"The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility - a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.
``Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
``Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
"Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.
``But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.
``Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.
``Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire."
Arthur Schlesinger: The Vital Center
Anyone who wants liberalism to succeed in a world where authoritarianism lurks at every corner must read Arthur Schlesinger’s 1949 book: The Vital Center. It was the book that laid the groundwork for 20 years of liberal dominance and gave liberals all the rebuttals they needed to conservative smear tactics. But just as important was its vociferous denunciation of Democrats too uncompromising to be bothered with governing. When a leader makes the compromises necessary to implement his agenda, there are inevitably howls of betrayal from people who would rather see no deviation from the desired results than give up on their dreams. One of the most important keys to effectively govern is to prevent those who would stop compromise from gaining leverage over policy. Compromise is life, and without it there is only fanaticism and death.
It is one of the weird ironies of history that FDR is now used as a blunt instrument to clobber Obama for his inadequacies. Seventy-five years ago, the blunt instrument was Abraham Lincoln, and progressives used Lincoln tirelessly to whip FDR. Seventy-five years before that, progressives (ironically then called ‘Radical Republicans’) used any instrument they could find to beat Abraham Lincoln for being too moderate. Anybody who gives themselves too quickly to a cause doesn’t really believe in it.
Four years ago, I did not like Barack Obama. Don’t get me wrong - I voted for him in the primary. John Edwards managed to repaint himself as a social populist when only four years before he was a politically moderate corporate shill. Republicans would have tarred and feathered Hilary Clinton with all the brushes we’d not seen since the last Clinton administration. If you think the Obama White House had it bad, just imagine another Clinton facing Mitch McConnell...
But there was something about the mass passion Obama inspired that was, and is, irrational. Irrational well past the point of passion and into the realm of dangerous. At least Bill Clinton gave the appearance of appealing to people’s reason. For all his sugar-coated empathy, it took two minutes of watching Clinton to see that this was a man with no compunctions about miring himself in the mud to get what he wants. And whereas Bill Clinton looked dirty at his first stump speech, Obama seemed untouched by muck. Obama offered an utterly false promise of a world without partisanship and ideology. He spoke to people’s longing for a world where we could make a clean break with the past and push the reset button on all the developments of America’s past fifty years. Just as Bush’s two elections were a monument to the naivete of a right-wing too stupid to realize how they sabotage their own interests. The entire Obama movement was a towering monument to the arrogance and naivete of generation of American progressives too spoiled to stop the right from destroying the country.
But contrary to popular opinion, liberal democracies rarely get the leaders they deserve - they get the leaders they elect. The Obama movement deserved Howard Dean, the mirror image of their perfect politician: A volatile demagogue who would keep liberalism in the minority for yet another generation. Instead, they got President Obama, the most effective leader America has had in more than half-a-century; and the last best hope for our generation to avoid the cataclysms that inevitably come to be when a world power is in decline. Barack Obama saves us from economic depression. He gives us near-universal health care. He captures Osama bin-Laden. He reverses a century-long policy of America supporting Arab dictatorships. He reduces the stockpile of nuclear weapons. He raises fuel-efficiency standards. He raises the standard of pay for women. He lifts the ban on stem-cell research. He resurrects the American auto industry. He raises funding to prevent violence against women. He protects borrowers in student loans. He holds defense contractors accountable. He bans torture in interrogations. He protects the poor from corrupt credit card companies. He protects the poor from corrupt health insurance companies. He expands hate-crime legislation to include sexual orientation. In eight years, Bill Clinton, that dirty fighter, did not do this much to advance liberal causes. In everything he’s managed to do, Obama has proven the far dirtier, and deadlier, fighter than Clinton. All that Obama has achieved was done against the backdrop of two government branches that will do everything they can to see him fail at the expense of the country’s well-being. The Republicans may yet succeed in rolling back every one of Obama’s landmark achievements. Time and again, Obama has proved the one pillar that prevented this country from disasters far greater than those of which progressives have warned.
And yet Obama is still not good enough for them.
Barack Obama’s rise was made possible by a movement of people who felt too entitled to engage problems meaningfully. But against their expectations (and mine), Obama engages problems more meaningfully than any President since the postwar era. He, in the debt ceiling negotiations more than ever before, demonstrated the capacity to be another Roosevelt or Lincoln - a truly transformative leader who defines an era. He may yet be the reason that America does not fall into a collapse the likes of which we cannot yet imagine. But if he falls, it will in part be made possible by the rage of entitled people who are too angry that they didn’t get everything they wanted to effectively mobilize for him. We could be fifteen months away from a Rick Perry Presidency. We would have a President who just two years ago said that Texas might secede from the union. Just last week, Perry subtly incited the American people to violence against Fed Chair Ben Bernancke, only for the crime of saving America from economic depression (soon to be twice). If the commitment from liberals to keep Obama President is lacking, Rick Perry could very well be our President. Contrary to the opinion of many self-proclaimed liberals, there is still a much better option than Rick Perry. The Obama movement deserved a demagogue. They got a leader.