’t doubt, for example, Hamsher’s sincerity in wondering how working-class families are going to be able to afford the mandated coverage (progressives who don’t worry about that aren’t being honest with themselves about the possible problems that could arise from the bill). But I keep returning in my mind to another matter, one that The Huffington Post’s home page’s invocation of Roosevelt brought home to me: the way liberals interpret and talk about history today. The five-alarm political culture in which we live now forces upon us a certain kind of response to current events: Every little flare-up is elevated to roiling controversy, and every minor setback a potential death blow to the progressive cause, every departure from the sacred codex of Keynes not a mere delay or strategic feint or hindrance but an act of treachery. This much we know; who didn’t, during the last presidential campaign, think that some breathlessly reported development that turned out to be unimportant–the late revelation about Obama’s aunt in Boston who was an undocumented immigrant springs to mind–would be the back-breaking event that would sober up a besotted electorate and lift John McCain to the presidency? After 30 years of mostly defeats, liberals are quick to catastrophize.

But our political culture affects the way we think about the past as well. Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul, that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that. Cable news and op-ed pages and websites are a kind of modern-day camera obscura, giving us an image to be sure, accurate in a way, but upside-down....

Jonathan Chait

A second reason for liberal despair is the cult of the presidency. Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower. I wrote about this phenomenon, with relation to the BP spill, in a recent TRB column.

Rachel Maddow offered a perfect example of the phenomenon the other night. She delivered her fantasy version of the speech President Obama should have given. It was filled with unequivocal liberal rhetoric. I was struck by this portion, explaining how she would pass an energy bill:

The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.
If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.

In reality, you can't pass any of the climate bill by reconciliation. Democrats didn't write reconciliation instructions permitting them to do so, and very little of its could be passed through reconciliation, which only allows budgetary decisions. Maddow's response is to pass the rest by executive order. But you can't change those laws through executive order, either. That's not how our system of government works, nor is it how our system should work.

If Maddow's speech had to hew to the reality of Senate rules and the Constitution, she'd be left where Obama is: ineffectually pleading to get whatever she can get out of a Senate that has nowhere near enough votes to pass even a stripped-down cap and trade bill. It may be nice to imagine that all political difficulties could be swept away by a president who just spoke with enough force and determination. It's a recurrent liberal fantasy —Michael Moore imagined such a speech a few months ago, Michael Douglas delivers such a speech in"The American President." I would love to eliminate the filibuster and create more accountable parties. But even if that happens, there will be a legislative branch that has a strong say in what passes or doesn't pass. And that's good! We wouldn't want to live in a world where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it.

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More Comments:

len - 6/23/2010

If your using the Huffingtong Post as a source and reflexing over the political disconnects of Maddow and Michael Moore then your primary question is an easy answer =Liberalism is a mental disorder. (to quote Dr. Michael Savage)

21st century liberals are always in despair because they rely on feelings rather than logic and reason--why do you think so many libs are borderline socialists? But don't worry, there is medication available for such disorders or try therapy.