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The Perils of Phony Liberalism

photo: wstera2 via Flickr

Bill Clinton wore his centrism proudly, especially after the GOP had taken control of Congress in 1994. That’s when the former chairman of the DLC brought in Dick Morris, who persuaded him to adopt Republican policies. Clinton made no secret of his move to the right; on the contrary, he trumpeted his triangulation. In 1996 he declared that “era of big government is over,” and so it was. Most everyone to the left of, say, Jerry Falwell accepted that he was not a liberal.

Obama is another story. Although he’s every bit the neoliberal that Clinton was, although you could make the case that he’s farther to the right that Clinton, although he often goes out of his way to distance himself from liberals and liberalism, he’s nonetheless regarded as a liberal (and not just by conservatives).

Why the liberal label still adheres to this centrist is an interesting question with many possible answers—the intentional ambiguity of his messaging, the ostensible largeness of his agenda, his race, his initial opposition to the Iraq War, the spin of his supporters seeking to neutralize criticism from the left, widespread inability to understand what authentic liberalism is—but I’m more interested, and worried about, the result.

What does it matter? Why should we care that many people don’t see Obama and his policies clearly? Because liberalism will be blamed for neoliberalism’s failure.

Clinton at least had the benefit of the tech boom. No such luck for Obama, who came in to office at a time screaming out for liberalism, for deficit spending, for policies that benefited the unlucky classes at the expense of the super rich. Instead, he’s pursued policies that help Wall Street and corporate power (that’s what neoliberalism does), reversing income inequality only at the margins (that’s also what neoliberalism does.)

His policies will likely prove to be neither effective nor popular. That will be horrendous for the country in any case, but it will be even worse if people believe that it’s liberalism that had failed. Centrism in liberalism’s clothing is a beast we should all fear. It’s already doing damage. No less an Obama admirer than Nate Silver says. . . .

Back in 2008, the smart liberal spin on “post-partisanship” — one which I frankly bought into — is that it was in part an effort to put a popular, centrist sheen on a relatively liberal agenda. Instead, as Leonhardt points out, what Obama has wound up with is an unpopular, liberal sheen on a relatively centrist agenda.

Which brings me to the health care bill. We all know that it’s not a liberal piece of legislation. Rather, it’s centrist, with liberal elements adorning the neoliberalism (or moderate Republicanism) at its core. In fact, the bill is something of a parody of liberalism, with billions of dollars being spent to prop of an ineffective system.

Yet many bill backers claim it’s a victory for liberalism on par with Medicare and Social Security. Some suggest it’s an even larger achievement than Medicare and Social Security. (This MYDD front pager says Obama has courage that LBJ and FDR lacked!) Others say the bill represents a victory over the special interests. And so on. Never mind that some of these arguments are incoherent (Jonathan Chait says the bill is both moderate Republicanism and a grand progressive achievement), they contribute to the perception that this bill is a manifestation of liberalism.

Another contributing factor is the eagerness with which most of the establishment left both claimed ownership of the bill and demonized those on the left who opposed it. If the bill had to pass, I wish it had passed over the objection of a sizable chunk of progressives. Or at least I wish their nose-holding had been more obvious. Their opposition would’ve highlighted the bill’s centrism. Instead, their loving embrace makes the bill seem much more progressive than it is.

The result of hyperbolic claims about the bill’s greatness combined with the left’s embrace of the bill is that this centrist, corporate-friendly piece of legislation will be seen as a test case for liberalism. Don’t believe me? A thought experiment: pretend that the health care bill has turned out poorly. Let’s say it didn’t hold down costs or improve care or cut the deficit. Raise your hand if you think that in response the Democratic Establishment and the corporate media would conclude that corporatism and centrism had failed. How many would argue that Obama hadn’t gone far enough and that it was now time to try single payer?

None, of course. The shapers of conventional wisdom will say that liberalism had failed, and they will have a thousand quotes from progressives to support their case.

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The Perils of Phony Liberalism

Bill Clinton wore his centrism proudly, especially after the GOP had taken control of Congress in 1994. That’s when the former chairman of the DLC brought in Dick Morris, who persuaded him to adopt Republican policies. Clinton made no secret of his move to the right; on the contrary, he trumpeted his triangulation. In 1996 he declared that “era of big government is over,” and so it was. Most everyone to the left of, say, Jerry Falwell accepted that he was not a liberal.

Obama is another story. Although he’s every bit the neoliberal that Clinton was, although you could make the case that he’s farther to the right that Clinton, although he often goes out of his way to distance himself from liberals and liberalism, he’s nonetheless regarded as a liberal (and not just by conservatives).

Why the liberal label still adheres to this centrist is an interesting question with many possible answers—the intentional ambiguity of his messaging, the ostensible largeness of his agenda, his race, his initial opposition to the Iraq War, the spin of his supporters seeking to neutralize criticism from the left, widespread inability to understand what authentic liberalism is—but I’m more interested, and worried about, the result.

What does it matter? Why should we care that many people don’t see Obama and his policies clearly? Because liberalism will be blamed for neoliberalism’s failure.

Clinton at least had the benefit of the tech boom. No such luck for Obama, who came in to office at a time screaming out for liberalism, for deficit spending, for policies that benefited the unlucky classes at the expense of the super rich. Instead, he’s pursued policies that help Wall Street and corporate power (that’s what neoliberalism does), reversing income inequality only at the margins (that’s also what neoliberalism does.)

His policies will likely prove to be neither effective nor popular. That will be horrendous for the country in any case, but it will be even worse if people believe that it’s liberalism that had failed. Centrism in liberalism’s clothing is a beast we should all fear. It’s already doing damage. No less an Obama admirer than Nate Silver says:

Back in 2008, the smart liberal spin on "post-partisanship" — one which I frankly bought into — is that it was in part an effort to put a popular, centrist sheen on a relatively liberal agenda. Instead, as Leonhardt points out, what Obama has wound up with is an unpopular, liberal sheen on a relatively centrist agenda.

Which brings me to the health care bill. We all know that it’s not a liberal piece of legislation. Rather, it’s centrist, with liberal elements adorning the neoliberalism (or moderate Republicanism) at its core. In fact, the bill is something of a parody of liberalism, with billions of dollars being spent to prop of an ineffective system.

Yet many bill backers claim it’s a victory for liberalism on par with Medicare and Social Security. Some suggest it’s an even larger achievement than Medicare and Social Security. (This MYDD front pager says Obama has courage that LBJ and FDR lacked!) Others say the bill represents a victory over the special interests. And so on. Never mind that some of these arguments are incoherent (Jonathan Chait says the bill is both moderate Republicanism and a grand progressive achievement), they contribute to the perception that this bill is a manifestation of liberalism.

Another contributing factor is the eagerness with which most of the establishment left both claimed ownership of the bill and demonized those on the left who opposed it. If the bill had to pass, I wish it had passed over the objection of a sizable chunk of progressives. Or at least I wish their nose-holding had been more obvious. Their opposition would’ve highlighted the bill’s centrism. Instead, their loving embrace makes the bill seem much more progressive than it is.

The result of hyperbolic claims about the bill’s greatness combined with the left’s embrace of the bill is that this centrist, corporate-friendly piece of legislation will be seen as a test case for liberalism. Don’t believe me? A thought experiment: pretend that the health care bill has turned out poorly. Let’s say it didn’t hold down costs or improve care or cut the deficit. Raise your hand if you think that in response the Democratic Establishment and the corporate media would conclude that corporatism and centrism had failed. How many would argue that Obama hadn’t gone far enough and that it was now time to try single payer?

None, of course. The shapers of conventional wisdom will say that liberalism had failed, and they will have a thousand quotes from progressives to support their case.

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