Published online 11 January 2015.
Over at Salon, again, readers will be faced with the specter of Thomas Frank, who has been wrestling for some time (at least since his book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?“) with the matter of how populism became a “right-wing” phenomenon in America. (After all, Kansas used to be a hotbed of the Socialist Party before it became a “red state.”)
Now Frank is complaining about “centrist commentators” (“How liberal apologists torpedoed change, helped make the Democrats safe for Wall Street,” Salon, 1/11/2015). Of course, Frank is probably just bitter that the Democrats didn’t give him his pony, but think of his piece in Salon as a fun exercise in cataloguing. So let’s dive in, shall we?
According to Frank, the “first and most obvious excuse for all things Obama is, of course, the Republicans.” Since the Republicans epitomize evil, Obama must epitomize good. Never mind that this isn’t quite Obama’s own take on the matter. Party discipline ahead!
And then we have the “this is the best we can do” argument. For its advocates, “Obama is ‘the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow.'” This one serves two functions. First off, it might be true — but truth is way kewl as long as you don’t examine reasons. What’s permitted are “facts,” whereas liberals aren’t supposed to have a theory of the hegemonic order, of how it came about or of how we might do more than just pretend to fight it, or anything like that. Real hope is always to be vested in “more and better Democrats.” Right?
And then you have a similar argument with the “ideological trends are in charge” thing. “Instead of the Republican Party itself, the chief culprit here is the trends propelling the GOP ever rightward, which are depicted as being akin to forces of nature, impossible for any Democrat to contest.” America is a right-wing country y’know. Never mind that it wasn’t always that way; it must be natural!
There’s also, as Frank points out, the “structural obstacles” argument. We just couldn’t get sixty votes y’know.
Then Thomas Frank argues that there’s a “squaring” problem involved in all of this “centrist commentating.”
Still, it’s hard to square the extreme fatalism implied in most of these apologetic exercises with the liberal tradition of a confident faith in the public sector.
But, of course, for Frank the pundits always have an explanation:
One way in which certain pundits sidestep this paralyzing objection is to insist that, if you read the fine print, Obama never really promised to do awesome big things in the first place. Therefore, expecting him to do awesome big things is a category error, as awesomeness simply wasn’t in his contract.
But it seems to me that if you are having trouble squaring the pundits’ excuses for Obama and for the Democrats with your faith in the public sector as an agency for solving major social problems, you don’t need to say out loud to your liberal friends (as Frank does in his column) that the pundits are a joke and the Democrats are really minions of Wall Street. All you really need to do is to imitate the politicians! Admit to yourself (and maybe in front of a few nosy types like Thomas Frank or Cenk Uygur) that the past six years of economic policy, education policy, immigration policy, jobs policy, foreign policy, communication policy etc. is what you (like your favorite President) really wanted all along, pretend that proposing a bunch of half-measures that won’t get passed is as good as making utopia happen, and if anyone asks, just blame it on the Republicans.Problem solved!