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The Two Souls of Liberalism

The New York Times today published two pieces in its Sunday Review, each of which directly contradicted the other foundationally and prescriptively. The first piece is by Prof. Drew Westen and asks “What Happened to Obama?” (but don’t decide it’s frightfully boring just yet). The second piece is by one of the NYT’s newbie columnists, Frank Bruni: “True Believers, All of Us.”

The Westen is definitely part of that raft of liberal whining that breaks out whenever Obama does something particularly depraved, that the White House seems to have more and more trouble stifling, though there’s no reason to think that they won’t eventually. Admittedly one feels slightly, darkly sympathetic to Obama Mission Control, which can’t be held entirely responsible for the gullibility of America’s liberals. It’s like a person who buys a car from a well-known notorious crook, and then gets furious angry when it turns out to be a lemon. Well, what did he expect?

That said, in the midst of a nice fantasy about what a “good” president might do–supported by a kind of Fisher-Price version of T and FD Roosevelt–Westen actually manages to put his finger on something interesting. To whit: Obama is terrible at explaining things, or more precisely, terrible at putting events together in a kind of coherent narrative that allows people to evaluate, anticipate, and judge his actions. Here’s how Westen says it:

[W]hen faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

Now I don’t have any problem with that diagnosis, as far as it goes. Indeed, its truth is even unconsciously testified by Obama Mission Control’s own approved self-criticism: that Obama has done great and wonderful things, but has–perhaps through an excess of modesty, or manly restraint–done a poor job telling the hapless public, so that they don’t realize just how good they have it. Or something. Of course it’s absurd, and even a little insulting, in the way that it’s framed by the administration and its flunkies; but it does indicate a kind of superficial recognition of the real problem.

In any argument, the key ground to control is not so much the answer, but the question; the side that imposes its question has already almost won. This is the point that was sort of made by George Lakoff is his writings about “framing,” although the Democrats were never able to go very far with it for a basic existential reason: if you’re a committed Democrat, you’ve already implicitly agreed to so much conventional nonsense (the impossibility of more than two parties, the necessity of working through the system, etc) that you’re scarcely capable of thinking “outside the box” in general. Thus the Lakoffian argument degenerated–even in the work of Lakoff himself–into more or less comic cycles of “branding” and “rebranding.”

This same existential problem is precisely Obama’s problem: he can’t articulate a basically conflictual narrative because he can’t see that there are basic conflicts to narrate. Of course he understands that there are conflicts–he had to win an election, after all–but not basic conflicts, conflicts inherent to the nature of our society. In that sense Obama’s “feel” for history is deficient even compared to his predecessor, whose views were cartoonish, but had at least a cartoon’s identification of the protagonists. When Obama evokes history–which he does often enough–he means simply the collection of stuff that’s happened; and when he suggests that a moment is “historical,” he means only that the stuff that’s happening is the stuff that we will eventually think of as the stuff that happened.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he meant of course that those who fought for a just cause, although they might find themselves in an isolated or oppressed condition, were nonetheless doing the great and necessary work of helping history get to where it “wanted” to go. Obama interprets the same words in a radically different way: since the “arc of history” bends towards justice, whatever is happening is just. Thus the task of a “historic” leader is fundamentally… to go with the flow. Or as David Bromwich elegantly put it: “[Obama’s] job as he now defines it is to stand at the convergence of forces and help things to go the way they are going.”

This brings us to Frank Bruni’s column, with which we’ll spend less time because it’s less interesting. It starts off as a critique of Rick Perry’s ghastly public prayer hootenanny, which should have been easy enough because this allegedly “Christian” event contradicts the direct Gospel teachings of Christ. (Matthew 6:5-6 sez: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”) But Bruni, a good liberal, naturally makes a complete hash of the argument, turning it into an absurd broadside against anyone who believes anything whatsoever:

We all have our religions, all of which exert a special pull — and draw special fervor — when apprehension runs high and confusion deep, as they do now. And if yours isn’t a balanced-budget amendment and a government as lean as Christian Bale in one of his extreme-acting roles, it might well be a big fat binge of Keynesian stimulus spending. Liberals think magically, too, becoming so attached to a certain approach that they wind up advocating it less as option than as panacea.

As further examples of “magical thinking,” Bruni adduces: Marxism; Prohibition; unionization; Head Start; liking the car you just bought; management fads; the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”; diet fads; the box office pull of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts; and sabermetrics. Bruni is surely impressed with the “universality” of his point; I’m more impressed that someone felt comfortable writing publicly about such an badly thought-through idea.

An attack on “pragmatism” might be an amusing task for a subsequent post. But for now, let’s satisfy ourselves with the following observation: our average nice liberal, having read both the Westen and the Bruni, would surely agree with both, wouldn’t he? He would think both that Obama needs to articulate a more effective narrative, and that we should avoid the desire to put everything into a single framework–ie, narrative. Thus liberalism has two souls: the first, faintly social-democratic, that justifies its existence as a distinct political machine with a particular class base (at least in theory); the second, postmodern and technocratic, that marks it as a competent or at least house-broken manager of neoliberal capitalism. The problem of liberalism today is that neither of its “two souls” can harmoniously exist with the other–or even, if you want the real truth, with itself.

As for us on the left, all we should seek from liberalism today is a rich source of fun, and a keen sense of our own superiority.

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