One of the leitmotifs of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the shell game that “progressives” (more on the scare quotes in a few moments) use to transfer bad decisions of progressives and liberals of the past to American history as a whole. FDR’s decision to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II? America’s shame. Eugenics? It was embraced wholeheartedly (and then some) by such early progressives as Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and John Maynard Keynes. And was rejected wholesale by the Catholic Church and religious conservatives such as G.K. Chesterton. Despite that, as Jonah notes in Liberal Fascism, quoting Yale historian and professor of surgery Sherwin Nuland, Nuland and other writers at the New Republic and similar left-wing publications are convinced that “Eugenics was a creed that appealed to social conservatives, who were pleased to blame poverty and crime on heredity.”
In an essay today at Red State titled “Forgetting History,” Erick Erickson writes that this shell game even works on even more recent history. Erickson spots an attempt by the left to salvage the reputation of Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise speech”:
Ezra Klein, who once said no one pays attention to the constitution because it is so old, has decided Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” was popular. You will no doubt be not exactly surprised to learn that Hendrik Hertzberg totally believes the malaise speech was awesome too. Hertzberg was the speechwriter.
But that gets history wrong. Twenty and thirty-something pundits should know better.
As Ben Domenech, himself a former speech writer, notes in the context of Presidential speeches, the Carter speech was popular at first, but historically it is wrong to say it was popular as it came to be viewed very negatively. A pundit claiming it was popular should really note the popularly was fleeting instead of simply claiming it was popular. To this day, when seasoned politicos reference “malaise speeches” they do not mean popular speeches.
From Ben Domenech, relevant to the larger question of Presidential speeches:
These two pages from Steve Hayward’s book share some reaction. Hayward notes that at the time, The New Republic editorialized that the speech was a “pop sociology stew” filled with “servile flatteries”: “Carter seems to think that teaching us to sing ‘Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella’ can be a substitute for leading us in out of the rain. Fortunately, he utterly lacks the rhetorical skill for such a con job.” The Economist labeled it “amateurism.” One labor leader who had supported Carter in 76 was quoted as saying: “The fault is his, not ours, and asking us to say something nice about America is like Gerald Ford telling us to pin on little lapel buttons and Whip Inflation Now.” The point is that the people responded positively in the immediate, but a critical eye quickly tore the speech apart. It became the starting point for mockery of Carter’s essential failing: that, as Hayward has written elsewhere, that “Carter ran for president promising us ‘a government as good as the people,’ only to discover the people were no good.”
This should serve as a reminder that speeches aren’t just assessed in the immediate – it’s whether they have lasting value that matters and determines their relevancy over time. [Emphasis added]
Too many pundits say stuff like “the malaise speech was popular” and it seems most of the ones who do are the twenty and thirty somethings who really have no sense of history. I was four years old when Carter gave that speech and I am aware enough of history to know that the reception to the speech hurt Carter.
As Erikson writes:
This may sound like a Matt Lewis inspired “get off my lawn” screed, but put very simply, a lot of pundits of the twenty and thirty-something variety have absolutely no sense of history. For them, partisan politics began at Bush vs. Gore and history did not exist before November of 2000.
There are multiple reasons for that. The first is the shell game that Jonah describes above. The second is that for many people, the online world didn’t arrive in full until broadband reached their home, which started to happen around 1999 to the early naughts. (If I’m recalling the year correctly, my Northern California neighborhood didn’t get cable modem access until the spring of 1999, and we were pretty early adopters.) The political Blogosphere didn’t fully arrive until the arrival of Instapundit in August of 2001, and the rapid growth of blogs on both sides of the aisle in the wake of 9/11. (If you’ll recall back then in those pre-MSNBC days, neither side liked the “objective” establishment-liberal tone of the MSM — for the right, that tone was too left-leaning and too reflexively anti-Republican; for the fightin’ left, that tone was too wimpy and bland.)
Additionally, for most of America, the most important — horrific, soul-searching, angry, depressing — day of their recent lives was September 11th; for America’s hard left, that day was almost a year prior. “For activist and professional Democrats, the most ignominious day in their collective political lives” wasn’t 9/11, but an event that occurred in the previous year, Daniel Henninger wrote in the Wall Street Journal last September: the Florida presidential recount. “The 2000 election ended only when the Supreme Court resolved it in favor of George Bush. Republican and independent voters moved on, but many Democrats never did; they were now being governed by an illegitimate president.”
One more reason why contemporary history seems to start in late 2000 is that it allows President Bush’s call for the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein to seem like something out of the blue and wildly partisan, when, in fact, it flows from rhetoric from the Clinton administration — and even Hollywood — in the 1990s:
Of course, the left-wing shell game that Jonah describes in Liberal Fascism works on even more recent history. “Obama on Solyndra loan: ‘Understand, this was not our program per se.’” No, of course not. it’s an expensive progressive corporatist eco-failure, so the buck must be passed yet again:
Buck-passing fun via Andrew Stiles and the Washington Free Beacon.
OBAMA: We are doing the all of the above strategy right. Obviously, we wish Solyndra hadn’t gone bankrupt. Part of the reason they did was because the Chinese were subsidizing their solar industry and flooding the market in ways that Solyndra couldn’t compete. But understand, this was not our program per se.
Congress–Democrats and Republicans–put together a loan guarantee program because they understood historically that when you get new industries–it’s easy to raise money for start-ups, but if you want to take them to scale sometimes there’s a lot of risk involved, and what the loan guarantee program was designed to do was to help start-up companies get to scale. And the understanding is that some companies are not going to succeed, some companies are going to do very well, but the portfolio as a whole ends up supporting the kind of innovation that helps make America successful in this innovative 21st century economy. Do I wish that Solyndra had gone bankrupt? Absolutely not. And obviously it’s heartbreaking it happened for the workers who were there.
If not for Congress, there never would have been any half-billion dollars to blow on Solyndra. So when you think about it, it’s really America’s fault, isn’t it? I wonder if that reasoning would work for a bank manager forced to explain why he made a terrible loan to a fledgling company with bad prospects whose board of directors just happened to include a buddy of his. It’s really kinda sorta the bank’s fault for offering loans in the first place, isn’t it? Never mind that the previous “bank manager” had enough sense not to throw money into this sinkhole the first time it applied for cash.
Finally, in a related item in the American Spectator, Peter Hannaford asks, “Who’s Progressive?”
During the Reagan years the term “liberal” was discredited, having been widely equated with high taxes and spending. Gradually, liberal Democrats stopped using the word to describe themselves. Yet, old habits die slowly. In the days of FDR and LBJ when most of the goals of the liberals had been achieved liberals thought the word was tantamount to “good.” With changing public perceptions, however, nearly all liberals searched for a new word to help them once again seize the political high ground.
They think they have found it in the word “progressive.” In the House of Representatives they have something they call the “Progressive Caucus.” One of its members, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL), in a television interview this week, claimed this caucus has a federal budget plan to counter the Republican one introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan. After first denouncing Ryan’s plan by claiming it would do many bad things, she said the “Progressive Caucus” plan would lower the federal deficit and balance the budget in 20 years! In the face of galloping new deficits of $1 trillion a year for three years now, how does this “plan” amount to progress?
“Progress,” as defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “1. a moving forward or onward. 2. forward course; development. 3. advance toward perfection or to a better state; improvement.” It’s no wonder the liberals are using it more and more, for it is freighted with positive notions.
Their actions belie the definition of the term: the Democrat-controlled Senate’s failure to pass a budget in over 1,000 days; refusal to reform the heading-toward-bankruptcy Medicare and Medicaid programs; the no-questions-asked loans aggregating $3 billion in loans to dicey “green” companies such as Solyndra.
But “progressive” also means something — which brings us back to where we started, and the eternal shell game of the left and history:
On the night Barack Obama won the “Chesapeake primary,” he held a victory rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, at which he declared: “And where better to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the progressive movement was born?”
Now some readers may be aware that I recently wrote a book arguing that American progressives shared emotional, philosophical, and political affinities with European fascists. But put that aside. Let us instead ask: What did the progressives at the University of Wisconsin believe in?
The president of the university during its heyday as the laboratory of progressivism was Charles Van Hise. A devoted eugenicist, he explained that “he who thinks not of himself primarily, but of his race, and of its future, is the new patriot.” Additionally, “we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.”
The most famous intellectual at the University of Wisconsin was arguably E. A. Ross, coiner of the phrase “race suicide” and one of America’s leading “raceologists.” “The theory that races are virtually equal in capacity,” quoth Ross, “leads to such monumental follies as lining the valleys of the South with the bones of half a million picked whites in order to improve the condition of four million unpicked blacks.”
Ross was hardly alone. Virtually all of the economic policies Obama favors today can be traced back to the efforts of academics at the University of Wisconsin, who helped create the modern welfare state, but did so in the hope of weeding out the dark, the dusky, and the otherwise unfit from the white man’s genetic garden. The politics of these progressive intellectuals conformed perfectly to the worst caricatures of George W. Bush. They instituted loyalty oaths, accused opponents of World War I of treason, and saw in militarism the best hope for organizing society.
Hence, “progressives” decided to call themselves “liberals,” during the era of FDR. And ’round and ’round, the shell games go.
Update: An email from Michael Barone to Glenn Reynolds in 2002 sums up this entire post perfectly. I’d quote from it, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.