The last two years have been nothing if not extraordinary for students of politics and history. A historic and ground-breaking President, elected through a groundswell of hope in democracy, civil rights for all, and an end to Republican rule:
• remains opposed to marriage equality
• endorses signing statements (having opposed them as a candidate)
• opposes habeas rights for those suspected of terrorism
• has rounded up, imprisoned, and deported record numbers of people believed to be illegal immigrants where they may languish for years without access to the judicial system
• apparently no longer believes individuals are legally innocent until proven guilty by a court of law or that his comments, as Chief Executive, could affect the ability of individuals to receive a fair trial.
How did this happen? How did Americans, so enamored of the principles this nation was founded on, rally to elect an historic President, then proceed to shrug their shoulders as the work of democracy languishes?
The first echoes of this movement occurred during the Health Care debate, when Obama was presumably trying to advance a public option. As you know, he later expressed his opposition to it. Even later, it was revealed that he had secretly negotiated it away.
That was when defenders of the public option began to take heat from defenders of the administration for being naive with regard to politics, economics, health care, or policy in general. Angry upon learning what happened to the public option behind closed doors, they were scolded for being impractical, unrealistic, and “ideological.”
What was happening is that ideals (such as the ones the campaign ran on) were becoming a hindrance, and had to be dealt with somehow. So they became ideology, and defenders of this point of view became “pragmatists.”
The summer of the health care debate was also the summer of the Tea Party. This was a pivotal one: far more, I think, for the Democratic Party than for the nation.
You remember the Tea Party, don’t you? Yes, they’re the folks who called Obama a socialist. This comes easy, of course, after years of being told by right-wing radio and television that “liberal” is a dirty word.
Now the Tea Party has fallen on hard times, but they’re not gone. They live on, though not in the way you’d think.
Where did the Tea Party go, along with its signs and slogans? To find out, just ask yourself: where and when is “liberal” still a dirty word?
Where do you go to meet, greet, and befriend the kind of good, sensible Americans who just know the country’s biggest threat lies in the progressive viewpoint and its adherents? You know those bleeding heart liberals, the ones always championing causes like social justice, the undocumented, unions, and the due process rights of even the most heinous defendants?
Probably haven’t bathed in years.
Hop on Twitter and look up hashtags like “firebagger” and “emoprog.” Now look at the people using them.
Ask yourself: when did people start looking for newer and better ways to say “dirty fucking hippie?” What kind of person prefers to call their opponents names (like “socialist”) rather than say how and why they disagree?
And why are they so angry?
Imagine being progressive during the Reagan and Bush years. Imagine championing the cause of unions like PATCO, for example, or questioning the invasion of Grenada. Imagine being called every name in the book because you weren’t waving the flag or making racial slurs at recipients of public assistance.
What happens to people subject to relentless criticism? They often feel powerless (because they often are). What do they do then? Well, they can identify with the strongest power around: that of the critic. They can find someone else to criticize.
This is what’s happening inside today’s Democratic Party. The party that championed Social Security and the rights of working families is, in some pockets, fighting unions and excoriating defenders of social spending. Not surprisingly, they’re not too fond of those who criticize the intervention in Libya, either.
Lawrence’s message is interesting in this regard. Social spending cuts are inevitable, he claims (just like conservatives of both parties) and anyone who disagrees is simply not as astute as he is about history or how to win elections. Social spending has been cut before, and this makes such action not only morally defensible, but fiscally and civically laudable.
Democrats Against Liberals.
It’s not Republicans punching Democrats anymore; now it’s conservative Democrats punching liberals and progressives for doing anything they feel threatens the President’s re-election.
To hear conservative Democrats tell the story, a block of people shifted to the far, far left immediately following the election of a centrist President who always campaigned as a centrist. (PS: If you disagree with that, then you’re one of them.)
Conservative Democrats say they and their candidate never moved, they’ve always occupied the sensible center. Everyone knows you have to govern from the center, right?
Oh come on, you don’t stand for a “principle” and try to lead a nation! That’s not how you win elections! That’s ideology!
Now I think Unions, public employees, the poor, and peace have always had their defenders, and that they used to reliably be called Democrats. That started changing with Reagan, who very effectively wooed former Democrats to his side with promises of power, patriotism, and privilege. It accelerated, of course, under both Bushes, continued to some degree under Clinton, and seems on its way again with Obama.
“Don’t be a naive dirty hippie. Be a clean, sensible (ie prosperous and respectable) conservative!”
Yes, the center has shifted in American politics. But not according to the conservative narrative, the political equivalent of the geocentric universe.
I think those Democrats once in the Tea Party’s line of fire got sick and tired of being called socialists, dropped their guns, moved to the right, picked up new ones, then began hunting “emoprogs,” “firebaggers,” and anyone else who has the audacity to criticize their leader.
Now ask yourself: in what system of government do people applaud one another for “taking down” a member of the opposition, rather than convincing them with reasons and arguments?
In what form of government do parties and politicians become the most cherished and defended objects, rather than principles (I don’t know, like maybe the ones a nation was founded upon)? Where and when is criticism of a party or leader experienced as so toxic that it must be silenced, rather than argued against?
In what system of government are the “pragmatics” of winning elections opposed to “ideals?” Where are you most likely to find “pragmatic, sensible, adult” people (projectively, I think) accusing their opponents of being childish ideologues?
If we don’t already know the answers to these questions, we most certainly know who to ask.