Liberals Playing to Type

The Weekly Standard | Published on

By Yuval Levin

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In April 2008, days after saying that voters in western Pennsylvania were inclined to cling to religion and guns out of bitterness, Senator Barack Obama sat down for an interview with the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to try to fix some of the damage his remark had done to his presidential campaign. With exceptional frankness, he told the paper’s editors that what troubled him most about his off-handed comment was that it risked confirming some damaging stereotypes about liberals—stereotypes rooted in Democratic excesses of the past that the party had been trying mightily to overcome for decades. Former President Bill Clinton “deserves some credit for having corrected some of those excesses,” Obama said, and he would hate to see that work undone, and liberals once again caricatured.

Three and a half years later, it is safe to say those old stereotypes have made a comeback, because the old excesses have too. In fact, at least on the domestic front, the age of Obama has been a kind of procession of the postwar era’s major liberal clichés, as one familiar leftist type after another has come out of retirement to remind American voters why liberals have always made them nervous.

First and foremost has been the liberal big spender. Obama began his tenure with a massive $800 billion “stimulus” bill consisting largely of payoffs to traditional Democratic constituencies and investments in assorted pet projects of the left. It was a model of pork and inefficiency, and a sign of things to come. In the subsequent three years, the large national debt Obama inherited has roughly doubled in size, domestic discretionary spending has increased by 25 percent (even without counting the stimulus), and we have experienced the three largest annual deficits in American history. Even this year, as the president has been dragged kicking and screaming into deficit-reduction negotiations with congressional Republicans, he proposed a budget that would further increase the deficit and debt.

Much of this spending has been advertised as intended to spur the flagging economy, and on this front we have seen the reappearance of a second liberal type: the incompetent economist. Courtesy of Jimmy Carter in particular, liberals came to be identified with an economics of stagnation and decline. Bill Clinton did a lot to eradicate that impression, but Barack Obama has revived it. Since Obama took office, unemployment has averaged 9.3 percent, and economic growth has been anemic despite enormous measures intended to improve both. Repeated promises of a strong recovery around the corner have contributed to an impression of hapless incompetence, and the public’s expectations regarding the economy are now more pessimistic than they have been since the late 1970s, while (in large part as a result) overall faith in government is at record lows.

Yet even amid such dismal public trust in the state, we have seen the reemergence of the liberal technocratic micromanager—a third old liberal type. An explosion of regulatory discretion and the birth of several large new public programs have revealed an extraordinary faith in bureaucratic administration among today’s Democrats. It is of course most powerfully evident in Obamacare, with its vast array of interlocking rules and programs overseen by an army of waiver-granting clerks, and its board of 15 philosopher-accountants setting prices. The best and brightest of the Kennedy and Johnson eras could not have dreamed of being trusted with such powers, let alone with a trillion dollars to spend.

But that spending should not worry us, we are told, because yet another liberal type is on the scene to see that it’s covered: the big taxer, who is never far behind the big spender. The tax burden imposed by Obamacare alone comes to roughly $770 billion over ten years, but that is just the beginning. There was a time when Democrats ran away from the mantle of the party of tax increases, but by this past summer the administration and congressional Democrats had put higher taxes at the top of their list of fiscal priorities. They now insist quite openly that no further budget deals will be possible if taxes are not raised.

Of course, they also insist that those higher taxes will be drawn exclusively from wealthier Americans, and so have called up still another old friend: the class warrior. These days, President Obama travels the country arguing that the rich have done too well at the expense of all other Americans and should be made to give more to the government—though, to blunt the attack (and to get around the inconvenient fact that his own net worth is estimated at more than $10 million), he has added the unusual twist of including himself among the moneyed interests. “How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?” he asked in a speech in July.

This populist posture, however, is easily undermined by perhaps the most prominent liberal type of our own time—the cultural elitist, whom Obama did not really have to recall from retirement at all. This was the type so thoroughly embodied by John Kerry in 2004. It was the type that Obama exhibited when he shared his opinion of the religious and cultural attachments of western Pennsylvanians in 2008. And it has shown itself again and again in the president’s unguarded moments since—perhaps most notably when he asserted from the White House podium that a police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, acted “stupidly” when he arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for disorderly conduct in 2009. In that moment of profound irresponsibility, Obama reminded Americans of what has so often unnerved them about modern liberals, from the riotous counterculture of the 1960s through today’s NPR snobs.

Indeed, the cultural stereotypes of the left have long been more powerful, and more harmful to liberals, than even the political and economic stereotypes. And now, as the fourth year of the Obama administration approaches, we find ourselves confronted with the reincarnation of perhaps the most damaging liberal type of all: the snarky, pseudo-alienated, disheveled young protester. There is much to complain about regarding Wall Street and its cozy relationship with the government, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters do not seem to have a clear idea of what that complaint might be, or what should be done about it. They seem increasingly to give vent, instead, to a vague unfocused ennui, unaware that their bizarre reenactment of their professors’ wistful exaggerations of the 1960s threatens to offend a great many Americans whose cultural memories extend further back than the invention of the iPod.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has gradually turned ugly in recent weeks, the Democrats who had earlier associated themselves with the protests have no doubt begun to recognize the peril in which they have put themselves and their party by even tacitly encouraging the resurrection of this most disagreeable liberal type. They have yet to fully grasp, however, just how much damage the simultaneous reemergence of so many harmful and unpleasant aspects of the modern left may yet do to the Democrats in 2012.

A Gallup poll published this month showed that only 21 percent of Americans consider themselves liberals. The rest of the country might well put up with liberals in power now and then, but not if the left insists on constantly reminding us why, to coin a phrase, we are the 79 percent.

Yuval Levinis the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.