Ed Driscoll

Rage Inside the Machine

Back in mid-2008, Jim Geraghty spotted the white-hot anger that Obama-supporting “progressives” aimed towards Hillary Clinton, her husband Bill, Hillary-supporting Geraldine Ferraro, and even Hillary’s voters in the presidential primaries, and wondered just what was going on. This was only a year and half after the left attempted to sandbag Joe Lieberman, going so far as to picture him in blackface at the Huffington Post, just six years after nominating him to be Al Gore’s veep. And it was months before Sarah Palin became a household name, in part because of the left’s wrath being directed at her. One expects the tolerant, progressive, diversity-obsessed left to cling bitterly towards its anger to conservatives, but not towards each other — and certainly not with this level of vitriol.

As Jim wrote on Friday, the Angry Left, having turned on the man they elected to the White House, came full circle this week:

Once you start marinating in this nastiness, it starts to seep into how you think and speak, and perhaps you can’t turn it off. It is now defining the Left. Michael Moore. Bill Maher. Joy Behar. It didn’t just stay in the grassroots and celebrities; it came to the halls of Congress with Alan Grayson.

We on the right hated Hillary Clinton back in the 1990s. Then the 2008 campaign comes along, Hillary is perceived to be the less liberal candidate than Obama, and suddenly Air America’s Randi Rhodes is calling her a “big [f-word]ing whore.” This is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about. Ten years earlier, almost every Democrat in America loved her, and we were the ones calling her names. But once she’s not their preferred choice, they can turn on her and denounce her in the same tone they would use to denounce a conservative Republican.

And now, finally, it comes full circle. Now they’re sneering at Obama. Their guy. The guy whom they adored, perhaps as much as any party has ever adored its leader, in 2007 and 2008. Now they say, “[F-word] him.”

Hey, pal, that’s the President of the United States. Show some respect.

(How did it come to the point where we have to be the ones to demand that?)

And of course, concurrent with that fire and brimstone rage is the desire to create messianic figures out of perfectly ordinary politicians — witness first the transformation of Al Gore from Bill Clinton’s vaguely wonkish veep and robotic board-stiff failed presidential candidate in 2000 to The Goracle, maaan, followed in very short succession by the deification of political neophyte Barack Obama. This early 2008 quote from JournoList founder Ezra Klein hints at the frenzy to come throughout that year:

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

But why has what was once called “liberalism” gone so far off the rails? How did an ideology which prides itself outwardly on coolness and a Holden Caulfield-inspired hatred of hypocrisy work itself into a constant fever pitch, vibrating back and forth between judging everything from the binary prism of SUX and ROX?

One reason is that the underlying ideology itself, whose roots were forged in the 19th century, is now increasingly sclerotic. As James Piereson noted in Camelot and Cultural Revolution, American liberalism retracted slightly in the 1950s, tamping down its revolutionary fervor, cementing its hard-won gains from the first half of the century, and attempting to create the patina of a timeless and permanent ideology. That form of establishment liberalism was of course all too quickly shattered, as Piereson noted, by the assassination of JFK by a Marxist revolutionary, and would be increasingly usurped by the New Left of the late 1960s, whose much more punitive worldview Obama has marinated in throughout his life.

But as with liberalism of the 1950s, the New Left is now very much the establishment themselves. And a movement that sees itself as avant-garde is now the very definition of garde.

To put it mildly, this sort of cognitive dissonance can cause tension.

Which brings us to Ronald Radosh’s new post at PJM, in which he explores The New Republic and “the Crisis of The American Intellectual: Can the Old Liberal Stalwart Play a Role in Today’s World?”:

A few years ago, [incoming New Republic editor Richard Just] participated in some of the meetings held to create an American version of the Euston Manifesto, which TNR publicized, and of which Just was a co-author and signer. (The full American manifesto can be found here.) As the American authors of what began as a British endeavor explain:

The statement was a defense of liberal democracy and human rights as well as a rejection of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism.

Regarding the British one as a “turning point in contemporary intellectual and political debates,” the American supporters came up with their own domestic version.

Unfortunately, the high hopes its framers had came to naught. Its influence was virtually nil. In Europe, rather than have a great effect, the climate of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, especially in London where Euston originated, has only become worse.

The problem that Just and TNR have, however, is one brilliantly addressed by Walter Russell Mead in his latest important blog post on “The Crisis of the American Intellectual.” Read argues that the reason today’s intellectuals are ill-equipped to play a major role in addressing what we must do about today’s issues goes way beyond Just’s hopes that liberalism questions itself and its own favored exponents of the doctrine.

As Mead explains, “the United States is stuck with a social model that doesn’t work anymore.” Mead writes that the problems go beyond the erosion of our cultural model, the problem of the deficit, and the problems of international competition, all of which he thinks can be dealt with. The problem is nothing less than the Weltanschauung of the American intellectual class.

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Instead, he argues that they are “backward looking and reactionary.” By that he means they are stuck in the old Progressive era notion of “progress” and I would add the vision of statist socialism favored by many on the Left. First, Mead addresses ideology:

Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor.  The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.

And this, to get back to the problem facing TNR, is still the perspective most of its editors hold. They think the “administrative, bureaucratic state,” as Mead defines it, can still be handled via regulatory measures. Hence their defense of and support of the disastrous ObamaCare, which outgoing editor Foer mentions as one of the magazine’s most important efforts. As Mead writes so powerfully, “if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and institutions of twentieth century progressivism.” Its promises have dissolved, and its “premises no longer hold.” This goes against the grains of many of our best intellectuals, Mead claims, an observation justified by reading many of TNR’s own writers and editors when they write about domestic issues.

For America to prosper, Mead argues:

Power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.

And good luck with the left ad0pting that remarkably open model in the near future, especially when the current iteration of what was called progressivism, having been eclipsed by the adaptability of the modern, open, technologically savvy society, is angrily attempting to turn the clock back on freedom, entrepreneurship, and in many cases, technology itself.