Why Jonathan Chait’s analysis of liberal disappointment with Democratic presidents is wrong.
“Negative 34 days into the start of the Obama presidency, the honeymoon was over” writes Jonathan Chait in his new column in New York Magazine. Expressing a critical assessment of how liberals disenfranchise themselves by refusing to accept the Democratic Party presidential franchise, Chait gives a thorough explanation for this curious phenomenon.
Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
Chait’s analysis is based on two major assumptions: one being that liberal voters (and voters in general) were disillusioned by the Obama campaign’s populist rhetoric, and consistently buy into the campaign rhetoric of other Democratic presidents. Of course, one can’t plausibly blame the voters for this, as the Obama campaign won two major awards from the public relations industry press, spent hundreds of millions in marketing cash, and shamelessly utilized Rovian (empty) slogans in the form of progressive rhetoric. In the same vein, Democrats like Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy campaigned on “compassionate” rhetorical progressivism, but vetted the privileged classes through policy (such as the Kennedy tax cuts) and even on a personal level (like the Trilateral Commission).
And in this sense, Chait fails to contextualize this crucial assumption, particularly regarding his analysis of the recent “Clinton nostalgia” and “liberal melancholy” among progressive sectors as evidence for thematic disillusionment. He writes:
…If Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right? Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan.
This brings Chait to his second important assumption, namely that it is illegitimate and unwarranted (in pragmatic terms) for liberals to “question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit.” His trademark ability to be painstakingly expository is questionably absent in his judgement of this epic failure for liberals to worship their leaders the way that Republicans worship Ronald Reagan. “This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live.”
Firstly, the problem itself is misdiagnosed. Most liberals do not question their leader, although they should. One can only wish this were true from a historical perspective. When President Kennedy swiftly moved to begin bombing South Vietnam in 1962, or gave the orders to commence Operation Mongoose (covert military sabotage against Cuba), where was the New York Times editorial scrutiny? Liberal subservience to Democratic power extends broadly into domestic affairs as well. The liberal press was nowhere to be found when President Clinton began pushing NAFTA through Congress—ignoring the public complaints of unions and other progressive groups.
Chait further profiles his point near his closing remarks: “Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match.” Not only is he misidentifying the problem, but it would be morally degenerate to make this argument. It would be outrageously Machiavellian for citizens to assume that power is self-justifying because they identify with their leader on one political level or another—in this case because the leader is a member of the Democratic Party. Commitment to maintaining Democratic power for such a reason is a strikingly irrational attitude. The fact that Republicans happen to have mastered it (which Chait notes in his Reagan parallel) is far from a good reason for liberals to subordinate themselves to Democratic power.
One could argue that the lack of liberal commitment to maintaining Democratic power (voting for Democrats) is detrimental to social change on pragmatic grounds, but to be clear, Chait doesn’t make that case. Instead, he argues that ungrateful liberals are consistently deceived by Democratic politicians who market their campaign on social reforms. Liberals then find the nerve to have some trouble accepting the small fraction of promised reforms that the leaders grant them.
Furthermore, these leaders should be worshipped.