In the latest issue of Democracy, former TAP editor Michael Tomasky takes to task what he calls the "professional disgruntleists" -- progressives who work hard to find the downside of every Barack Obama initiative and use every available opportunity to cry, "See? I told you he'd sell us out!" Tomasky reminds us that even the great liberal hero Franklin Roosevelt was subject to similar criticism during his time:
The New Deal was not a seamless narrative of aggressively liberal steps in which conservatives were sent scampering. It was full of starts and stops, and it took a long time. There were many reasons for this, but a chief one had to do with Roosevelt himself–seen by the more impatient reformers of his day as equivocal and adhering to too few core beliefs, exactly the way some see Obama today.
It's not hard for progressives to ignore that history when lionizing FDR, for two reasons. First, it's really history. FDR died 65 years ago, and the number of people still around who were politically aware during the New Deal is rather small. As a consequence, what most of us know about Roosevelt is a just a few pieces of information and an overall sense of his presidency, which can be uncomplicated. Second, FDR isn't much of an active, living presence in the debates progressives have with one another. It's not as though we ask ourselves with all seriousness, "What would FDR do?" or argue endlessly about which of us is demonstrating the purest fealty to his legacy.
To see what I mean, take the contrast with how conservatives feel about their hero, Ronald Reagan. As Jonathan Chait points out, intra-conservative debates often take the form of one person saying "Reagan would agree with me" and another saying "No, Reagan would agree with me." The idea that Reagan might have been wrong about something isn't entertained. The most radical thing you can say is that while Reagan was right about everything at the time, things have changed, and therefore the perfection of Reaganism should be updated.
Where this differs from how progressives think about Roosevelt is that every conservative over the age of 35 or so actually remembers Reagan. And because his presidency contained no small number of occasions on which he contravened conservative orthodoxy, squaring the circle of the Reagan cult requires scrubbing their memories clean. Remind them that Reagan raised taxes, increased the deficit and negotiated nuclear weapons reductions with the hated Soviets, and they'll stick their fingers in their ears and say, "Nananana, I can't hear you!"
Saying that Obama is wrong about everything is as problematic for progressives as it is for conservatives to say that Reagan was right about everything. As Tomasky argues, "the New Deal is best seen as the start of a process that unfolded over two or three generations and three presidential administrations." The point isn't that progressives should stop criticizing the administration when it falls short, as it has plenty already and will continue to do. But it's worth remembering that the glass might look a lot more full once the memories of the day-to-day battles fade. The New Deal and Great Society weren't times when a progressive spirit swept over the land and change came to its inevitable realization. They were times of struggle, and fierce opposition, and yes, missteps and compromises.
The most important point in Tomasky's essay may be when he suggests that we have been ill-served by how good we all felt when Obama got elected:
One felt–many millions of us felt–almost invincible in a way; finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs, after so many years of despondency and rage; aware in fresh and unprecedented ways of our collective power, like mortals transformed into superheroes in the movies, realizing for the first time that they could fly or crush stone. It seems likely that American liberals will never again for the foreseeable future feel quite like we did that night. All things seemed possible.
And yet, it almost goes without saying, all things weren’t possible, because all things never are. American liberalism has, for the last year and a half, been living through a painful period of coming to terms with this reality. It’s a traumatic process: First, one has to admit to oneself that one was wrong, which can be hard enough; but even harder than that is accepting those feelings of invincibility and redemption were misplaced. That–the idea that the power and euphoria were somehow counterfeit–is difficult to acknowledge.
-- Paul Waldman
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