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Reply #5: Here is the main article: Against Despair - How our misreading of history harms progressivism today [View All]

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Pirate Smile Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Jun-16-10 12:23 AM
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5. Here is the main article: Against Despair - How our misreading of history harms progressivism today
Against Despair
How our misreading of history harms progressivism today

On the day in late April when Barack Obama gave his speech at Cooper Union urging financial regulation reform, The Huffington Post, one of the most important liberal websites we have, could hardly have made more clear to its readers what it thought about Obamas appeal to his audience. "Two Presidents, Two Messages to Anti-Reform Bankers," ran the headline over photographs of Obama and Franklin Roosevelt an hour or two after the President wrapped up his speech. Obama, the sub-headlines explained, urged bankers to "Join Us," while Roosevelt had said: "I Welcome Their Hatred."

The juxtaposition and the wording struck me as representative of a kind of liberal stance thats been common since Obama took office and that does not serve liberalisms long-term interests, into the Obama years and beyond them. Its one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despairas reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But Ive read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation. One noticed it in the days after the passage of the health-care bill in late March. There was a brief geyser of euphoria, and then, in two or three or at most five days, skirmishes broke out over why Obama didnt make more recess appointments than the 15 he shoved through on March 27. By March 3110 days after the House passed health-care reformwhen Obama announced his since re-thought plan to open many coastal areas to offshore drilling, things on the liberal side were more or less back to the dour normal.

The despair has taken many guises. There is the disappointment, wholly ingenuous and therefore shot with some pathos, of the rank-and-file progressive voter who really did get swept up in the overbaked rhetoric of 2008 and came somehow to believe that Obama possessed unearthly powers and ought to have been able to set everything right in seven or eight months, a year tops. There is in other instances the welled-up anger of what we might call professional disgruntleists: people on the left who "just knew" that Obama wasnt all that he was cracked up to beor, more pointedly, that he cracked himself up to beand have taken each apostasy and sell out, on single-payer or the banks or the Copenhagen summit or what have you, as proof that they were right all along. There are many colorations in between: some worth taking seriously, some not; some of them authentic, inasmuch as they represent the legitimate and proper statements of principle from people who work every day in support of certain bedrock ideals and expect some adherence to them, and others the kind of peanut-gallery semaphoring performed more for the sake of constituencies or donors or page views than of the polity.

But we have to take a longer view than that, too. I present the history I have here to suggest that progressive change is hard in the United States: It doesnt happen quickly, it always faces intense opposition, it is in no sense inevitable, and it is eternallyeven under Johnson, who rejected going for universal health care as too risky, and who once glared silently and balefully at his labor secretary, Willard Wirtz, when Wirtz suggested to him a government-run, New Deal-style employment programcompromised, never quite enough for the activists of the time.

I say that a perhaps paradoxical comfort can be taken in these facts. If we insist on thinking of Obamaand in our personality-driven political culture, its so hard not to do thisas liberalisms redeemer, he will always disappoint, as redeemers usually do. But if we think of him as one piece on a vexing historical chess board in a match that will take years to play out, we can exhale, and see the true shape of the tasks ahead of us. I dont mean to say here that people should just be quiet. Quite the opposite: Progressive pressure is a better guarantor of progressive governance than hoping that governors will follow their most compassionate instincts. And liberals shouldnt declare themselves entirely satisfied with an outcome unless they actually are (something that probably wont happen too often). But I do very much mean to say that liberals should avoid the seductive temptation of wallowing in disappointment, and letting that turn into fury and then resignationbranding decisions one disagrees with as "betrayals" and "sell-outs," retiring inward, pushing away from civic life. Those responses only help conservatism, which has quite enough power as it is.
The use or misuse of history as a blunt weapon is a trope that guarantees despair. If this Administrations moments are always to be compared with liberalisms greatest hits, it will never measure up, and the effect will be to signal to rank-and-file progressives that their values are constantly being sold short (I notice no one compares Obama outright with the segregationist-coddling FDR or the Vietnam-bombing LBJ, comparisons from which he would emerge favorably). But this is about something more important and lasting than any single president. We are in a pitched ideological battle that seems virtually certain to continue for many years. In that battle, despair will produce only defeat.
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