An intriguing op-ed by Drew Westen, a leftist professor of psychology at Emory University, appears in today’s New York Times. What is surprising about Professor Westen’s article is that many of his observations make points that conservatives have said about President Barack Obama for quite some time. Take this paragraph, for example, in which Westen asks why Obama seems to “take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him”:
The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.
If Professor Westen ignored all of the above, it speaks only to his inability and that of his like-minded friends to read such warnings by various commentators who regularly made these points at PJMedia as well as National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other conservative outlets. Westen, as you might suspect, has a different answer. He argues that our nation might be “held hostage…by an extremist Republican Party” and that Obama might be a president “who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.” Or he might be a “man of integrity” who was “corrupted” by a political system that is already bankrupt.
So Westen manages to give voice to the extreme disillusionment the Left has with Barack Obama, which, of course, is why the Times chose to make his quite lengthy essay a main feature of “the Sunday Review” section. The heart of his argument, however, is that Obama has failed because he did not move further to the left, and because he failed to tell the American people what they “needed to hear.” At this point, his narrative veers way off course, since the very things he complains that Obama has not done are, in fact, precisely what he has said and done.
He is mad that when the president assumed office, “the nation was in tatters,” and Americans were “scared and angry.” People had lost their jobs and homes and their savings as well. The president could have found those responsible, restored order, and punished those who brought such havoc to bear. The culprits were Wall Street speculators and “conservative extremists.” (Does he mean that George W. Bush, who increased government spending and the deficit, was an extremist?) Obama could have told the people the deficit was not the problem, but rather, the failure to spend more money on pensions and give the entire populace, not just the wealthy, a fair share.
Does Westen really forget that for the past few years, Obama has regularly attacked the rich and the wealthy with their corporate jets and fancy lifestyle, and said over and over — as he did during the campaign in his famous joust with Joe the Plumber — that redistribution of wealth is necessary to right wrongs? Westen argues, as does the rest of the Left, that Obama should have emulated the path taken by FDR, who used “the resources of the United States to put Americans directly to work.”
So in his eyes, Obama should have created a federal jobs program — which of course would have employed Americans at far below a minimum wage and had little to do with increased productivity or getting the economy going. As most of us know, FDR did not end the Great Depression, and before war spending set in and joblessness ended with the draft, people were beginning to talk about the new “Roosevelt depression” that was looming. Westen quotes FDR’s famous statement about how the rich have “hate for me — and I welcome their hatred,” the very kind of class warfare rhetoric Democrats have in our current time become masters at, and use regularly.
So Westen is disappointed that Obama did not become FDR, and did not take a left turn such as Roosevelt supposedly did in the so-called Second New Deal. Rather, he chides Obama for having a “deep-seated aversion to conflict,” and for not understanding the need to make the right-wing “bully show his true and repugnant face in public.”
What his argument amounts to, of course, is a criticism of the American people, who in his eyes foolishly responded to a very real crisis by electing a Republican House of Representatives in the last election, and might very well follow suit by soon electing a Republican Senate and president as well. If this occurs, he thinks it will be because Obama pursued instead a “politics of appeasement.” Instead of allowing New Deal policies to collapse, Obama should have made them stronger and introduced new laws that went even further than FDR had. As he puts it, “he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy.” He should have, in other words, listened to the advice of Paul Krugman.
The result was that the stupid American people — “stupid” is how I argue Westen feels about the people — thought that “Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem.” They thought this because Obama did not explain why we had to engage in deficit spending, and why we had to have universal health care. In other words, it was not Obama’s policies that were at fault, but only his failure to communicate.
So he says we need a president who will put Americans back to work. What Westen’s problem is, however, is that he favors a policy that will not lead to economic growth, but that will have the very opposite effect: punishing those who favor growth and productivity, which will lead to employment and more jobs. What he wants is an Obama who does not “choose the message of bipartisanship,” but rather, that of “the message of confrontation.” One wonders where Mr. Westen was all those times when the latter was precisely the message put out by the White House and by Nancy Pelosi and company when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
All of this leads me to highly recommend that Professor Westen and everyone else read the important op-ed that appeared this same weekend in The Wall Street Journal by one of our most important conservative commentators, the Hoover Institute’s Peter Berkowitz. In his article, Berkowitz deals with what he calls “the panic of the progressive mind,” a panic that actually fits perfectly as a description for the assumptions of Emory’s Professor Westen. He notes first that Obama had in fact favored and enacted an $800 billion plus stimulus package, one that Congress passed in 2009 on a party line vote. Then in April he produced a $3.5 trillion budget, enacted without one Republican vote, “that contained across-the-board funding increases for federal departments and agencies.” In other words, contrary to Professor Westen, the president did favor and enact large federal programs that increased the deficit.
What Obama ignored is the message given to him by the voters. As Berkowitz writes:
The voters’ message was clear: Cut spending, compel the government to live within its means, and put Americans back to work. In short, the president and his party badly overreached in 2009 and 2010; and in 2011 the Republicans, to the extent their numbers in Congress allowed, have effectively pushed back.
These are the facts, which does not mean progressives understand what has happened. Rather than deal with them, they respond to events with hysteria and the kind of rant produced in the Times by Westen. Moreover, Berkowitz points out:
Progressive partisans also displayed economic illiteracy, refusing to recognize the respectability or even the existence of alternative economic views. Instead, they steadfastly insisted that a conservative obsession with reducing debt and curbing spending ignored the real issue, which was putting Americans back to work.
It’s almost as if Peter Berkowitz had read Prof. Westen’s article in advance, he so perfectly gets his mindset.
Of course, there is a connection between controlling the debt and producing jobs, something that progressives do not comprehend. Instead, they engage in name calling and the kind of vituperation about conservatives we see in Westen’s article. My favorite two paragraphs in Berkowitz’s article are the following:
The evident panic of the progressive mind stems from a paradox as old as progressivism in America. Progressives see themselves as the only legitimate representatives of ordinary people. Yet their vision of what democracy requires frequently conflicts with what majorities believe and how they choose to live.
Add to this the progressive belief that human beings can be perfected through the rule of experts, and you have a recipe—when the people make choices contrary to progressive dictates—for generating contempt among the experts for the people whose interests they claim to alone represent. And not just contempt, but even disgust at diversity of opinion, which from the progressive’s perspective distracts the people from the policies demanded by impartial reason.
Like any good leftist (or progressive — as leftists now dub themselves once again), anyone who has a policy view different from the one they subscribe to is seen as either ignorant, wrong, or purposefully serving the wealthy in order to make the poor worse off so they can become even more rich. I am sure that you, like me, know plenty of wealthy people on the political Left who live in the toniest neighborhoods, have homes worth a small fortune, and still think of themselves as representatives of the “real” people.
So Berkowitz’s conclusion, in which he expresses the hope that progressives “cultivate the enlightened virtues they publicly profess and free themselves from the dogmatic beliefs that undergird their political ambitions,” is a forlorn hope for the impossible.
They cannot change, without a serious reevaluation of the philosophy they espouse and the dogma they believe. And such a reevaluation, except in the rarest of cases, will not be coming soon. We may as well be waiting for the leopard to get rid of its spots. The future rests on what the intelligent citizenry does, and the hope that the “real people” will continue to vote as they did recently, and further make the progressive paradigm obsolete.