By Matthew Continetti
What’s the clearest sign the Obama agenda is in trouble? That’s easy: the string of jeremiads in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets of fashionable opinion. Unable to tout the administration’s successes, and worried about Republican ascendancy, liberals have assigned responsibility for the mess they’re in neither to their program nor to their methods but to larger, structural faults in American politics and society. Beginning with you.
You aren’t too bright, for one thing. After all, opines Jacob Weisberg in Newsweek, the “biggest culprit” behind “our political paralysis” is the “childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.” You simply do not know what’s good for you. “On many issues these days,” writes the Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein, “the American people are badly confused.” “The people may have spoken,” writes the New -Yorker’s James Surowiecki. “It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.” In a blog post titled “Too Dumb to Thrive,” Time magazine’s Joe Klein cuts to the chase: “It is very difficult to thrive in an increasingly competitive world if you’re a nation of dodos.”
The problem, as Weisberg sees it, is that America “simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, and other problems.” Note the myopia. For Weisberg, the only conceivable “action” on any issue is limited to the policy preferences of liberal Democrats. No other options spring to mind.
This is nonsense. Just because the public says the economy is important does not necessarily mean it has to support a stimulus measure that has added massively to the debt without much benefit. Just because the public is concerned with rising health care costs does not mean that it has to support a bill that could alter existing health care arrangements and increase costs in the long-term. Steven Pearlstein writes that Americans “want to do something about global warming.” No they don’t. Global warming came dead last in a recent Pew survey of public priorities.
The reason health care, cap and trade, and the other blocks of Obama’s New Foundation are unpopular isn’t public ignorance. It’s that the public sees them as counterproductive—and in many cases beside the point. The people’s representatives have responded to a variety of signals, from falling poll numbers, to town hall protests, to GOP victories in -Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Which is precisely how democracy is supposed to function.
And that’s the problem, says Kurt Andersen in New York magazine. “American democracy has gotten way too democratic.” The “thoughtful, educated, well-off, well-regarded gentlemen” who designed our Constitution “wanted a government run by an American elite like themselves.” But the “populist impulse” abroad in the land today has scared legislators into obeying the people’s demands.
It was not always thus. “In the old days,” Andersen laments, “the elite media really did control the national political discourse” and “presidents and congressional leaders could pretty well manage the policy conversations” without the public trying to butt in. But there’s no going back now; “maybe our republic’s constitutional operating system simply can’t scale up to deal satisfactorily with a heterogenous population of 310 million.”
This liberal uneasiness with democracy is not new. In 2003, in The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria made the case against too much public involvement in government. In 2008, in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman dreamed of America becoming “China for a day” so that he could impose his environmental agenda on a truculent populace. In a 2009 New York Times column, Friedman wrote that a dictatorship, “when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today,” has “great advantages” over democratic systems. In the Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows writes that “whatever is wrong with today’s Communist leadership [in Beijing], it is widely seen as pulling the country nearer to its full potential rather than pushing it away.” Nevertheless, the Democrats probably aren’t going to run on “Communist China Does It Better.”
What makes the liberal jeremiads confusing is that they work at cross purposes. On one hand, you’ve got the attacks on the people’s intelligence and representative government. On the other, you’ve got the attacks on American institutions for not being representative enough. Which is it? Are the people the problem, or is their government? According to Fallows, it’s the latter: “Our government is old and broken and dysfunctional, and may even be beyond repair.”
The culprit is the Senate, which gives equal say to states with small populations and requires 60 votes to pass legislation. Fallows says these minority rights have turned the Senate “into a deep freeze and a dead weight.” “America is not yet lost,” Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times, “but the Senate is working on it.” In a Huffington Post blog, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, writes that special interests are “using the filibuster to stop legislation that would benefit the little guy,” whether the little guy likes it or not.
You can make a persuasive argument that the filibuster has been deployed too frequently in recent years, especially when it has prevented presidents, Republican and Democrat, from staffing their administrations. Nevertheless, the Senate and the filibuster are there for good reasons: to defuse momentary passions that could have unintended and harmful consequences for the country.
The system is designed to ensure broad consensus before Congress enacts major reforms. Such consensus existed during the New Deal and Great Society. And there was consensus behind certain elements of Reagan’s and Bush’s and Clinton’s programs, as well. That was not the case when George W. Bush attempted to overhaul Social Security, however. The public agreed with Bush that there was a problem, but it did not like his solution. It has had the same reaction to Obama’s proposals.
The liberal program is in disarray because liberals have failed to establish general agreement. They have found that simple majorities do not automatically translate into programmatic success. And when they are met with public opposition and institutional resistance, they do what comes naturally. They blame Americans first.