History, the novelist Milan Kundera wrote, is but a thin thread stretched across the ocean of what is forgotten. This may explain why the further back you go into American history, the more consensus there tends to be about our presidents. If you wanted to come up with a revisionist view of George Washington, it would require a lot of work, since what most of us have at hand are a few images -- the first president at Valley Forge, crossing the Delaware, nobly stepping down for the good of the country.
But one of the many advantages of the modern age is the ready availability of the raw materials out of which we can construct our own convincing version of contemporary political reality. Pour a foundation out of imaginary concrete, erect joists and beams of speculation, place a thousand bricks of tendentious conclusions, and before you know it, the structure is impervious to any assault by facts. You will have made your own imagined Barack Obama, in whatever shape you like.
Pick a contentious issue, and there's an imagined Obama being fashioned. For example, in 2008, gun advocates were told that if the senator from Illinois were elected president, he would immediately send out his jackbooted bureaucratic thugs to begin confiscating weaponry. Upon his inauguration, sales of guns and ammunition soared, as Second Amendment fans stocked up for the inevitable bans. Yet nothing happened. Forget about taking away your hunting rifle -- Obama hasn't even followed up on his pledge to work to reinstate the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004, and his press secretary Robert Gibbs dodges questions about the issue when they come up.
How can we explain this inaction? If you want to keep imagining the government crackdown is at hand, you listen to Sarah Palin, who earlier this month delivered a speech on the subject before the National Rifle Association. Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi hadn't yet torn the guns from the hands of the assembled believers, she said confidently, only because they hadn't yet figured out how to navigate the political consequences. "Don't doubt for a minute that if they thought they could get away with it they would ban guns and ban ammunition, and gut the Second Amendment." The alternative -- that Obama's concern about the gun issue is actually minimal, particularly compared to the other things on his plate -- can't be entertained. (One of the hallmarks of this mode of thought is that whatever is most important to you is also most important to your enemies.)
Ascribing the most nefarious of motives to our political opponents is standard fare, of course. But basing your political arguments not on what those opponents have done or have proposed to do but on what they "would" do, frees you from the need to keep a hold on even the slightest tether to reality. Who needs evidence of the other side's evil, when you can just imagine what lies in their hearts?
Imagination also has its psychic rewards. Take the Tea Partiers. The vast majority would probably say that Barack Obama, that vile socialist, has raised their taxes. The truth, however, is that Obama cut taxes for 98 percent of working families with the stimulus bill. You could argue that those tax cuts weren't a good idea, but you ought not to be able to argue that they didn't happen.
Yet people do. When Tea Party Nation leader Judson Philips did a Web chat not long ago with The Washington Post, one reader asked, "Would you be willing to admit that taxes have actually gone down for the vast majority of Americans under President Obama?" Philips answered simply: "No." He's not alone; a CBS/New York Times poll in February found a mere 12 percent of Americans who knew that Obama had given them a tax cut. But again, what's the alternative? Admit that Obama has actually cut taxes? Accept that American families now have some of the lightest tax burdens we've seen in half a century? Where would that leave you?
It would leave you in the same place it would leave an NRA member who thought the government actually wasn't about to take away his guns: utterly adrift. And [both WHO?] can count on politicians to keep them driving steadily toward Armageddon. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party's "man of ideas," is out pushing his latest book, which claims that "Barack Obama is the most radical President in American history," and asks, "Will we be able to save America before it's too late?" Always classy, Gingrich compares the Obama administration's politics to Nazism and communism.
Put aside the question of whether Gingrich actually believes this stuff. What we do know is that there's a ready audience for Gingrich's book that does believe it.
I've made this argument before, but it bears repeating: I spilled far too many words documenting the misdeeds of the George W. Bush administration for eight years, but I never thought that if he got his way, America would cease to exist, and I don't know any other progressives who thought that either. Likewise, Obama will serve for four or eight years, succeed in some of his goals, fail in others, and leave a legacy that may be more or less profound. Some of the things he does, like health-care reform, may well persist in their effects for generations (let's hope). Others will be reversed as soon as the next Republican takes office. Obama is extremely progressive in some ways and quite conservative in others, and we can and will disagree about which ones matter more. But to say Obama is the most radical president in American history, you really have to be living in an alternate reality.
Yet conservatives make that kind of claim all the time these days. Just this Sunday, Arthur Brooks, head of the respected American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The Washington Post that if the "breathtaking expansions of state power" Obama has undertaken like financial reform are allowed to continue, "America will cease to be a free enterprise nation." It's no longer just crazy conspiracy theorists who exist in worlds of their own imaginings -- now prominent politicians and think-tank presidents do so as well.
One of the foundational precepts of political deliberation is that when we debate, there is at least the possibility, however slight, that I might convince you that I'm right and you're wrong. That possibility exists only if we agree on the basic facts. Then we can argue about which are more important and what the implications are. But if you've taken up residence in an alternate universe, then we have nothing to talk about.