Jonathan Chait is the greatest writer about American politics of my generation. Period. Case Closed. End of story. You can find indisputable proof of this unassailable fact here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here (written in 2002, when Bush looked like he would be one of the most popular presidents in history), and especially here. If you disagree with him, there is a more than 98% chance that it’s you who got it wrong, not him. He is an unassailable liberal, and like any great advocate of liberalism, free of dogmatic cant, free from apoplectic derangement, and possessing a mind unclouded by the usual high-horse resentment you get from the vast majority of the younger “liberal” punditocracy. It also helps that he’s genuinely hilarious.
It’s almost a foolhardy thing to take on Ta-Nehisi Coates when it comes to analysis of racism. Coates is one of the greatest writers in America in any field, and it hardly needs repeating that no American journalist of our time writes as powerfully when it comes to issues of race, because it’s a universally acknowledged truth. But Coates’s analytical skill is not on Chait’s level, hardly anybody’s is, and between them has begun yet another moment which I fear will tear the always fragile left/center-left political alliance asunder before it can have enough meaningful impact to truly change American life.
True to form, when the slightest fissures opened last week between the Left and the left-center, the left-of-center shrugged its collective shoulders, while the Left worked itself up into a state of hateful outrage. In the past few weeks, the Left has descended on Chait like a pack of ravenous wolves - all but writing him out as a perahia from progressive thought - painting this 42-year-old as the journalistic equivalent of an old and out of touch white privilege neo-liberal of the Clinton/Bloomberg variety who has, at best, a tin ear for modern America, and at worst is a willfully naive scion of the old guard. Jonathan Chait’s writing is the very embodiment of mainstream liberalism in the Obama era, and if his is not a sign of greater American progressivism, then neither is the entire movement of which he’s the world’s greatest spokesperson. One might as well say that Paul Ryan would be no more conservative a president than Barack Obama. A person of the Left might well believe that, but I’d like to see what they’d think after eight years of Paul Ryan. The last time the left and center-left had this argument, we ended up with the Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore.
Their ‘public intellectual death match’ was focused on one particular assertion - the idea that there is a ‘culture of poverty’ within the black community. It should go without saying that I am no great public intellectual, but to me the answer is so obvious as to be a non-starter. Of course there is a culture of poverty in America, and none of us should think for a second that it is unique to America’s black community. 46.7 million Americans are on food stamps. 65% of those on welfare are on welfare for more than a year, 45% for over two years, 20% for over five years. Poverty is perhaps the world’s most difficult position, and it is forgivable that so many give up on lifting themselves out of it when the road out of poverty is so horribly fraught. But so long as people are not looking for work every day, it remains a culture, and the government has a responsibility to encourage people to do what they can to rise up out of it. This is President Obama’s point of view with regard to poverty, and President Clinton’s before him, and it was President Johnson’s before them. It is out to lunch to believe that the cultural/structural/historical forces which shaped American poverty did not encourage the well meaning impoverished to give up on self-improvement and encourage others to do the same. No black man, none, is any more lacking in the virtues of virtues of family, hard work, and citizenship than those hailing from any other ‘race’ or gender. They are, however, due to forces beyond their control, tested for fealty to such concepts as perhaps no other American demographic is. The rest of us would come up just as statistically short were we subject to their trials.
But during this exchange, Coates made a particular assertion that was brazenly, almost unforgivably wrong, when he declared that there is little fundamental difference between Barack Obama’s views on poverty and Paul Ryan’s. Paul Ryan believes that the culture of poverty is to exploit the government for handouts, Barack Obama believes that the culture of poverty is to simply ‘give up.’ The latter is sympathetic to poverty’s plight, the former presumes malicious intent.
As Chait pointed out, this is simply a debate from the 1990’s, rehashed as though it was never fought. People may still be bitter about Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which made it significantly harder for recipients to stay on it. But they tend to forget that Clinton incentivized going off welfare by raising the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Would that minimum wage were living wage, but Clinton’s reforms were ultimately worth the tradeoff, and lead in no small part to the most prosperous across-the-board American economy since the Nixon Administration by every meaningful statistic. Had George W. Bush (or Al Gore) continued Clinton’s policies, the economic boom may never have ended, and the prosperity for all involved would have done far more to promote American welfare than any social welfare program.
There is a culture of poverty, and nothing which Ta-Nehisi Coates argues can change this. It is in no sense unique to America’s black population, but unfortunately it affects them disproportionately. To deny that is to traffick in precisely the same politics of resentment which deposited liberalism in the political equivalent of 'bumblefuck' and allowed Conservative Republicans a clear shot to the dominance of all three branches of government for the better part of fifty years.
And this is the position where Coates went from being simply wrong to assertions that are truly unrecognizable from the Ta-Nehisi Coates of five years ago. Coates denied Chait’s assertion that America’s gradual progress on race is a sign that the African-American experience can ever be told as a (far too gradual) story of triumph and empowerment, in which African-Americans are gradually attain the opportunities denied their forerunners for so long. When Coates made this denial, a coterie of leftist bloggers crowed with victory as though Emperor Nero just converted to Christianity.
It was truly sad to see Coates descend into such misrepresentation (and frankly, into such political extremism). This point of view he suddenly espoused runs counter to everything he’s written in his extraordinary career. In the face of Chait’s invariably cool logic, Coates dissolved into the same tropes that caused a half-century of wheel-spinning. Many further left writers than Coates used this moment to hold Chait up as another manichean example of white privilege that endows blacks their rights so slowly because they view the rights of African-Americans not as a responsibility, but as a gift. If Coates really believes what he’s said in recent weeks, and if he’s right that there is no truly meaningful difference between the racial attitudes of Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, then all the progress which this country’s made is for naught. We might as well have a President Paul Ryan with all the accompanying gutting of social programs, and all the rampant banking infractions gone amok.
And if this weren’t enough, Chait released a long-form magazine piece which was full of all the good sense he’s ever espoused, but the piece was on the origins of why race relations are politicized as they’ve ever been in living memory. Any explanation of this phenomenon is bound to make people angry. But by responding as many did, all the Left has done is to prove Chait's explanation exactly right.
The ‘offending’ passage was when Chait referred to Democrats’ idea that Obama-hatred is race-based is, in his word, insane. And Chait is absolutely right. Even though there is enormous, terrifying racism against President Obama, to refer to the root of Obama-hatred as race-based is utterly blind. Unfortunately, Chait forgot to make the second part of his argument.
As he’s argued so many times before, conservative Obama hatred is still more insidious than racism. It’s idea-based, and based on the worst idea to come out of America since Manifest Destiny. That idea is libertarianism - an atom bomb of intellectual simple-mindedness, consisting in equal parts of Marxism-on-the-side-of-the-bourgeois, which looks on the idea of keeping the underclass permanently underclassed with extravagant approval; and coupled with a Nietzschean Will to Power that justifies the most immoral acts in the name of self-glorification - it is a strength-worshipping, class-based utopianism, in which the entitled are always deserving and justified; and just the kind of insane ideological delusion used by history so many times to presage every stripe of authoritarian state.
To call the foundation of Republican opposition to Obama race-based is the kind of counterproductive lunacy in which only Republicans should traffick. It boxes any chance for rational discourse with Republicans into a corner from which they can only retreat into still more extreme views. It demeans the threat of Republicans' larger project, and it demeans the thousands of actual entreaties to racism which modern Republicans use.