Jonathan Chait on Unreasonable Self-Loathing Liberals

Jonathan Chait's essay, When did liberals become so unreasonable?, is a brilliant piece of work. He argues that if liberals were to judge Obama by any intelligent standard--comparing him with the Republican alternatives, or with previous Democratic presidents--they would surely be impressed. Healthcare reform, financial regulation, the stimulus: by progressive lights, these are notable, even historic, achievements. But American liberals seem congenitally unable to apply such a standard.

Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president--indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious--but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president--either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

Chait traces the history of this syndrome at some length. The article is a compelling read, and I think on most points correct--though I have a couple of questions and quibbles.

Overall I think Chait lets his fellow liberals off too lightly. This recurring cycle of delirium and dejection suggests more than a lack of realism about the grind of actually existing politics. The mindset is not just romantic or naive or nobly ambitious and self-critical. It's infantile.

I also think the piece wobbles when Chait compares liberals and conservatives.

Conservatives, compared with liberals, have higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority and prefer order over chaos and continuity over change. They are more likely than liberals to agree with statements like "It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself."

There's something in this of course, but the Tea Party hardly fits the template. Rather than sliding by this awkward fact, Chait bravely makes a point of denying it: he emphasizes the contrast in style between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, as though this confirms the distinction. I don't see it. OWS is bigger on drumming and defecation in public places, but the two are alike in the relevant respect: wishing to stay leaderless and relatively unorganized. Loyalty to the Republican party and deference to authority in general are not salient Tea Party traits.

Another big difference between the two, Chait says, is that liberals want to improve not just policy but politics.

Progressivism developed a century ago out of a desire to cleanse politics of bosses and transactionalism. Republicans are focused only on dismantling government, and the great movements to reform politics have all come from the left.

Doesn't "dismantling government" qualify as wanting to "reform politics"? The Tea Party's contempt for the ordinary processes of Washington politics is fully equal, I'd say, to that of its progressive counterparts.

I also got a bit muddled when Chait turned his fire on "third-party activists" like Tom Friedman and Howard Schultz, whom Chait regards as moderate liberals. "They have a president who supports virtually everything they want," he says, and yet here they are agitating for a new party. Absurd!

Hang on. If Obama wants everything Tom Friedman and Howard Schultz want, don't progressives have grounds for complaint after all? Is it possible to be a good progressive president (judged by an appropriate standard) and a good moderate liberal president (judged the same way)? Maybe it is, if moderate liberalism is the most that progressives should ever hope to achieve. Is that what Chait believes? Defeatism of that sort is exactly what progressives aim to challenge.

That will do for now. There's a lot to think about in this piece, and I'll probably come back to it. Meanwhile, I urge you to read it.

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