The conventional Beltway wisdom on the 2008 presidential election was summed up, unsurprisingly, by David Broder in a Washington Post column published on November 2, 2008, forty-eight hours before the vote. Barack Obama, Broder wrote, had demonstrated an “impressive” capacity to “convert strangers into friends” and had had the good sense to hire a staff who “knew what they were doing” in the cauldron of presidential politics. Moreover, Broder contended, Obama had dealt with “the classic American dilemma of race” by showing “repeatedly how to bridge the racial divides that still remain,” thus symbolically conveying a “powerful, positive message to the world” of a new “national maturity.”
It would be churlish to deny that there are grains of truth here. In its result, the 2008 campaign was a historic one, which we may hope has vindicated the moral goal of the classic civil rights movement: the building of an America in which character, not pigmentation, is the standard by which we measure our neighbors and fellow citizens. From the point of view of salesmanship, the Obama campaign was nearly flawless, turning a relatively unknown backbencher with the most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate into a vessel of hope into which people across a good part of the political spectrum poured their aspirations. One could even sense, at the Al Smith Dinner and at a few other unbuttoned moments, that Barack Obama had kept a smidgeon of humorous distance from his own campaign’s adoring portrait of him; one hopes that that sense of humor and the sense of perspective it creates is intact, for the new president will surely need it in the years ahead.
Yet it is also true that the 2008 campaign, which actually began in the late fall of 2006, was a disturbing one — not because it coincided with what is usually described in the hyperbole of our day as “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression” but because of how it revealed some serious flaws in our political culture. Prominent among those flaws is our seeming inability to discuss, publicly, the transformation of American liberalism into an amalgam of lifestyle libertinism, moral relativism, and soft multilateralism, all flavored by the identity politics of race and gender. Why can’t we talk sensibly about these things? For the past eight years, no small part of the reason why had to do with what my friend Charles Krauthammer, in a nod to his former incarnation as a psychiatrist, famously dubbed “Bush Derangement Syndrome.”
Raising this point is not a matter of electoral sour grapes. Given an unpopular war that had been misreported from the beginning, plus President Bush’s unwillingness to use the presidential bully pulpit to help the American people comprehend the stakes in Iraq, plus conservative aggravation over a spendthrift Republican Congress and administration, plus that administration’s failure to enforce discipline on its putative congressional allies, plus public exhaustion with a familiar cast of characters after seven years in office, plus an economic meltdown — well, given all that, it seems unlikely that any Republican candidate could have beaten any Democrat in 2008. Indeed, the surprise at the presidential level may have been that Obama didn’t enjoy a success of the magnitude of Eisenhower’s in 1952, Johnson’s in 1964, Nixon’s in 1972, or Reagan’s in 1984.
Still, I would argue that the basic dynamics of the 2008 campaign, evident in the passions that drove Obama supporters to seize control of the Democratic party and then of the presidency, were not set in motion by the failures and missed opportunities of the previous seven years but by Bush Derangement Syndrome, which emerged as a powerful force in American public life on December 12, 2000: the day American liberalism’s preferred instrument of social and political change, the Supreme Court, determined that George W. Bush (the candidate with fewer popular votes nationally) had, in fact, won Florida and with it a narrow majority in the Electoral College. Here was the cup dashed from the lips — and by a court assumed to be primed to deliver the expected and desired liberal result yet again. Here was the beginning of a new, millennial politics of emotivism (displayed in an astonishing degree of publicly manifested loathing for a sitting president) and hysteria (fed by the new demands of a 24/7 news cycle).
One might even drive the analysis back two years further. For the seeds of Bush Derangement Syndrome were sown during the impeachment crisis in 1998 and 1999. William Jefferson Clinton was constitutionally acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999 — but, more to the point, he had been absolved by liberal political culture months earlier.
In the summer of 1998, it seemed not unlikely that President Clinton would be removed from office or compelled to resign on the Nixon model — not least because of the self-preservation instincts of the Democratic party and its congressional leadership. Then, around Labor Day 1998, Maureen Dowd and others successfully reframed the issue in the debate over Clinton’s continued fitness for office. As defined by Henry Hyde in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives, the question throughout 1998 had been, “Can a felon who has perjured himself before a federal grand jury and obstructed justice continue to serve as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer?” Or, as Henry was wont to put it, “Can a man live in the White House when several hundred people who have committed precisely the same crime are living in federal prisons?”
The issue, in other words, was the rule of law. That changed, in the twinkling of an eye, when the liberal commentariat decided that this was really all about sex and that if Clinton (whom many ideologically hardened liberals despised) crashed and burned, so would the sexual revolution. Even worse, if Clinton fell, the zealots of the great unwashed Moral Majority would be vindicated — and who knew who would be sent to the stake next? Liberal America decided that, if the price to be paid for saving the sexual revolution was to permit a felon to serve as president of the United States, then so be it. The issue was redefined in the political culture; tremulous Republican leadership in the Senate acquiesced, at least tacitly, to the redefinition; and the president was acquitted.
But anger remained on a high boil in Democratic breasts. How could the natural party of governance (as Democrats continued to imagine themselves even after the 1994 Gingrich revolution), indeed the righteous party (as liberal Democrats had imagined themselves since the 1960s), have been brought to such a pass? Not, certainly, by its own sins, offenses, and negligences but by an unholy conspiracy of yahoos, philistines, scolds, and censors, to whom the runt of the Bush litter, the arch-moron, “Dubya,” had blatantly appealed by declaring Jesus Christ his favorite political philosopher during the 2000 presidential primaries.
Vengeance was the order of the day in 2000. The natural party of governance would be vindicated. Imagine, then, the rage when a combination of hanging chads and a controversial Supreme Court decision determined otherwise.
From the beginning of the Bush administration, then, a passionately held conviction that dared not speak its name smoldered in many Democratic and liberal hearts: George W. Bush is an illegitimate president — morally, if not quite constitutionally. That conviction hardened over time, not least because of Bush’s disdain for Washington tastemakers, his indifference to what others said or wrote about him, his inability or unwillingness to strike back wittily, and his loyalty to subordinates who were manifestly incompetent or who had run out of gas. To make matters worse, Bush was a serious Christian who made no bones about the fact that conversion to Christ had changed his life and that prayer played a large role in his daily routine. Who knew what bizarre transmissions from the Great Beyond this pious idiot might be receiving?
This secularist plank in the anti-Bush platform received regular reinforcement from Western European bien-pensants, who feared that their Kantian utopia of perpetual peace was on the verge of being destroyed by an ignorant Yankee cowboy evangelical apocalyptic — and who regularly instructed their American liberal colleagues to Do something about this fool before he gets us all killed.
Thus, despite a brief post-September 11 rallying of emotional and political support for the president, Bush Derangement Syndrome was well entrenched by the 2004 election cycle — which resulted in yet another severe disappointment for the natural party of governance: This time, not because of the Supreme Court, but because several hundred thousand Ohio evangelicals decided to register in order to vote against same-sex marriage — and punched in for George W. Bush at the same time. All of which only confirmed both American and European elite opinion that the barbarians were not outside the gate but at the control panels of the United States.
The boiling rage of Bush Derangement Syndrome thus set the emotional context for the 2008 electoral cycle, even as Republican idiocies and corruptions in Congress set the political context for the return of the House and Senate to Democratic control in 2006 — which seemed to guarantee, in the mind of the soi-pensant natural party of governance, a return to the White House on January 20, 2009. The cowboy would be sent packing, back to his ranch; his supporters would retreat into the enclaves from which they had first sallied forth during the Carter years; the right order of the universe would be restored.
To be sure, other cultural factors played into the distinct dynamics of the politics of 2008. Perhaps the most overused word of the past several years has been narrative, which seems to have succeeded storyline as the mot juste for describing the ebb and flow of politics: “He’s created a compelling narrative.” Or, “Who’s creating the narrative?” And so forth and so on.
This verbal tic is not just a verbal tic, however. It reflects, usually unreflectively, the dominance of the rhetoric of postmodernism, which has migrated from the campuses into the mainstream media and into everyday life. Such postmodern rhetoric reflects a cast of mind in which human beings have no secure grasp of the truth of things, be that historical truth or moral truth. There is only “your truth” and “my truth,” which is to say, you’ve got your story, and I’ve got my story. Narrative is all, and narrative has no tether to an objective truth of things that we can know by the exercise of our reason.
In Europe, this epistemological skepticism has brought several countries and the European Union itself perilously close to what a distinguished European intellectual once described as the “dictatorship of relativism”: the imposition of relativism by coercive state power. Perhaps the most notable example is contemporary Spain, where, in this year of grace 2009, Juan can walk into his local civil-registry office, declare himself “Juanita,” and have his national identity card changed accordingly, without any surgical folderol. Human nature is what my narrative declares it to be.
Things have not quite come to that pass in the United States. But the same trajectory is evident in a culture in which the creation and marketing of a compelling personal narrative has replaced the contest of issues and ideas as the driving force of electoral politics. Everyone knows that this is what’s going on; a senior producer at a major mainstream-media network told me in the early 2008 presidential-primary season he was appalled by the callousness, indeed cynical craftiness, with which “the narrative” was manipulated by focus group-besotted campaign managers for the most minute electoral advantage. Alas — but not surprisingly — her concerns didn’t drive that network’s coverage of the politics of 2008. And one has to wonder whether it would have made any difference if they had. In a country in which American Idol has become a major cultural reference point, is it any wonder that we have elections that resemble American Idol in their dominance by narrative — which is to say elections that are substantively vacuous?
For there were surely things to argue about, this past year. We could have argued about the nature of terrorism and the appropriate response to it. We could have discussed why, in the more than seven years after the attacks of September 11, the State Department, Defense Department, and CIA remain stubbornly obtuse about the religious dynamics of jihadism. We could have had a morally serious debate about the borderline between aggressive interrogation and torture, about rendition, about what is to be done with the murderously dangerous men incarcerated at Guantanamo.
We could have debated how housing policies intended to empower the poor ended up creating the subprime-mortgage crisis — an example of unintended consequences if there ever was one. We could have had an interesting national debate about China, and whether assertive human-rights pressures on a regime so nervous that it throws a hissy-fit when the Dalai Lama meets with Lech Walesa in Gdansk might move that global giant into a less threatening international posture. We could have debated the status of Roe v. Wade, the moral limits of biotechnology, the resurgence of Russian nationalism, the collapse of Pakistan, the crime of human trafficking, the future of the Bush administration’s AIDS and malaria initiatives in Africa, the fate of Darfur and Zimbabwe, and the economic, social, and political consequences of the European birth dearth. We might even have debated a national grand bargain that would reinvent the American automobile industry while defunding jihadism.
Some of that happened last year, but not nearly enough. The American people elected a young president with less governmental experience than any major-party nominee since Wendell Willkie, because — well, because he was the winner on American Idol: The 2008 Election Edition. We all hope and pray that President Obama is far more than that. We should not delude ourselves on this point, however: Narrative, not substance, is what put the forty-fourth president into the White House.
Narrative drove this election in another way. In his 1995 Dreams from My Father (a far more interesting book than his 2006 campaign manifesto, The Audacity of Hope), Barack Obama unveiled a compelling personal narrative, which became the chief focus of the Democratic primaries and the general election. Framing the election cycle that way was undoubtedly an impressive technical accomplishment on the part of his campaign team. Yet that very accomplishment tended to crowd out everything else, particularly any serious examination of Obama’s political pedigree and his relationships with some of the more unsavory creatures from the violent fever swamps of the 1960s. It has been said before, but it bears saying again: Had any Republican candidate refused to acknowledge or explain a longstanding and mutually profitable relationship with a domestic terrorist like Timothy McVeigh, he would have been regarded, and rightly, as too radioactive to touch. Yet the trail of destruction and death left by longtime Obama colleagues Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn was less than McVeigh’s only by reason of capacity and circumstance, not intent — and that by Ayers’ own account.
The problem here is more serious than it may appear on the surface. American liberalism has never engaged in the kind of cleansing of the Augean stables that William F. Buckley Jr. conducted among American conservatives in the 1950s. Buckley drove the right-wing full-mooners out of the conservative tent; the left-wing full-mooners remain firmly planted inside the liberal tent. Indeed, they help define that tent, not least by conducting ongoing moral blackmail against their less perfervid (or more prudent) liberal colleagues. A left that cannot come to grips with its own “scoundrel time” is a left that will continue repeating the lies that marked Lillian Hellman’s memoir (I use the term loosely) of that title.
For that matter, a left that cannot confront its failures of analysis, nerve, and seriousness during the last half of the Cold War is a left that is unlikely to understand, much less cope with and still less defeat, the multiple threats to freedom that define the post-Cold War, post-September 11 world. A left that refuses to see that its embrace of abortion on demand is a self-indulgent exercise and a betrayal of the legacy of the classic civil rights movement is a left that is unlikely to chart a path away from a brave new world of manufactured humanity, in which misguided ideas of compassion are married to technological marvels to produce dehumanizing consequences. A left that cannot look at Europe and see the human, social, economic, financial, and cultural failures of debonair nihilism is not a left that can grasp, much less appeal to, the sturdy religious instincts that continue to animate the great majority of the American people.
Yet that is precisely the kind of left we are left with: an unchastened left, now reinforced in its sense of righteousness and its sense of political entitlement by the 2008 presidential election.
Obama may well find the left, which has been chomping at the metaphorical bit since 1994, one of his chief burdens. He might have been better positioned to cope with the burden had he been more forthright about his own connections to the shadow world of 1960s radicalism and if he had been more critical of the unrepentantly stubborn moral blindness of some of his Hyde Park associates. Still, the new president had better hope (if somewhat audaciously) that Todd Gitlin was wrong when the former SDS leader swooned on election night and declared that Obama’s return to Grant Park — scene of riots during the 1968 Democratic convention — meant that the new president stands “on the shoulders of the crowds of four decades ago.”
Gitlin was not the only swooner, of course. A young friend, currently resident in Toronto, wrote me of a literary soirée that he, the author of a successful first novel, had attended five days before our election. There, he reported, “Otherwise intelligent, professionally ironic people — academics, writers, journalists — were going on and on and on: ‘He’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.’ ‘Seriously, I think he really is a messiah figure for America.’ ‘You know his inauguration would happen within three weeks of Lincoln’s [two hundredth] birthday.’ ‘When I think of what we were hoping for in the 1960s, this is it.’ ‘He’s going to change things here and everywhere; all over the world people want this to happen.’ ‘I know a lot of people in New York who are finally believing in America again.’ ‘The morning after the election, I’m going to wake up and feel like I’m in heaven.’”
That last effusion came from a retired academic, who seems to have retained at least some vestigial reference points from the biblical consciousness that was once a hallmark of Canadian culture. But the chiliastic enthusiasm was by no means confined to Canada. For the professionally ironic and skeptical members of the commentariat in the United States, November 5 was a day of vapors. E.J. Dionne Jr.: “Yes, it is time to hope again.” George Packer: “We will have a president who can think and feel and speak; we will have a grownup who will treat us like grownups.” Nancy Gibbs: “Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But a few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope. Barack Obama never talks about how people see him: I’m not the one making history, he said every chance he got. You are. Yet as he looked out Tuesday night though the bulletproof glass . . . he had to see the truth on people’s faces. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, he liked to say, but people were waiting for him.”
Some of this is funny. But, coupled with the “Yes, We Can” rhetoric of the campaign, it is also deeply troubling. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American theologian of the ironies of history, got his quadrennial dusting-off in 2008, with Barack Obama, among others, averring a deep intellectual debt to him. Yet the secular millenarianism — the tacit acceptance of the redemption of a fallen world through politics — that pervaded the Obama campaign was a perfect example of the kind of utopianism that Niebuhr, with his profound sense of the contingencies of history and the self-delusory capacities of human beings, spent the better part of three decades warning against. “Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems” — that is Reinhold Niebuhr, not the Obama campaign. As for Niebuhr’s famous prayer — “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” — well, if we are the change we’ve been waiting for, and “Yes, We Can” is our creed, then Niebuhr’s plea for humility, bravery, and prudence is a non sequitur, for there is nothing we cannot change.
Many members of the commentariat found the faces at Invesco Field (where Obama accepted the Democratic nomination) and in Grant Park inspiring. I must confess that I found them a little frightening. At the least, the extraordinary expectations Obama has raised are bound to be unmet — for there are wrenchingly difficult, and in some cases insoluble, problems in both domestic and international politics, and the realization of that in the cold light of reality is bound to produce disappointment, even bitterness, among the true believers in “Yes, We Can.”
Conspiracy theories about reactionaries standing in the way of progress will follow, as surely as night follows day. But that is to leave the matter at the level of politics. The real question raised by the chiliasm of the Obama campaign is the question of American public culture. Americans once prided themselves on a combination of self-reliance and realism. Yet a considerable number have now accepted a governmental role in their daily lives that would have been inconceivable to their grandparents — and many seem eager for more.
As for realism, does the uncritical acceptance of the politics of redemption suggest a national disconnect from some hard home truths about the human condition? Have we learned nothing from the bloody history of twentieth-century political messianism? The passionate investment of inchoate utopian hopes in a political leader is almost always bad news, even if the bad news stops short of the apocalypse. For the real audacity of hope in politics is to know that our fondest hopes will not be realized through politics. Indeed, if our fondest hopes are such that they can be realized by politics, then our hope is a disordered hope.
If political messianism was one disturbing cultural undercurrent of the 2008 presidential election cycle, faux populism was another. Faux populism is a perennial American political temptation, most brilliantly captured by Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men. As a general rule, it has been more a Democratic temptation than a Republican one. In 2008, however, Republicans showed themselves just as susceptible to its siren songs, particularly when Wall Street became a convenient whipping boy for the nation’s economic and financial woes — and Joe the Plumber became a kind of instant Republican mascot.
To those of us with longer memories and more scar tissue, both campaigns’ attempts to position their candidates as folks who were just as good as the American people set off alarm bells warning of a potential reprise of the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter promised us “a government as good as the American people” and delivered a government as inept as the Washington Nationals or the Detroit Lions. At several points in the campaign — those points at which Obama, McCain, Palin, and Biden were straining every political muscle to appear as “just folks” as possible — we badly needed the wisdom of James Madison, who in Federalist 51 reminded Americans of every generation that the necessity of governance, even democratic governance, was “the greatest of all reflections on human nature,” because “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Such wisdom would have led to some of the necessary truth-telling that was notable for its absence from the scoundrel time of 2008.
None of the four principals in this drama was prepared to tell some hard truths to the American people — such as the truth that irrational and self-defeating popular reactions to the initial financial crunch of mid-September 2008 were making matters worse in the markets. Or the truth that both management and labor had done everything possible to make the American automobile industry economically unviable. Or the truth that the business cycle has not been repealed, which means that there will be downturns as well as upturns in the financial markets. Or the truth that China owns a dangerously large amount of our national debt, which is itself the product of profligate spending to please “the people” or some politically adept subset thereof.
The people, in other words, get it wrong sometimes. Prudent statecraft — such as FDR’s slow but steady education of an isolationist populace in the realities of world politics in 1939 and 1940 — recognizes that. And rather than appeasing the wrongheaded, prudent statecraft uses the arts of persuasion to change minds and hearts. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is often described as the greatest of American political speeches; but how many of our fellow countrymen remember that the Second Inaugural was a sharp reminder to the entire nation that our common life stands under judgment and that getting the Big Questions wrong can have terrible costs?
Then there is the question of the national or mainstream media and the culture of American public life. Conservatives and Republicans complained loudly, frequently, and often justifiably about media bias during the campaign. That there was no aggressive media investigation of Barack Obama’s connection to Bill Ayers manifested an undeniable double standard. And the same double standard was apparent when the campaign decisively shifted in mid-September, when it seemed possible that John McCain might win, and perhaps by a substantial margin.
That changed within a week or two, in no small part because of McCain’s own fumbling reactions to the credit meltdown. But at no point during that period did the national media explain to the American people the relation between the credit crunch and the housing policies of the Carter and Clinton administrations, or the cozy relations that had built up between current Democratic congressional leaders and the senior management of the about-to-crumble Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Were the partisan shoe on the other foot — such that, say, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, rather than Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, were in the political-economic crosshairs — it is inconceivable that serious investigative reporting would not have ensued.
The indictment could, of course, be extended. Joe Biden’s gaffes-of-the-day went unreported, while Sarah Palin was savaged as an ignoramus from sea to shining sea. The truth of the Democratic party’s commitment to the most radical of abortion regimes went unexplored and unreported, while considerable attention was lavished on Catholic intellectuals who tried to defend Barack Obama as the true pro-life candidate — an exercise in sophistry that was breathtaking even by contemporary academic standards. As my colleague Edward Whelan pointed out, frequently and eloquently, some of President Obama’s likely Supreme Court nominees will come from the farther reaches of the academic-legal left, which bodes poorly for the future of American constitutionalism; yet the national media failed to explore any of this, thereby reinforcing the brilliantly contrived stealth characteristics of the Obama campaign.
I have long thought that conservatives and Republicans blame too many of their trials and tribulations on the mainstream media, and no doubt some of that displacement was going on in this election cycle. Moreover, the new, conservative alternative media (and particularly talk radio) too frequently yielded to the temptation of faux populism in 2008 — which is perhaps understandable from a ratings point of view but is yet another sign of trouble in our political culture. And, yes, it is true that this election cycle dramatically democratized the flow of information and commentary in our politics, largely through the impact of the Internet — just as it is true that this democratization has dramatically cut into not just the profits, readership, and viewership of the media but also the media’s influence.
Nonetheless, it is surely of some consequence for the health of our political culture that the summary judgment on the national media in this election cycle must be that it failed at its primary task, which is not to prescribe but to inform — and to inform accurately. That, again, is not sour grapes, for the empirically measurable “Obama tilt” in the reporting of 2008 was reluctantly conceded by no less than the Washington Post‘s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, in an unintentionally hilarious column published five days after the election.
If morally serious and intelligent debate is the lifeblood of democracy, then accurate information, widely disseminated, serves the same function in democracy as red blood cells do in the human body: Accurate information is the oxygen supply that allows the organs of democracy to perform well. The Framers knew this; that is why they afforded such robust constitutional protections to the press, protections that have been strengthened over time. The American republic cuts the press far more slack than any other stable democracy, precisely because we place such a high value on the free, fair, and accurate flow of information. Thus, when the national media fails to provide accurate information and transforms itself into an organ of instruction, it misconstrues its role and creates imbalances in the constitutional order. This is a serious problem; given the almost certain demise of the mainstream media in its present forms, the problem will likely present itself in new ways in the future, and perhaps even as soon as 2012.
Despite the effusions of E.J. Dionne, Todd Gitlin, and Co., the 2008 presidential election did not mark an unmistakable turning point in American public life. Neither did it mark some great new achievement in the quest for racial justice. Barack Obama didn’t create the change in America that made his election possible. He — and the rest of us — benefited from the profound transformation of American racial attitudes over the past five decades. And that change — which is truly change we can believe in — was not the product of government (although government had to play its role, in the endgame). The transformation of the United States into the most racially egalitarian society in human history was the moral and cultural accomplishment of American civil society, in which America’s religious communities played indispensable roles. If there is a historical lesson to be teased out of the 2008 presidential cycle, it is not the lesson that Dionne, Gitlin, and other celebrants of the 1960s would have us draw.
Moreover, as even the Obamaphiles at Newsweek conceded a few weeks before the election, and as all the exit polls confirmed, this racially egalitarian America remains, both culturally and in its core political instincts, a center-right country. That center-right country will now be governed from the left, for at least the next two years. We should be under no illusions that this is the chastened liberalism of the Democratic Leadership Council, despite the numbers of Clinton administration alumni in the Obama cabinet and subcabinet. On the life issues, it should not be forgotten that the strongest political figures in the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s — Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman — all caved in to the demands of lifestyle libertinism when the crunch came. Indeed, this pattern seems likely to set the short-term strategy of the Obama administration.
The new administration has moved toward some
This article was originally published on First Things
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