Category Archives: Liberalism

Monday’s Mtg Part 2: What Does USA Stand For?

[Authored by Ali, this is our topic for Monday:]

“The US moral divide and How the US defines itself.”

I came up with this idea a few weeks ago when I listened to a TED talk (first link) about how to talk across the political lines by using terms and ideals that the other side can readily accept. This got thinking about how most of our political discussions today are useless because we don’t share a basic moral agreement about what the government and the nation as a whole morally stand for.

This, of course, a philosophical question but it has very real ramifications on the economy, the role of government, foreign policy, healthcare, and cultural themes.

Are we group of people who should aspire to be pure of heart and mind (maybe genes) and try to shut all other “pollutants”? Are we guardians of something? And what is that thing? The weak? Our way of life? Civilization? The survival of the species? Should our society try and imitate nature, and if so then is Nature competition or harmony?
Do we have a moral obligation toward others, and does those “others” include all humans, all living beings, all animals, the entire planet, just “our own people”?
Do we have a role in this world? Or are we just one of many nations and should mind our own business and people, or are we inherently wrong (We’re built upon invasion and slavery) and shouldn’t try to infect any other nation until we fix the problems that we have a home?

The subject might seem a little too overreaching, and I agree, but we should try and keep it about morality and its role in our personal and political choices.

https://www.ted.com/…/robb_willer_how_to_have_better_politi… (How to talk across the Moral divide_

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (What is scientifically speaking is the moral divide)

https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/how-science-explains-…/ (The moral divide and how it can affect the political conversation and discourse)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (our moral standing in the world and how it’s changing)

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Monday’s Mtg: Have Elites Failed Us?

Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.

Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):

“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “

Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.

But, how specific is it, and how accurate?  Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.

Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.

I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.

We have plenty to talk about on Monday.  Here are some discussion ideas and readings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
    1. Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
    2. Racial and ethnic elites?
    3. Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
  2. Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
  3. Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
  4. Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
  5. Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

 

NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?

Monday’s Mtg: How Far Left Will the Democratic Party Move?

Well, the Democrats seem united, and with a clear strategy, too. As you know, it’s pretty typical for a party’s presidential nominee to tack to the center after the convention. But, it seems the Dems really are going to try to take advantage of the GOP nominating a nut job for president by moving both leftward and rightward at the same time.

As everybody knows, Bernie Sanders’ surprising success resulted in a party platform that is farther to the left than it has been in living memory. As we’ll discuss on Monday, it’s generational changeover that are driving this bus. Millennials are very liberal (or just incoherent?), on both social and economic issues. The Republican Party has no idea how to appeal to young people and the Dems are trying to cement their loyalty for a generation.

But, the Dem convention made it crystal clear (in that showy and repetitive way party conventions do) that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party wants to expand the Obama coalition, not just replicate it. They are making a play to peel off college-educated White moderate voters from the GOP, a group that’s been loyal to the latter since roughly the Reagan era. If they can pull it off over a few back-to-back elections, the Democrats will have pulled off a rare, historic political realignment that could last decades.

Except…how can the Democrats go in both directions at once? Even if they do so successfully this electoral cycle, can it last? Can the Dems satisfy the growing progressive sentiments of Democratic voters and pick off the low hanging fruit of an increasingly extremist GOP without flying apart from the internal contradictions?

I suggest we grope for tentative answers to these questions the same basic way we did last week when we discussed the future of the Republican Party. In brief opening remarks, I will try to lay out how the basic building blocks of the Democratic Party are changing: Its leadership, institutions, and voting blocs. The “emerging Democratic majority” that was confidently predicted in a well-known 1999 book hasn’t actually emerged in a stable form. But, it might, helped along in the near-term by Trump and in the longer-term by other factors that created Trump (last week’s discussion) and within the Democratic Party (this week’s).

Obviously, the future is too contingent to predict with much confidence. But, I think we can have another great discussion like the one we had picking over the GOP’s bleached bones last week.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does “progressive” mean right now? Policies: Econ + social issues? Rhetoric? Abstract beliefs like size/reach of govt? Inclusiveness? Exclusiveness?
    –> Is Left/Right too simple a way to describe our politics, or at least many voters?
  2. How liberal are Dem right now, in terms of their (1) elected officials and (2) voters? Has the Party really been moving rapidly leftwards recently?
  3. If so (or if not), why? Leaders, institutions, voters, events?
  4. Is it permanent?
    –>  Will the forces moving Dems leftwards last? Will new trends emerge?
    –>   What about countervailing forces, including the GOP response?
    –>  If Dem coalition gets bigger, must it get more centrist?
  5. Ought: What do you think the Democrats should do (morally + strategically)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Movement leftwards so far –

  • On economics, both Obama and Dem electorate have moved left.
  • Conservative POV: Really, really left on everything.
  • Wrong. As this graph shows, Dem elected officials even in the House have moved only a little left since 1980. It is House Republicans that moved far to the right.

The future Democratic Party will be…

Next Week (Aug 8):  Is Obamacare working?  What comes next?

Monday’s Mtg: Trump & Sanders – What Does Populism Mean Now?

Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.

Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism

…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.

The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently.  (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.

Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions.  July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.

On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
  2. What is the difference between populism and…
    1. Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
    2. Pandering?
    3. Scapegoating?
  3. Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
    1. Underlying world views?
    2. Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy  (“them”)?
    3. Their solutions?
  4. Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
  5. Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
    1. Rhetoric
    2. Policies?
  6. How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  Lots, so pick and choose.

ABCs of American Populism:

International Comparisons:

Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:

Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:

Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?

Monday’s Mtg: Fear-Mongering As a Political Strategy.

No matter what else happens in this train wreck of an election, experts will spend years trying to understand what happened and why. There are a lot of causes and culprits. But, the causes and consequences of political fear-mongering might be subject number one. How big a role has Donald Trump’s appeals to plain old fear of foreign and domestic enemies (immigrants, foreigners, traitorous U.S. elites, etc.) played in his rise, and why have his incitements worked so well?

The answers, in my view, are complex and go well beyond Trump to some core issues warping our politics. Yes, Trump fear-mongers a lot, it’s ugly, and it’s working. But, two things. First, fear is not the only basis of the man’s appeal. Polls reveal that his supporters are not just mindlessly seeking a strongman to crush our enemies, although support for Trump does correlate strongly with authoritarian personality traits. Trumpistas are more pessimistic in general about their own future and the country’s future than any other group of voters. They express zero trust in our political or corporate elites. Many seem to harbor deep resentments of recent cultural/demographic changes in our country and feel that “political correctness” has delegitimized their fears. None of these beliefs are likely to disappear when Trump does. The Donald is the punishment, not the problem.

Second, it’s not just Trump! His fearmongering has fallen on fertile ground because the Republican Party’s leaders at all levels has spent years priming its own voters to be paranoid. Especially lately, from ISIS to Ebola to China to our disloyalmuslimkenyantraitor president, the GOP – and the conservative news media – has become The Party of Fear. Democrats are starting to use some scare-mongering tactics of their own, IMO, arguably including some of the stuff that Bernie Sanders says. (Our democracy is “dead?” Really?)

My point is that a high level of fear and fear-mongering is a loaded gun in politics. Eventually, somebody will pick it up and, deviously or innocently, start blasting away at the fabric of our democracy. Trump is just really good at it.

As for us, I think a discussion of fear-mongering has to ask the right questions to be useful. I propose we start on Monday night by asking the first couple of discussion questions, below: What does and does not constitute political fear-mongering, and under what conditions is it effective? Then, I’m sure we’ll have ample time to debate how one of our political parties – and maybe, eventually, the other – came to use fear-mongering as a central pillar of its existence.

I will be brief in my little opening remarks, summarizing the 3-4 main theories of why appeals to voter anxieties (which are used in every election, obviously) are so much more prominent/prevalent in today’s political environment. I definitely will give a few jaw-dropping, sky-is-falling quotes from the Republican presidential candidates this year. They are amazing to behold; they’re just not the whole story or the only thing to worry about.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. WHAT: What is fear-mongering? Is it about (a) fake/exaggerated threats, (b) scapegoated culprits, or (c) phony solutions?
  2. WHAT NOT: How does fear-mongering differ from what politicians should do: Raise awareness of our problems, criticize the other side’s failures, and proposing solutions?
  3. WHO/WHEN: When does fear-mongering work and on whom?
    1. When: Foreign threats/war? Rapid social change, in times of rapid social change and economic stagnation?
    2. Who: A vulnerable psychological type? People on the botto of our society? On the top but losing their privileged status?
  4. TODAY:
    1. What are people afraid of? Legit fears?
    2. Who is doing the fear-mongering? Why?
  5. ON/OFF: Is fear-mongering controllable? Can politicians turn it on an off at will, or is it like riding a tiger? Does it make our politics hostage to events?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Political Correctness – A serious problem, an excuse, or a little of both?

 

Monday’s Mtg (2/15/16):What Does “Socialism” Mean Today?

Socialism lives. In the United States. At least as an abstract idea. Bernie Sanders’ no-longer-quixotic presidential campaign seems to be reviving the label’s popularity almost single-handedly. “Socialism” was the most searched for word at the Mirriam-Webster website in 2015, and surveys show public approval of “socialism” is rising fast, especially among Millennials. Go, Bernie, I suppose. And, yet…

A couple of yets. First, Bernie’s version of socialism seems to be more like European-style Democratic social democracy than any of the old-style forms of socialism, in which the government or workers own the means of production. Second, he has yet to flesh out a lot of the details of his version of socialism. Abstract ideas are often more popular than their detailed policies/programs version. (See “conservatism.”) Also, Bernie’s socialism has not yet been subjected to the white hot flame of full on news media scrutiny – or to the supernova of GOP attacks.

Finally, socialism is still a dirty word to most Americans, especially older ones that vote a lot.  Perhaps it even deserves to be or, at least, so many Americans’ objections to a large expansion of government need to be taken seriously by progressives.  (FYI, at the last debate Bernie repeatedly dodged the question of how much he would expand government)

Before any of this extended combat happens, I thought it might be a good time for us to explore what socialism could mean in the 21st century. Bernie’s isn’t the only possible version of socialism, to say the least. Europe alone has 2-3 different varieties of social democracy, not just the Scandinavian model. Asia has its own successful models of what today’s American conservatives would pan as “socialism” in Korea, Taiwan, and (gulp) China. Some socialists still believe that unless concentrated private power is abolished all versions of socialism are just window dressing (see link).

I’m hoping we have a good turnout on Monday, so I will not prepare any lengthy opening remarks. I’ll probably just briefly summarize Bernie’s vision of socialism and briefly compare it to other social democratic systems around the world.

Many of you are big Bernie fans. I urge you to read the links below to make sure you know what he actually stands for and how it differs from the socialism many of us remember from an earlier time.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. THEN: What did socialism used to mean?
  2. NOW: What models of social democracy exist around the world today? How “socialist” are they?
  3. BERNIE: What does he mean by socialism? How does it really differ from
    –>  The policy consensus within the Democratic Party?
    –>  Hillary’s platform?
  4. WHY has “socialism” gained popularity in America? What do you think people think it means?
  5. HOW do American conservatives define socialism and why do they despise it?
    –>  Do they have a point?
  6. FUTURE: What version of socialism in the 21st century could”
    1. Work to solve USA’s problems?
    2. Be popular enough with the public to actually be enacted and endure?

OPTIONAL/SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is our country’s safety really in danger?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Could American Democracy Unravel?

Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.

But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?

To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.

The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones.  Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:

  • Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
  • A broken Republican Party.
  • An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
  • Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
  • A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
  • Growing racial and immigration tensions.
  • Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.

Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
  2. IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
  3. MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
  4. ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
  5. HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy?  (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
  6. SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?

Monday’s (8/10/15) Mtg: The Politics of Immigration

Two years go one of my favorite political analysts predicted that immigration policy was going to be the big sleeper issue of the 2016 election. I thought this was overstated. But, I also believed the elite news media was missing the importance of immigration in our politics. In the last 20 years a substantial chunk of the electorate has developed a thick crust of anti-immigrant hostility, especially but not exclusively on the Right. It is a minority within the GOP, but a much-feared and influential one.   At the same time, the Media also was failing to understand that public opinion towards immigration was complex and divided by class and other  socioeconomic characteristics, too.

Well, thanks to Donald Trump, immigration is back on the front burner. Since I haven’t the slightest doubt that the Media will fail to do its job again, I’m glad this topic came up for Civilized Conversation now, before elite Media memes have hardened into stone. We can do better. We could hardly do worse.

I’m very short of time this week. But, I will try to do enough research to open our discussion by describing the basic topography of public opinion on (legal and illegal) immigration. Then, we can debate the incentives politicians in both parties face on this issue.  My hope is the understanding we gain will help us understand what happens the next year and a half.

Discussion Questions (detailed) –

  1. WHAT does the U.S. public really think about immigration issues and how important is this issue to them? How do opinions vary by
    1. Partisanship and ideology?
    2. Socioeconomic status, religiosity, geography, and other factors?
  2. WHY do people hold these opinions? Rational interest? Support for rule of law?  Economic scapegoating? Racism/xenophobia? How can we tell which motive rules?
  3. HOW has public opinion influenced political leaders’ strategic calculations?
    1. In general.
    2. On specific issues, like on comprehensive reform, border security, path to citizenship? How about on Obamacare and criminal justice reform?
  4. GOP/Conservatives:
    1. Do the most anti-immigrant base votes rule the roost? How much room for maneuver do GOP leaders have?
    2. What role has conservative talk radio/news media played?
    3. Will immigration politics determine the GOP presidential nominee? How anti-immigrant will the GOP congress be
    4. Trump: How many GOP voters really support his wall + deport all POV? Is he saying anything not said every day in conservative news media?  Will he harden the party’s stance on immigration or is this xenophobia’s last hurrah?
  5. DEMS/progressives:
    1. Obama: How supportive are they of Obama’s immigration policies? Who dissents?
    2. Clinton: What’s in Hillary’s new immigration plan?
    3. Motives: Is this all about winning Latino votes, or is it principled?
    4. Will Dem policies drive away White working class voters? Is it worth it?
  6. FUTURE: How might politics of immigration change in the next 2 yrs? In 10?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Anti-Science Views of the Political Right and Left.

Monday’s Mtg: Progressivism After Obama

President Obama still has 783 days left in office. But, like the Christmas lights I just put up, I suppose it’s never too early to start preparing for post-Obama American politics. Even though the Republicans just enjoyed a big mid-term election victory, a lot of political navel gazing in recent years has speculated on whether demographic changes are slowly growing an “emerging Democratic majority” in this country, or even an emerging progressive majority. A lot of people doubt this will happen, and I’m one of them. But, I thought now might be a good time to take stock of how the progressive movement will evolve the res tof the decade and whether a progressive-based majority coalition is even possible.

Below are some discussion questions for our meeting and links to some of the better speculation on where progressivism stands right now and may go in the future. Have a good weekend, maybe peruse a few of them , and I’ll see you on Monday night.

And remember – we will be seated at a different table in our Coco’s. look for us in the back of the main dining room, since they’re using our normal banquet room spot as pie storage for the duration of the holidays.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. MEANING: What’s a good working definition for us of progressivism in terms of (1) a political and moral philosophy, and (2) its major component policies?
  2. POPULARITY: How large is the progressive voter base right now? Which parts of the progressive vision command majority public support and which parts are unpopular? Why don’t more Americans support progressivism?
  3. OBAMA: How progressive are his achievements? Did he help to build a stronger (or weaker) progressive movement?
  4. FUTURE: Are demographic changes ushering in an “emerging Democratic majority?” What could prevent or hasten its rise?
  5. How will the actions of conservatives affect the future of progressivism?

LINKS –

How progressive was (is – 783 days left!) Obama?

  • We discussed this in August and I summed up both sides of the argument.
  • It had some pretty good links, I thought.

Progressivism is doomed and already has lost –

Progressivism will triumph –

Neither side will triumph –

Next Week The Future of American Masculinity

Monday’s Mtg: Are Criticisms of Obama From the Left Valid?

This is a corker of a topic idea from Ron, although a hard one to get a handle on since it could include most everything that’s happened in national politics in the last six years. Criticism of President Obama from the left gets very little mainstream news media coverage compared to the hurricane of opposition from the right. Yet it has been steady and fierce, even as the President’s critics acknowledge the extraordinarily awful situation he inherited, like a collapsing economy, failing wars, large budget deficits, a broken immigration system, etc. To simplify somewhat for discussion purposes, here’s my take on what arguments Obama’s progressive critics and his defenders make.

THE PROSECUTION’S CASE –  

POLICY – Obama is not and never really was a true progressive. In fact, on domestic policy he has governed as just another centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, trying to push small, incremental changes in a country that’s problems are now so huge that small reforms achieve little. In foreign policy, Obama is little better than Bush-lite. He’s adopted all but the worst of W.’s policies in the war on terror and continued the permanent war footing of the Cold War. Despite Obama’s soaring campaign rhetoric, he has never wanted to be – much less tried to be – a transformational president.

Examples: Bank sector bailouts (too big, no strings attached, let the banks off the hook and more regulatory weak tea). Stimulus (too small) and the budget (too austere and he offered to put entitlements on the chopping block). Obamacare (too timid, not even aimed at single payer as the goal). Domestic spying and assassinations (flatly unconstitutional). War (too much). Immigration (the “deporter in chief’). Education (too anti-teacher). Climate (too little too late). Etc.

Tactics – Obama naively believed his own rhetoric of post-partisanship. During his entire first term, he mainly negotiated with himself, pre-compromising every proposal instead if realizing no compromises were possible with a fanatical GOP dedicated to destroying him and letting the country burn down so they could inherit its ashes. Had Obama been more realistic earlier and/or been a tougher negotiator, and/or better used the bully pulpit to rally the public to his cause, then he could have accomplished a lot more to help the country by moving it in a progressive direction.

Examples: Obamacare (pre-compromised to get imaginary GOP and blue dog Democrats’ support). Stimulus (too scared to propose a trillion dollar one, even though it was needed). Budget cuts and taxes (accepted large spending cuts which rewarded GOP blackmail).  Cap and trade (gave up without trying to rally Hill or public support).

STRATEGY: Obama has failed to do all he can to wean the country off of the conservative framing/paradigm that says government is bad and regulation and taxes are evil. Nor has he done enough to cement the emerging Democratic coalition of White liberals, non-Whites, young people, and women.

Examples: In 2011, he allowed the national conversation to change from creating jobs and economic growth to counterproductive fiscal austerity. He never explained in simple language why austerity is a bad idea. Plus, what has Obama actually done to improve the fortunes and futures of young people and Americans of color?

THE DEFENSE’S CASE –

Historical: All presidents disappoint their most leftward or rightward wing. Most presidents also make any major accomplishments in their first couple of years and then spend the rest of their terms defending them from being reversed. Big, transformative progressive change is almost impossible in our constitutional system and only happens rarely. On foreign policy, all the post-WWII presidents have followed the same basic policy of U.S. dominance and policing of global hotspots, even if you hate it.

Examples: FDR and LBJ had huge congressional majorities and giant crises that mobilized public opinion, and even FDR spent most of 1934-39 playing defense. All but one 20th century presidents have lost seats in Congress in year 6 of their presidencies. Conservatives worship Reagan now, but considered him a moderate sell-out at the time. Everybody compromises when they must to advance the ball forward.

Inheritance: Obama had to make saving us from another Great Depression his top priority. This was destined it be a thankless task because the financial system had to be bailed out. Worse, the public was never going to reward Obama for preventing something (depression) that did not happen. Winding down Bush’s wars and slowly extricating us from an open-ended “war on terror” would never be called victories, either, even though they were very important. Much of Obama’s affirmative agenda was swallowed while he put out these fires.

Power of the Opposition: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate for only 184 days  in his presidency, and that “majority” included a half dozen conservative Democrats that he had to compromise with on everything. This was because Republicans effectively altered the Constitution by filibustering every bill and every routine task of legislating. No president, not Lincoln or Reagan or FDR ever had to play by these rules.

Add these completely new rules for governing and a scorched-earth opposition party to the vastly powerful societal forces that fight all big progressive policy changes (corporations, right-wing media institutions) and you get guaranteed gridlock that no amount of presidential soapboxing could break.

And, lest we forget, liberals are a minority – around 20% at most – of American voters! Many support progressive policies when they understand them. But, most voters reflexively oppose most liberal ideas because they are liberal; i.e., unless and until someone clearly explains to them why they are good ideas. Oftentimes, not even then.

Obama Didn’t Fail: Finally, despite all of these obstacles, Obama has achieved a lot of progress towards progressive goals. That’s why conservatives hate him. Obama has now kept all of his major campaign promises (recommended) in foreign and domestic and has a long, long list of impressive achievements. He is building an enduring coalition, too, that turns out to vote for Democrats every four years. This president is playing a long game and he is winning it. See here or below for a full explanation.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Who has been criticizing Obama from the Left? What do they want and expect from a Democratic president?
  2. What are these criticisms, in terms of, say, disagreement with Obama’s (1) policies and priorities, (2) tactics, and (3) long term strategy?
  3. Have any of these criticism had any impact on the course of action the Obama administration has pursued? Why/Why not?
  4. What are the major defenses to these criticisms? What more could Obama actually have accomplished if he had listened to his liberal critics?  If you think he could not have gotten more out of Congress, what about with his foreign policy decisions or executive actions?
  5. Could Obama have done more in defeat? That is, by more fiercely attacking conservatives to change the conversation in a more progressive direction?
  6. What will happen to progressivism after Obama?

LINKS –

Note: There have been dozens of major pieces criticizing Obama from the Left. Here are a few of them and some rebuttals and defenses of the guy.

  • Has Obama done a good job? Compared to what? Recommended.
  • Attack #1: Obama is obstructing a progressive majority (by Thomas Frank, the What’s the matter with Kansas guy). Recommended.
  • Rebuttal to Attack #1, plus another one. Recommended.
  • Attack #2: Obama is really a conservative. Recommended.
  • Attack #3: Obama has not used his rhetoric to change the story (by Drew Westin, the psychologist and language expert).
  • Rebuttal to Attack #3.

Next Week: The News Media’s Bias