Liberalism and its discontent

Let me say it again:  our political labels are outmoded.  Liberal and conservative were current in the 1800s.  Left and right go back to the French Revolution.  These terms map poorly to the political landscape of the twenty-first century.

People who call themselves progressives – to give just one example – today mock the very idea of progress.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seems to have killed off the urge to philosophize politics.  This is a net gain, but it shouldn’t be confused with the end of history.  Like the Poe story, the Leninist heart has kept beating long after the Soviet carcass rotted away.

In 2010 anno domine, the prevailing approaches to government are fragmentary mutations bereft of proper names:  yet they confront each other awkwardly in the antique costumes of the old categories.

I come now to my subject, which is the present crisis of American liberalism.

Old-fashioned liberals were keen on taking money from the rich to improve the economic and educational opportunities of ordinary people.  They believed in big government but only pragmatically – as a means to their goals rather than an ideal in itself.  Their ideological foundations led by one path to socialism, but by others to Christianity and the sense of fair play essential to every liberal democracy.

Fifty years ago, American liberals identified quite powerfully with the American people, in whose defense, at home and abroad, they invested their considerable energies.  A liberal at JFK’s inauguration could, with justice, imagine himself to stand at the center of the country’s political life.

Almost everything has changed except the label.  Today’s liberals belong to a hodge-podge of pressure groups organized around marginal causes: abortion, for example, or ethnic grievance, or gay marriage, or public employee remuneration.  These are the preoccupations of comfortable, affluent people.  Working-class types and their economic problems, once the reason for liberalism’s existence, make the new liberals uneasy.

Because most Americans feel, at best, a profound indifference toward their causes, liberals have lost their sense of identity with the people, and put their faith in a brilliant elite.  President Obama exemplifies this change.  He clearly believes in the rule of virtuous experts, of whom he considers himself to be one.  Public opinion, on this view, is a mass of fear and prejudice.  The people are to be protected from themselves.

This is zombie Platonism, the still-beating heart of a dead creed.  Liberalism, which began in the advocacy of the forgotten man, has now become an insider’s club.

The 2008 elections must have exceeded the wildest hopes of this mutant group.  Barack Obama swept into office, while liberals conquered all the commanding heights of federal power except for the Supreme Court.

I don’t pretend to know what the voters intended, though no doubt they expected the new president to clean up the mess left behind by his predecessor.  But President Obama took the vote to mean that the little people had at last turned their fate over to the experts.  His latter-day liberal supporters saw it as an irreversible turning-point:  the rise, so long delayed, of the enlightened elites.  The country’s governance was to be permanently transformed.

Every political disaster that has befallen the president since flowed from that fundamental misreading of the American people.

The old liberalism justified itself on moral grounds:  it sought a fair chance for all, not just the privileged.  FDR’s failure to end the Great Depression did not refute this claim, but in fact made it more imperative.

The new liberalism assumes that moral superiority pertains to like-minded persons and groups rather than to an ideal like fairness.  To be liberal is to be virtuous, by definition.  The public at large, assumed to suffer from infantile terrors and fantasies, is morally disenfranchised – a posture not likely to win enduring popular support in a time of crisis.

More damagingly for the president, the claim to expertise moves the discussion from the moral plane to that of objective achievement.  The test of the new liberalism – of the enlightened elites on which latter-day liberals have placed their faith – wasn’t fulfillment of a moral ideal but finding brilliant technical solutions to problems like the stalled economy, high unemployment, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the judgment of public opinion, the president has failed as a problem-solver.  This is fatal to the claim of expertise – it has exploded the Platonist pretensions of present-day liberalism.  But it was predictable.  The exaggerated expectations which followed the election of President Obama could not be met in a checks-and-balances democracy – and any attempt to tamper with our form of government would be ferociously opposed by the American people.

It takes Napoleonic genius and ambition for a politician to disdain the public and succeed:  thankfully, President Obama possesses neither.

The empirical failure of the rule of experts has plunged liberalism into crisis – a condition which, from an ideological perspective, is probably terminal.  New liberals lack a grand ideal around which to rally the public in difficult times.  Elitism feeds the emotional core of their political faith.  The president’s policies may have suffered a steep decline in popularity, an electoral disaster may well threaten in November:  but liberals are on their own.

Some from the liberal chattering class have blamed the president’s failings.  Most, however, have circled back to the illiberal logic of their beliefs, and pointed an accusatory finger at the American people.

“The country is having some kind of weird mass nervous breakdown,” writes Maureen Dowd in the NYT.  The “spoiled-brat American electorate” is “in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue,” writes Eugene Robinson of the WaPo.  “I did not expect to see this much hatred,” writes Michael Tomasky in the Guardian, “this depth of conviction that the president of the United States is an enemy of his own country, this intensity of bigotry directed at American Muslims, this degree of belief in obvious and poisoned lies.”

Disdain of the public has erupted into raging hostility.  The failure of latter-day liberalism is seen to stem from the stupidity, ignorance, and bigotry of the American people.  This message, shouted loud and often from the media rooftops, may offer a feeble salve for the liberals’ ideological miseries, but it is likely to increase the alienation of the voters.

The problem with elitism is that a lot hinges of the performance of the elites.  President Obama is an ordinary politician – and one who assumed a great office with a minimum of experience and seasoning.  He has administered a muddle, like all his predecessors.  His political fate is now tied irrevocably to the expectation – shared by him, I believe, but in any case demanded by the dogma of his most enthusiastic followers – that he perform in a manner demonstrably superior to all who came before.

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