[Hi, Angry Black Readers. This is a guest-post by friend of ABLC, Ian Boudreau, who is a science writer in North Carolina. You can contact him at @iboudreau on Twitter. asiangrrlMN.]
When The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf sat down to write a response to Jonathan Chait’s excellent essay for New York Magazine (“When did liberals become so unreasonable,” Nov. 20th), the results were predictably, well, unreasonable.
Friedersdorf’s title alone (for which he may not be directly responsible) is enough to cause eye-rolling: “Why do liberals keep sanitizing the Obama story?”
The list of grievances is a familiar one to anybody who has kept even passingly abreast of liberal intellectuals’ responses to current events over the past three years: the Obama administration has expanded the use of drone strikes in the Afghan theater; they have done nothing to roll back the ancien régime’s warrantless wiretapping of American citizens or collection of powers to the executive; they have continued apace with the “war on drugs,” etc. Friedersdorf also makes several claims that range from bizarre, to egregiously misleading, and in some cases flatly false: the Obama administration is collating a “secret kill list” of American citizens (this an apparent reference to Anwar al-Awlaki, the “American” member of al Qaeda who served as the group’s chief English-language propagandist and who died September 30th in a fairly unsurprising manner); it is responsible for an “Orwellian turn” of airport security procedures; it illegally entered into the conflict in Libya earlier this year.
Even if you were to grant Friedersdorf his laundry list of complaints against Obama (and I don’t), his post is a protracted non sequitur that talks past Chait’s thesis so as to give Friedersdorf a fresh opportunity to re-air his personal grievances.
Chait’s essay on liberal unreasonableness isn’t an apologia for the Obama administration – his point is that disaffected liberals seem to enjoy rewriting their own history in order to comfort themselves with avatars from the past. He addresses several silly ideas that you hear tossed around fairly frequently, such as the notion that one or both Clintons, had they been president for the last three years, would have somehow managed things better (the historical record – the real one, that is – tends to undermine this idea), or that Jimmy Carter, as president, was more “purely” liberal in his policy pursuits (he wasn’t).
What Chait doesn’t get around to explaining in his piece is the concurrent phenomenon of liberal dyspepsia – the old goalpost-shift.
Since “liberalism” is a term used less to denote a specific ideology and more to round up a fairly broad set of policy preferences and priorities, this has always been a difficulty. A liberal politician might respond to pressure from environmentalists to protect wetlands in his district, only to find himself beset the next day by cries of, “Why have you done nothing on marriage equality?” – and he’d be likely to notice some familiar faces in the “new” crowd of malcontents.
We saw this as the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was making its dreary march toward repeal. Prior to December 2010, liberals everywhere were frustrated that the policy hadn’t been killed already – so much so, in fact, that some I spoke with said they wouldn’t be voting for Obama again and were likely among those who stayed home on election day that year. A month later, the repeal order was signed (although, the rather ponderous process that would eventually lead up to full repeal still left many cold), and a host of new tea party-backed freshmen were measuring drapes for their Washington congressional offices.
Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a campaign issue for Obama, and liberals made it a salient one again in 2010 when it hadn’t happened. But after it was repealed, what happened? Certainly no political windfall for the Obama administration – or, at least, none detectable in the liberal opinion pages. Instead, the focus shifted to marriage equality and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act – an important issue, to be sure, but there seemed to be a distinct shortage of kudos from the crew who had in November been nearly apoplectic about the president’s “inaction” on DADT.
The press is more valuable when it is adversarial to incumbents – traditionally, it challenges the status quo and forces politicians to account for their actions. But we’re dealing with a different landscape now than we have in the past in that media of today shape prevailing narratives. I hate to paint in such overly-broad strokes, but it seems to me that in maintaining their adversarial identity, many liberal opinion-leaders seem willing to ignore context and focus on failures or things yet-undone to the exclusion of accomplishments and successes (even if these have, in democratic tradition, been compromises of one kind or another). This creates the impression – among liberal intellectuals themselves, problematically – of generalized failure, of being sold out, and of the “need” to search for someone who will represent their interests better.
So when Friedersdorf “skewers” Chait for “ignoring” the issues Friedersdorf feels are most important, Friedersdorf isn’t just missing the point: he’s showing that he is perfectly happy ignoring the policy accomplishments of the Obama administration that set it so sharply apart from that of his predecessor – making Friedersdorf just as guilty of the unreasonableness Chait points out in his essay: just like all the unhappy liberals sighing meaningfully as they remember the halcyon days of the Clintons.