Wednesday, February 29, 2012

800 Words: Chait vs. Perlstein, One on One for Your Nintendo Part 2


I can’t help feeling extremely glad that I waited a day to finish this post. Perhaps the best yet evidence of why Perlstein is more correct than Chait lies in the Michigan primary. Michigan’s laws specify an ‘open’ primary, which means that any voter can vote for any primary. With Santorum polling as high as five points ahead of Romney in the days leading up to the primary, it should have been widely expected that Santorum couldn’t lose.

Why is this? Because even if Romney voters turned out in higher than expected numbers, any number of Democrats could show up to vote for the highly unelectable Santorum. Yet few did.

Imagine, for a moment, that Barack Obama faced a strong primary challenge from a unelectable left-wing former senator like Russ Feingold. Republican operatives would smack their hands together with glee, send out millions of robocalls in every open primary state to urge Republicans to vote for Russ Feingold, and generally do everything they could to unseat Barack Obama with an unelectable rival. Yet the Democrats of Michigan seemed to care so little for whom Barack Obama faces that they went to the polls for Santorum at a trickle.

For at least the third time in seventy years, the Democratic party is faced with the prospect of a doughfaced progressivism overtaking liberalism. The first was in the late 40’s, when Henry Wallace promised an era of accommodation with the Soviet Union and completely equitable social welfare programs - its influence was stopped immediately by other Democrats who chose to live in reality. The second was in the late 60’s, when the Vietnam War and Civil Rights were raging around the country. The left wing of the party succeeded neither in halting the Vietnam War nor in further advancing the cause of Civil Rights. They did, however, help deliver the country to nearly a half-century of a Republican rule that grew more conservative every year. And now that Barack Obama seems finally poised to take the country out of this long conservative phase, many Progressives seem determined to keep us there.

From the time when Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party kneecapped William Howard Taft’s re-election campaign in 1912, the term ‘Progressivism’ was justly equated with electoral suicide. The reason for this is all too simple: Progressives like to air grievances, Liberals like results. Progressives like lost causes, Liberals like compromise. Progressives like dreams, Liberals like facts. America had thirty-five years of mid-century liberalism because there were politicians like the Roosevelts and Hubert Humphrey, intellectuals like Reinhold Neibuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, and John Kenneth Galbraith, civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Tom Kahn, and labor leaders like George Meany and Walter Reuther, all of whom knew that the left had firstly to be saved from itself in order to save America.


I read Chait’s article yesterday, and I couldn’t help agreeing with more than half of it - the two articles points of view, and those of the authors who wrote them, are not mutually exclusive. Chait’s point is that America’s demographics are trending away from Republicans. Just as by the 1970’s, it was demographically clear that a fundamentally Southern, White, Christian, Working Class, and Conservative Majority was emerging, it is becoming equally clear for the 2010’s that a fundamentally Urban, Multi-Cultural, Secular, Educated, Liberal Majority is emerging. And just as 1968’s Democrats responded to their country’s demographic shift with a cataclysmic all-or-nothing refusal to compromise their core beliefs, 2012’s Republicans seem to be responding with a similarly apocalyptic refusal to accommodate the realities of their time. As an irrefutable example, Chait cites the health care debate. Many liberals are still bitter about how much of health care’s comprehensive overhaul was scrapped, but it remains a miracle that comprehensive health reform passed at all. It could only have happened because Republicans refused to compromise, thereby pushing Arlen Spector into the Democratic party and giving Democrats the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster. To Chait, the fight over health care is indicative of larger changes in the American landscape - rather than accommodate the decline of their base, Republicans doubled down on the fact that they can put the tide of progress in stasis.

It’s difficult to disagree with this analysis. But as always, the view depends upon the angle. Just as health care was indicative of the Republicans’ decline, it was also indicative of the Democrats doing everything they can to resist a rise. From the dithering (or hostage-taking) of the process by conservative Democratic senators like Max Baucus and Ben Nelson to the pressure of progressive pundits like Keith Olbermann and Jane Hamsher that there be no health care bill that isn’t precisely the one that does everything, a process that should have taken three months took a year and a half. Considering that there is neither a bona-fide guarantee that Health Care will reduce government costs, nor a guarantee that the Supreme Court will not strike it down altogether, the Health Care bill might still not have been worth the fight at all.

(Whatever else he does, is more incisive about diagnosing ideological movements in America)

In Perlstein’s article, he makes the point that the younger generation is not willing to make the contributions (and more importantly, the compromises) necessary to make a better country. Unfortunately, he’s exactly right. I disagree with a different point in his article - that somehow by Obama becoming a more boldly ideological president, Conservatives will accuse him less of being ideological, or that the accusations will matter less. This point has become an article of faith on the left, and is no more likely to be true than the Conservative idea that tax cuts for the rich will increase government revenues. But Perlstein’s main point is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Current Democratic voters seem to be nearly as in thrall to the ‘all or nothing’ approach as Republicans.

But the Republicans, as always, are lucky, lucky bastards. Barack Obama inherited the worst recession in three-quarters of a century. And as of yesterday. the Republicans are fielding a candidate in whose sole recommendable quality is his electability. Right-wing Republicans did everything they could to stop him, they shipped themselves to Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Hermann Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Yet none of these candidates could even compete in a primary that required only a barely competent Conservative to wrest the nomination from Mitt Romney.

Romney is a cipher, and like Bill Clinton, would govern according to electability rather than conviction. If his chances for re-election increase by appealinig to moderates, he will govern moderately. If his chances for re-election increase by appealing to a right-wing base, he will govern as yet another right-winger. The right-wing base came out in droves for Nixon (arguably a social liberal), Reagan (who rebranded himself a moderate for his second term), and George W. Bush (who ran as a moderate in his first election). Why would they not come out for Romney?

The very educatedness of white people in my generation provides a bubble that shields them from the likelihood of the worst problems coming to fruition. They were raised on high expectations for what life will give them, and then see the fact that the first truly liberal government of their lifetime can’t provide them with stable employment or end wars, and think to themselves: ‘Why try to improve things? They can’t get any worse.’ Yes. They. Can. 8% unemployment is much better than 20%. A war that cost 5,000 lives is much better than a war that costs 500,000. A looming 15 trillion dollar deficit is much better than a national credit default. Each of these happened before in American history, and sooner than we think, they can happen again.

But, as Perlstein notes, the true reason to be worried comes from the Hispanic community - neither as educated nor as affluent, they see the Democratic party as the status quo. While the Republicans urge ever greater oppression of immigrants, the Democrats only seek that there be no more oppression than there already is. Even under the Obama administration, 397,000 immigrants were deported last year - the largest annual total in history. They refuse to identify as Democrats not because they think things can’t get worse, but because even at their best, it’s still not good enough. We, the whites, have failed them. And they are justly deserting us.

The demographics are on liberalism’s side. But no movement does a better job of self-sabotage than liberals. As Jonathan Chait pointed out many times, conservatives by their very definition value collective unity over individual expression, liberals value the obverse. Liberals, as always, have to be saved from themselves. The Obama movement was supposed to be the historical moment when liberals from all walks of life reunited to save America. But save the Obama administration itself, nobody in the Obama coalition was willing to save liberals from themselves. We are still awaiting the day when a movement arises that gives liberals the kick in the collective ass we so desperately need to get our house in order. Only then will the new generation come together to see a better world than what we currently have.


  1. I can't help but think you misread Romney's victory in Michigan. To us East-Coast liberals, Santorum seems like a totally unelectable hack, and Romney seems like a looming threat. That's the premise for Operation Hilarity and its ilk, right? Even though Santorum is freakishly radical, you'd rather have someone try to shoot you from a mile away than try to stab you while standing right next to you.

    The problem is, over the course of the primary, Santorum has become a frighteningly accepted magnet for the conservative base, and Romney has become less and less electable, simply on the basis of his constant weakness. So now liberals are choosing between a guy shooting a gun from 100 yards away, and a guy with a knife at about half that distance. The imperative to vote for the former over the latter is much less urgent now.

    Because if Democrats supported Santorum in the Primary, and he somehow ended up winning the general election -- this exact thing happened with some Republicans who supported Obama against Hillary -- then we would desperately wish for a Romney, or even a Gingrich, who was at least willing to play the political game.

  2. I think there is a little truth to this argument, but only a little. Santorum is acceptable to many conservatives, but certainly not the entire base - nor would he be unless he repudiated his remark that mainstream Protestants aren't real Christians. But the difference between Obama and Santorum is that Obama on his most progressive day is still a mainstream liberal, whereas Santorum is right wing even for most conservatives. Even if conservatives will never realize that Obama is not a leftist firebrand, moderates always have and will continue to. They will also realize that Santorum will never be that. Liberals cannot win any election alone. Given the choice between Romney and Obama, they will vote Romney and if there is no conservative option, conservatives will vote Romney too. Given the choice between Santorum and Obama, moderates will vote for Obama overwhelmingly.