Panic of the Progressives
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner said, “it’s not even past.” The progressives’ fury over Obama’s meltdown in last week’s debate, and their desperate efforts to get him reelected by any means possible, have to be understood in the context of the long history of the left’s attempt to impose its ideology on the United States. Though successful at capturing the universities, schools, popular culture, and most churches, the left still lusts for the presidency, where the real power lies to change America in line with their ideology. Yet for the last four decades, the left has seen what appears to be victory slip from its grasp, as their presidential standard-bearer either lost the election or betrayed their ideals once in office.
Start in 1972. The left successfully hijacked the Democratic party and imposed its ideological aims on the party’s platform: creeping socialism, dirigiste economic policy, radical egalitarianism, income redistribution, a balkanizing identity politics, institutionalized assaults on traditional morality and religion, and a foreign policy predicated on the global malignity and oppressive policies of the United States. Unfortunately for the left, America wasn’t ready for such a radical transformation, and George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon by 23 points. Yet within a year, the media-hyped Watergate scandal mortally wounded Nixon, who was replaced by the ineffectual Gerald Ford.
Then in 1975, the anti-war left was seemingly vindicated by the collapse of South Vietnam in the face of a massive invasion by the North Vietnamese with the support of the Soviets and the Chinese. The truth, of course, was very different. The U.S. had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting the South off from air support and foreign aid. Yet the perception fostered by the sympathetic media was that the left had been right: America had fought an unjust, neo-imperialist war against a nationalist movement supported by a majority of the Vietnamese, a war disguised as resistance to communist aggression. Believing the endemic corruption and tyranny of America had been made manifest both domestically and abroad, the left was sure its chance had come to finish the work started in 1972.
Enter Jimmy Carter in 1976, a one-term governor of Georgia with scant national experience. Yet Carter was the perfect Trojan horse: a Southern evangelical Christian who could appeal to traditional conservative constituencies. Once in office, however, Carter’s presidency was marked equally by incompetence and leftish ideology, his policies predicated on American retreat and weakness. This tone of apology and retreat was obvious in his inaugural speech, where he admitted America’s “recent mistakes,” suggested we should not “dwell on remembered glory,” and sighed that “even our great nations has its recognized limits” and can “simply do our best.”
A few months later, he announced that America was now free of the “inordinate fear of communism,” and so he would put the promotion of human rights at the center of foreign policy, and push for a “freeze on further modernization and production of weapons and a continuing, substantial reduction of strategic nuclear weapons as well.” Hence Carter pursued moralizing internationalism, pushed for disarmament, and emasculated the CIA. A few years later came the famous “malaise” speech, in which Carter gloomily identified “a fundamental threat to American democracy,” what he called “a crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” And of course, the major causes of this “crisis” were the two American original sins: “the agony of Vietnam” and the dishonoring of the presidency by the “shock of Watergate.”
The consequences of Carter’s foreign policy of self-loathing and retreat quickly became obvious during his presidency, as the Soviet Union and its satellites went on a geopolitical rampage, and cutbacks in U.S. weapons development were met with a Soviet military buildup. Worse yet in the long run, our steady ally in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, was abandoned to the tender mercies of the jihadist Ayatollah Khomeini. Soon followed the storming of our embassy and the taking of American hostages, 52 of whom were held for 444 days.
Carter’s groveling outreach to the mullahs in Iran––including a secret letter delivered by leftist former Attorney General Ramsay Clark that yearned for good relations “based upon equality, mutual respect, and friendship”––followed by a poorly planned and half-hearted rescue attempt that killed 8 American soldiers, whose charred remains were gleefully poked with canes by Iranian mullahs, convinced Americans once again that progressive policies damaged America’s security and interests. Nor were they ready to embrace the self-loathing and guilt that underlay those policies.
Thus followed the long, dark night of the progressive soul, Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House. Reagan’s success in turning around the economy and bringing down the Soviet Union convinced brighter progressives that the old leftist playbook had to be abandoned. If they wanted the presidency, they had at least to pretend to endorse more centrist policies, particularly when it came to foreign policy. After the interregnum of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, a tanking economy allowed once again a southern governor to come to the rescue. Even better, unlike the dour, self-righteous Jimmy Carter, the “New Democrat” baby-boomer Bill Clinton was “cool,” a draft-dodger, skirt-chaser, dope-smoker, and saxophone player. More important, he was a brilliant politician who could “feel your pain” and connect with voters much more intimately than the self-righteous scold Carter ever could. At the start of his term, Clinton seemed to deliver on the progressive agenda. He started work on creating government-run health care, the progressive Holy Grail, he improved the position of homosexuals in the military, he increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and he expanded entitlements such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Then came the debacle of the midterm elections, when Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress.
Clinton responded, of course, by his now legendary “triangulation,” tacking to the right. At the start of his second term he announced, “The era of big government is over.” He committed a mortal sin for progressives: he cooperated with Republicans in reforming welfare, striking at the heart of progressive environmental determinism by recognizing the corruption of character that follows absolving individuals of personal responsibility. He signed off on legislation eliminating two provisions of the Glass-Steagall act, which had restricted banks from getting involved in securities, and he lowered the capital gains rate from 28% to 20%. Clinton then crippled the remainder of his presidency with the humiliating scandal created by his juvenile hijinks with a White House intern, becoming only the second president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Once more, the left had been betrayed by its political great hope.
Yet waiting in the wings was Vice President Al Gore, a progressive true believer and prophet seemingly free of the character flaws that had compromised Clinton’s presidency. But the disputed 2000 election––stolen, progressives rationalized, by George Bush and the Supreme Court’s conservatives––brought to power another Republican, this one even more hateful than Ronald Reagan. Reagan, after all, was from an earlier generation who had missed out on getting his consciousness raised by the progressive take-over of the culture in the 60s. But George Bush was a baby-boomer, a privileged, partying frat-boy who, as the leftist myth has it, found Jesus and conservatism and parlayed his family connections to take control of the White House. But the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and the seeming revival of the anti-war movement, reanimated the old progressive myth from the ’60s, when the left stopped another “unjust” neo-imperialist war. Yet in 2004, the Democrats nominated John Kerry, one of the Senate’s most left-wing members, but an incompetent campaigner full of rich-liberal hauteur and utterly lacking in charisma. Once more, the progressives had to spend four more years in the political wilderness.
Then in 2008 the progressive messiah arrived. A left-wing Dr. Frankenstein could not have created a candidate more perfect than Barack Obama. He was nominally black, “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” as Joe Biden put it, lacking the frightening funk of a Jesse Jackson. He was Columbia and Harvard educated, and endowed with a photogenic family. More important, unlike Kerry or Carter, he possessed a seemingly Clintonesque ability to present political bromides and slogans with a winning smile. Best of all, he was staunchly progressive, his whole adult life before 2008 spent in the belly of the leftist beast: universities and Alinsky-inspired community organizing, with two-years’ worth of service in the U.S. Senate, where he was one of its most liberal members, railing against the 2006 “surge” in Iraq, which he called a “reckless escalation” redolent of Vietnam. Provided with the political Teflon created by white guilt and the yearning for racial and political reconciliation that he exploited in his speeches, and coddled by a protective media, Obama overcame the usually toxic effects of extreme liberalism on presidential candidates.
So the media went all-in for Obama, ignoring or dismissing the troubling details from his past like his grades in college, his incomplete health records, his friendship with unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, and his 20 years spent in his self-confessed “spiritual guide” Jeremiah Wright’s racist, anti-American church. Even his betrayal of progressive goals like closing down Guantanamo and quickly ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not damp the progressive ardor. He partially delivered on the leftist Holy Grail of nationalized health care, ramming through Obamacare with sleazy politicking the media studiously ignored. He went on the international “apology” tour, confessing America’s past sins and validating the old leftist indictment of America as a global villain.
He dismissed American exceptionalism, and instead extolled the virtues of multi-lateral diplomacy and U.N. internationalism presumably scorned by his trigger-happy cowboy predecessor. He also proscribed waterboarding, the most effective interrogation technique we had for extracting useful intelligence, but decried as “torture” by the left. He did ramp up drone attacks, another progressive mortal sin, but one ignored by the same media that meticulously documented every one of Bush’s alleged transgressions of international law. But this backsliding, along with other lapses such as maintaining rendition and other Bush-era policies like the Patriot Act, could all be forgiven, acceptable compromises necessary to win their standard-bearer another term, when without the pressure of reelection he could be more “flexible,” as he told the Russians. So when the reelection campaign started, the media shifted from their usual ideological bias to outright partisanship. They ignored or played down anything remotely damaging to Obama, from Joe Biden’s surreal gaffes to the attempt to cover up the disastrous mistakes that led to our ambassador being murdered in Benghazi, thus deflecting attention from Obama’s failed foreign policy.
Then came the debate. Without a friendly chorus to preach to and a cheerleading media to act as a filter, Obama was revealed to be what he had been all along: a mediocre mind, a terrible politician, and an arrogant narcissist who could only smirk and grimace as Mitt Romney took him apart.
At that point, 40 years of progressive frustration and betrayal erupted into hysterical rage. The possibility of Obama’s defeat and yet another repudiation of progressive ideology suddenly became more real. No amount of media spin, from Al Gore’s altitude sickness excuse to Bob Woodward’s made-up foreign policy “crisis,” could cover up the debacle of Obama’s performance. Like children who fear they might not get what they want, the media could only throw a tantrum and attack their messiah for revealing the feet of clay they had so desperately kept hidden.
Now the progressives are panicking. They can’t create a better candidate than Obama has been for smuggling progressive ideology under the guise of soothing centrism. And they can’t stand the thought of yet another competent Republican whose term will illustrate once again the real-world failures of progressive utopianism. What this history of 40 years of dashed hopes and abject failure tells us is that from now until election day, the desperate Dems and their media errand boys will use every dirty trick to defeat Romney and preserve their dream to “fundamentally transform America.”