One of the virtues of being on the liberal side of politics is that total obedience isn’t required. There are no hidden agendas. Ideology doesn’t lead to unreason. In a political climate where it feels as if the inmates are running the asylum – as in the current Republican threat to default on America’s debt – the prevailing sanity of President Obama is something that others and I have taken for granted.
We cannot afford that luxury any more, I’m afraid.
For many reasons, this is the moment when loyalty is going to count the most. That’s a hard sentence to write. Liberal politics is based on a non-regimented, all-inclusive approach to democracy. Freedom of thought is paramount. But certain harsh realities must be faced. For thirty years and more, the progressive tradition has been severely undermined, dating back to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” (coddle the racists) and Ronald Reagan’s smiling reactionary agenda (AIDS victims deserve what they get), through the first President Bush’s Willie Horton strategy (another boost for racism) and the second President Bush’s deceptive “compassionate conservatism.”
It was such a relief to return to humane, non-ideological governance when President Obama won in 2008 that we underestimated the debasing effect that two generations of right-wing indoctrination has had. Each increment of this debasement seemed fairly tolerable, even bizarrely quixotic. A pledge never to raise taxes until the end of time? Blatant favoritism toward Christian groups, however intolerant their dogmas? Stuffing the foreign service with neo-cons, the Justice Department with graduates of Jerry Falwell’s law school? These aberrations go unnoticed outside Washington, perhaps, but bit-by-bit the damage has been corrosive.
When Lincoln was assassinated, an anguished Walt Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” whose theme was that the ship of state had reached a great victory – the end of the Civil War – just as the captain lay dead on the deck. We all know that this victory was unfulfilled, followed by a reactionary period that destined America to a hundred more years of virulent racism. Without being melodramatic, I think the work of undoing decades of reactionary policies has barely begun.
Which is to say that all of us who have taken advantage of our liberal heritage to question and criticize President Obama need to step back and consider the radical nature of the opposition, from the Supreme Court down to the local precinct. The current debt ceiling crisis is proof that sensible, sane responses are not going to be automatic anymore. Paul Krugman calls the current Republican tactic outright extortion. The leaders of the Republican Party are so terrified of losing their seats in Congress that they have collapsed in the face of the ultra right and its worst ideologues.
If you suppose that the average citizen remembers that the right wing are the very ones who got us into this forlorn tangle of wars abroad, financial collapse, out-of-control spending, and massive bonuses for the rich, you have not felt the power that fear exerts. Since 9/11, playing upon fear has been wildly successful for the right wing – it re-elected a catastrophic President – and now outrage has been added to the mix thanks to the romping recklessness of Wall Street, which paid not the slightest penalty for bringing on the recession.
If ever there was a time to stand behind the captain, this is it. Not because pluralism and free expression are wrong. They aren’t and never will be. But like Churchill calling upon a coalition cabinet in the depth of the war years, it’s paramount that we see the greater danger for what it is. Attention was drawn to the cover of a recent issue of The Economist, which showed a tall President Obama towering over a squabbling handful of pygmy republican rivals for the Presidency. The headline read, “He Could Still Lose.” We need to remember that if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be because President Obama made too many mistakes or failed to pass a sufficiently liberal agenda. The reason would be that all of us forgot the thirty-year reign of reactionary administrations (minus the Clinton years) and the power of debased politics to keep coming back, again and again.