Saturday, February 14, 2009

Effusive Political Adoration Does Not Lead to Social Change

John Judis, a writer for the New Republic, has written an article in which he laments the lack of critical progressive commentary and social movement activity regarding Democrats, including President Obama. Judis observes that:
[I] think the main reason that Obama is having trouble is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket.
This article sounds markedly less upbeat than an essay Judis wrote immediately following Obama's election victory. In that article -- America the Liberal -- Judis argues that the Democrats' success demonstrates that a new political bloc consisting of persons of color, women and liberal professionals could potentially engender longterm progressive reform.

Although Judis tries to temper his excitement, he believes that the 2006 and 2008 elections mark a fundamental leftward shift in the ideological makeup of the electorate:
The rise of [women, people of color, and professional liberals] within the post-industrial economy has brought in its wake a new political worldview. Call it "progressive" or "liberal" or even "Naderite". . . .[P]rofessionals are the vanguard of the new progressive majority. Their sensibility is reflected in the Democratic platform and increasingly in the country as a whole. . . .Professionals are generally liberal on civil rights and women's rights; committed to science and to the separation of church and state; internationalist on trade and immigration; skeptical of, but not necessarily opposed to, large government programs; and gung-ho about government regulation of business, especially K Street lobbyists.

Many are children of the 1960s and '70s--heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Nader--but their views are clearly reflected in succeeding generations of college-educated Americans, particularly the "millennials" who grew up during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Ucla's annual study of incoming college freshmen across the country found in 2006 that 28.4 percent identified themselves as "liberal"--the highest percentage since 1975.
Judis also contends that:
[S]even years removed from September 11, liberal views have re-emerged with a vengeance. Now, the coming recession seems likely to push voters even further left.
Needless to say, this "push" has not occurred.

The Left Effusively Endorsed Obama During the Democratic Primaries
I have always been suspicious of liberal arguments which celebrate the demise of the GOP and conservatism and which welcome the advent of a liberal Utopia. I wrote many essays on this subject during the campaign and since the election -- including an essay which responds to Judis's "America the Liberal." I also created Dissenting Justice because often, the Left seemed like it was in a collective Obama-Vegetative State, which rendered progressives incapable of offering critical and balanced analysis of the Democratic presidential candidates. I hoped to shake things up with my own rigorous analysis.

And as gauche as saying "I told you so" seems, I can barely resist doing so. Nevertheless, I will attempt to make a critical contribution to this debate by reiterating some of the basic points I have made on my blog and elsewhere.

What the Political Left Needs to Understand
First, an election is not a social movement. Although many diverse people united to support Obama and to oppose the GOP, this does not mean that they shared a leftist political ideology. The invalidation of same-sex marriage in California -- where Obama won by more than 20% of the vote -- demonstrates this patently obvious point.

Second, progressives were so unnerved by Bush and the Clintons that many of them projected radicalism upon a moderate (or undefined) Obama in order to frame voting for him as a dramatic break from the past. Although "change" supports many meanings, for progressives, it symbolized liberal transformation of U.S. political life and policy.

Third, many liberals wanted so desperately to believe in the myth of a post-racial America that they treated Obama's electoral success as the ultimate triumph of progressive race politics. Despite the fact that strong racial cleavages shaped the vote for both Obama and McCain, many commentators, nevertheless, argued that Obama's victory would allow the country to move beyond race altogether.

Fourth, many self-described liberals are actually political moderates. They passionately support a set of symbolic liberal causes, but they do not favor more substantive societal transformation. Beating up Don Imus or Republicans who sing about a "Magic Negro" is a lot easier to do than creating good public schools that do not deprive poor children and children of color of a quality education. And passing the much-needed Ledbetter legislation does not resolve the substantive legal difficulties that civil rights plaintiffs encounter if they manage to overcome tough procedural hurdles. Yet, liberals cheered loudly for Ledbetter without even discussing (minus a few exceptions) the need for more progressive measures.

Liberal Regrets: Not Obama's "Fault"
Progressives cannot blame Obama for his effort to straddle the ideological center. Instead, they must look inward and discover why they chose to treat a politician (as skillful in that role as he might be) as someone who is mythological or larger than life.

They should also canvass history, as Judis has done, to learn about the critical role of passionate collective activism in the evolution of U.S. politics and policy. Moderate presidents have presided over great changes in the U.S., but they did so with the backing and agitation of engaged social movements. True social change does not result from effusive adoration and acquiescence; instead, it arises from criticism, collective activism, strategic compromise and political opportunity.

Conclusion: Silence and Defensive Partisanship Will Not Create Change Either
Many liberals have remained silent or have become defensive partisans in response to commentary that reveals striking similarities between Obama's policies and Bush-era practices that provoked sustained and angry criticism from the Left. Consequently, I am not hopeful that progressives will welcome dissent and self-criticism in the near future. Dissent and criticism, however, are staples of successful social movement activism, which is an essential component of progressive (or conservative) political change.

Ironically, I have found that political conservatives (e.g. Glenn Reynolds) often provide the most accommodating space for dissenting progressives. Admittedly, progressive dissent can serve conservatives' interest in hearing criticism of Democrats. But this process can also link nonpartisans across the political spectrum, who, despite disagreeing on many issues, can learn and benefit from open debate. I hope that progressives will begin to provide the same space for liberal criticism that some nonpartisan conservatives have already offered.


pete said...

I think the reason why America is going to see so little actual change is simply because politics is a game. The main objective is simply to win, if your side wins, it means you are right and it allows you to lump everyone who disagrees with you as losers.

This can best be seen in the debate about rendition as you yourself have pointed out with many liberals either explicitly accepting it or just ignoring it. Now that their side is in power, their ideology or values are of much less importance then making sure that you continue to associate yourself with the winning side.

The most disturbing thing about today’s political culture is that whilst there is very little actual difference between the two party’s, imagine if Obama was a Republican doing exactly the same polices as he is now. You would see a much greater focus by the left on issues such as rendition and his at least stated militaristic foreign policy intentions. You would also see many on the left voicing trepidation about the stimulus package, as simply being a pork laden bill that is going to special interest groups rather then with an intent to help America overall. Thus people view politicians mainly through the lens of the political party they belong to, rather then their actual actions.

However very little of this comes up because the left's side has now won and thus they can sell out their values and ideology just so they can continue to rub conservatives noses in their loss.

donna darko said...

"DUH" and "I told you so" are exactly right.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Pete - I think that you have isolated a big problem. A lot of "political discourse" simply reflects partisanship, rather than a true commitment to core values.

I agree that if McCain (or even Hillary Clinton) had adopted a policy of "rendition" (minus the word "extraordinary" and any formal acceptance of torture), liberals would have accused him of being "more of the same." And while some degree of partisanship is tolerable (perhaps even necessary at times), it does not seem helpful after all of the passionate criticism of Bush on this very subject.

But your concern is not party-specific (and you did not imply it was). Newt Gingrich overreached and caused an anti-Republican backlash after he helped conservatives grab power from the Democrats. At many times during the Clinton administration, Republicans (especially members of the House of Representatives) made Clinton looked like a much more responsible fiscal conservative than members of the GOP.

Bush certainly engaged in catastrophic fiscal policy - by accelerating the rate of government spending, while cutting taxes (which led to budget deficits and a dramatic increase in the national debt). Republican Ron Paul was correct when he said that members of his party were acting like "Born-Again Budget Conservatives".

pete said...

Darren Lenard Hutchinson, yeah I definitely agree that political partisanship is not confined to one party; I was only referring to the left, due the subject of your original post. You don't need any greater example of the hypocrisy, and moral and ideological decay of the modern day conservative movement then what has occurred over the past 8 years.

It reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke’s comment “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it”.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hey Pete -- thanks for the follow up. I think my response was probably meant for general audiences. You clearly "get it."

Nell said...

Darren, I have time for only a quick drive-by, but will comment that it has long been my contention that most of the Obama-supporting left was far more interested in seeing him elected than in keeping his feet to the fire once he began the hard work of governing. It seems to me that, in the blogoshere at least, the cacophony of pre-election Obama worship has died down considerably.

And, in case you haven't seen it, you are extensively quoted and linked to (and referred to as the "smart law blogger") in today's NY Times Opinionator blog. I'm happy to see you getting the recognition you deserve.

Anonymous said...

Another good post. I remain an interested observer. Sure I am on the conservative side of politics but that does not mean that conservative leaders should not be fairly criticized.

The problem with the criticism against the Bush administration is that it was loaded up with hysteria. There were many good reasons to criticize the Bush administration, especially over his fiscal policies and his gung-ho attitude about jumping into Iraq - I was not keen on the invasion but saw things differently when I saw the Iraqi people welcome the Americans, the Brits and Australians, as well as the other forces at the beginning.

I have not changed my own mind about Barak Obama. I agree that there was not enough critical analysis of what he was offering.

If I was concerned about the lack of fiscal responsibility under Bush, then I am more concerned about what has already taken place, and that includes the Australian pork package as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of the analysis in this post. I am conservative and generally vote republican. I disliked many of Bill Clinton's policies, but I thought he generally governed from the center and I accepted him as my president and supported his decisions and policies when I could. The craziness that developed in certain republican circles with respect to Clinton was unfortunate. That craziness was just the beginning; however, of the trend in American politics toward extreme, often irrational viewpoints and discourse. The left has taken Crazy politics to a new high point that peaked in the sixth or seventh year of the Bush administration. The left was willing to set aside reasoned argument, criticize everything the Bush administration did, sacrifice American interest at home and abroad, and all this because of a perverse hatred of the president. The hatred was identified as a pathology by Charles Krauthammer. A pathology Krauthammer named Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS).

The apparent contradictions between campaign rhetoric and actual governance in many of the early policy decisions of the Obama administration and the failure of many on the left to criticize the contradictions or even take notice of them, confirms in my opinion the Krauthammer diagnosis.

The latent disease that presents as BDS appears to be dormant at the present time. May it stay dormant. I hope republican leaders engage in healthy political dissent during the Obama presidency, but refrain from Crazy politics. If republican leaders indulge in Craziness, I will be a vocal critic.

Doug Santo
Pasadena, CA

Anonymous said...

>>Consequently, I am not hopeful that progressives will welcome dissent and self-criticism in the near future.

As a conservative, I've read many times liberals stating that "dissent is patriotic." Therefore I fully expect those who support Obama to take criticism of him in the same manner with which they dished it out to Bush. That is to say, I am in agreement with you in not being hopeful.

BTW, nice blog. We might not agree, but you seem rather cordial in your manners and your approach. I'll try to bookmark and return, if you don't mind.

To add some to what pete said, and more on the topic of discussion on the blog and political pol site level, the political lines are so clearly drawn that, more often than not, I find I already know what the opposition argument is going to be on any given topic before they confirm it. So I end up reading info that validates what I already knew was going to be the argument. Once it's at this point, what is there to discuss? I know why I believe what I believe, I know why the opposition doesn't, vice versa, and I know why we'll never have a concensus. So way too often, these things end up becoming "pissing contests," which accomplishes nothing, and of which when the other side starts, I just walk away.

How many others out there have noticed this same thing? Very tiring and predictable, isn't it?


Infidel753 said...

It seems to me that what we have here is a fairly typical case of the "but he's our son-of-a-bitch" syndrome which afflicts a hard core of supporters in every faction of politics. Think of the conservatives (not all, but some) for whom Bush could do no wrong, even when he was trashing traditional conservative priorities like the balanced budget.

Outside the hard core, there has actually been a degree of dawning awareness among the less-deeply-hypnotized Obama cultists that their man is not quite what they hoped. The Rick Warren case seems to have been the first catalyst for this, as I pointed out at the time.

By the way, I realize that you were only using Glenn Reynolds as an example, but I'd describe him not as a conservative but as a libertarian (in the original sense, not the ghastly abomination the Libertarian Party has degenerated into). He's a free-marketer, but his real enthusiasm (like mine) is technology, and I've never noticed him to be uncomfortable with things like atheism, gay marriage, or even abortion.

Oh, and by the way, I haven't been hiding -- I read your site consistently even if I don't always comment.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hey everyone. Thanks for the comments. I've been busy enjoying the day - and writing (yet another) response on rendition, in light of the NY Times column. Thanks for dropping by, as usual.

I think we can create nonpartisan understanding even if we disagree on ultimate policy. And, remarkably, maybe we can even agree more if we do the hard work. How about it people?

I have seen some movement among readers on this very blog, particularly in the discussion surrounding economics. And while many liberal and conservative partisans will always want to engage in what one reader calls a "pissing contest," for those of us who really want change, can't we create our own universe? Sometimes the liberal idealist whom I have suppressed rears his youthful head....

Aeneas said...

Right on, as always. If this kind of discourse, the kind that takes place on this blog, would take place in 'real world' and if the new masters of DC would adopt it, and set the tone, perhaps we would indeed become greater than we are now and a lot of good would be done, instead of this mutual demonizing.

That was my 'hopeful' part of the comment. Now comes the inevitable armchair nihilist comment. :)

What the new left, or old transformed left, or the self-labeled progressives, or the 'winners', suffers of is a lot of anger; anger in many case self inflicted, sometimes coming from a self imposed impotence, sometimes because it just felt good; anyway, this anger has become ideological blindness coupled hyperbolic thinking that allows, at this point, no argument and no capacity to lower the noise to hear the world. This kind of hysteria (no different than the far right, who is right now calling this the beginning of Stalinism in the US; but we talk about the left in power because, well, they are so visible and loud) not only looks extreme and therefor bizarre to main street America (I assure you there are those who voted for Obama who are right now wondering what the heck they've gotten), but it validates and gives a lot of fodder to the shrill side of the right. Applying Chicago playground tactics and bad ass verbiage does not endear you to the general public.

What is really happening? It's a combination of politicians whose game is power and winning combined with ingestion of ideology and its subsequent regurgitation without the benefit of a digestive system. That, unfortunately, has always been the problem with 'movements' in America; with the exception of the Civil Rights movement which came from the kind of will and wisdom that is gained only by true human struggle and suffering. You don't get a movement when it's run and populated by spoilt children with--I repeat again--no intellectual digestive system.

That is the problem we are facing in our democratic system--a lot of spoilt children who have no idea what they are squandering. I am one of them.

So, I've said a lot of nothing...

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Aeneas - you actually said a lot. I think you are correct - and Infidel made a similar point- when politicians use ideological scripts to justify obtaining power, we lose a lot in the process. But I guess we must figure out how to push them to do things that do not simply give them power.

Intellectual consistency is a great starting place for us as voters and critics. Imagine if Democrats would hold "our" leaders accountable now. Imagine if Republicans had done the same for the last 8 years. Things just might look better today if people had refused to become part of the "political machine."

Unfortunately, I think the recent election has made electoral politics even more like a game of football or American Idol. Being on a "team" and trashing the opponent are now more deeply engrained in the culture of voter behavior. When this happens, people stop caring about principles and ideas; instead, the ultimate aim of politics becomes making your "team" look good and the other side look bad. Just think about Palin, McCain, B. and H. Clinton, and Gore - and all of the other politicians who have been demonized by their opponents and by "fans" of their opponents. This behavior is absolutely unhelpful. And our precious media does very little to educate the public and to foster mature public discourse.

Chris said...

Gee whiz. The man's been in office for less than one bloody month. ONE MONTH! Indeed an election is not "social change". A simple lookup in Webster's will attest to that. But the results of an election can DRIVE social change. With time.

It'll just take longer than a month to happen. This land of "instant gratification" needs to slow down a bit.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Chris - the essay is not so much about Obama but about the effusive praise and unrealistic expectations of the Left. Progressives acted as if he would do all of the work for them.

I am not sure why you think it's "too early" to engage in criticism. First of all, because my essay is directed towards the Left, criticism is appropriate now, just as it was during the primaries (and before). And it's not too soon to judge his presidency and the response it triggers from progressives. The Left is acting hypocritically by not challenging the rendition and torture stuff. But I'll wait and see too. What I will not wait for, however, is to express my views. I remember people saying this about the Iraq War too.

MarkJ said...

"...I am not hopeful that progressives will welcome dissent and self-criticism in the near future."

Spot on, and the fact that not a few Democrats are now agitating for return of the (Un)Fairness Doctrine reinforces your point.

Indeed, a growing number of Democrats seem to be far more concerned about shutting down "dissent and self-criticism" than welcoming it. And therein lies an invitation for a whole heap o' trouble in River City.

Obama had better nip this kind of damn-fool thinking in the bud P.D.Q. Otherwise, he'll be lucky to make it to the end of his first, and only, term...much less run for a second.

Anonymous said...

Obama isn't really a principled leftist, though. If you understand that, you wouldn't have the expectations you do and wouldn't be disappointed in whatever policies he implements.

Whatever values he holds in common with the left are coincidental to his dream of consolidating as much power as possible to become a power broker of the US machine (think Chicago machine) for the rest of his natural life.

Obama is about Obama, not about your values and principles. I'm sure a lot of communists were disappointed in Stalin too (not to compare him to Stalin, but you get the idea.)

Same holds true for any promises he made to conservatives (not that many believed him.) The stimulus package which isn't being mentioned here (I can only assume because this is a legal blog) is a perfect example. Obama will take being a big cheese in a diminished, hopelessly indebted America than act out of the "principles" he sold (all that "scalpel" stuff.)

Mike K said...

I can see why Glenn links to your blog. I don't agree with most of your opinions so far but it is refreshing to see a reasoned discourse about these subjects. I will be reading it from now on. A significant part of the problem is lack of trust. I favor electronic medical records, for example, but don't trust the people who are moving the census to the White House. It's not a new problem; this is why only Nixon could go to China and it is why only a Republican can do a national health plan.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Mike - thanks for visiting.

To all of the conservatives (who are welcome here like everyone else): when you say "I disagree with most of your views, but I enjoy your blog" do you care to specify some disagreements? LOL....

A Jacksonian said...

A representative democracy cannot have a movement if a large number do not vote: the majority view depends on substantial backing of the public to demonstrate faith in the system via voting.

This election marks the first Presidential election to come within a point of turn-over. Although we have had plurality government since the 1970's we have moved into minority government territory at the start of the 21st century. No one can say that those who did not vote are represented: they are not by not voting.

That is a positive action to take in the negative - by not voting the expression of faith in the system is given silent voice. No one, liberal or conservative, can claim such a government represents them... and any such government best tread lightly because of the substantial lack of faith in it.

That is the social change of the late 20th century.

It has been in the majority for Congressional elections for decades... perhaps by 2012 we will have pure minority government for no matter who wins, a plurality will not be gained. That is the outcome of 'social movements' and activism of the late 20th century. That and the disenfranchisement of individuals by being put in ever larger districts where they can never know their representatives. Thus we have Incumbistan and buying voting blocks, where size goes up and accountability goes down.

Arek Grantham said...

I think the point about maintaining intellectual consistency, and honesty, is very apropos.

What is it, exactly, that we as Americans want for our country? Do we wish to see our core values reflected in, and served by, those that we elect? Or, rather, do we want to see our side win? Which is more important?

Clearly, at least to me, the answer is not to swear fealty to a party, but to ideals, and then have the personal flexibility to vote one's conscience, regardless of party.

I would say the more that we identify as either Green, Democrat or Republican, the less we ultimately serve ourselves. We seem to be mired in a bit of political rigidity these days. Has it always been so? I do not know.

Country before party. They are not the same thing, don't ya know.

Nagarajan said...


This is just a wild guess, but let me take a swing here.

When conservatives say that they disagree with your views mostly, i believe that they are talking about disagreement with progressive views in general.

Quite frankly i came across this blog because Glenn linked to it - so i am not sure if conservatives have seen enough of your blog to have disagreements with specific blog postings of yours.

Your earlier post on how the left has basically remained silent or worse flippant (style over substance) about the rendition program reminded me of a certain "conservative of doubt" who prided himself on how he took the Bush Govt to task by asking the tough questions and bemoaned about how America lost its moral standing in the world.

This very same "conservative of doubt" now has the same views as the likes of Hilzoy, Glenn Greenwald regarding Obama's continuation of rendition - "nothing to see here, move on"

It is refreshing to see a progressive question this program even when self proclaimed conservatives of doubt are going along with it now Obama is in charge.

Thanks for doing this Professor. We need atleast ONE progressive voice which does not blindly fall in lock step with Obama/Democrats.

Aeneas said...

Chris--that is quite correct, yes, only one month and here we are, wanting instant gratification.

Unfortunately, for Obama and for everyone in general, the constituency he courted and fed, and manipulated (I don't mean this in a 'bad' way, but in a political way) is one of instant gratification; the baby boomers, the 'now and me' generation, etc. etc. etc. This is the narrative that has gripped the minds out there--as soon as Obama is elected, as he said it himself to feed this euphoria and expectation (I don't have the exact quote, of course)--the oceans will stop rising, the seas will part, the earth will turn opposite on its axis; words to that effect.

The news media has fed this expectations and the Obama team flowed with it and encouraged it. That is the result of cultivating the cult of personality. Everything becomes unrealistic--both promises and expectations.

Perhaps someone should've read Coriolanus.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Arek - thanks for the point. I agree. Ideology does not require partisan bickering. If you really believe that your ideological prescription for the world produces the best results, then stick with that. Parties do what is convenient for getting in office. Democrats have been the war party, the anti-civil rights party, etc. Republicans used to receive 100 percent of black votes and once dominated the northern states. Parties change over time in order to monopolize their chances of winning. If we modify our arguments to benefit our parties, we come across looking hypocritical. I am all for compromise, but we should call it a compromise, rather than living in denial and defensiveness.

Mark G said...

To succeed, a leader must be followed. On the big hot button issues, the President needs to make sure he has the voters behind any action he proposes to take. If, say, his preferred structure for health care reform strikes most voters as scary, the 365 electoral votes he got in November won't be enough to enable him to pass a bill.

hysperia said...

Hmm, well, social movements know better than to expect instant gratification. But they also know enough not to expect something for nothing. Why is it so terrible to consider critisizing Obama? I'd venture a guess: Obama-Vegetative State!

Great post and a great blog!

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