Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why are Liberals so Depressed?

I was just reading some comments to blog posts about the debt ceiling showdown, and it struck me that liberals are really glum about the direction of American politics. They feel defeated and outraged. One I remember said, "Until somebody in the Democratic Party grows a backbone, nothing will change." I seem to recall that just recently Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid managed to enact a major reform of our health care system over united Republican opposition, and despite Scott Brown's Massachusetts win. Lots of backbone there. And what about "nothing will change"? Here's a thought experiment for you: compare the America of 2011 with the America of 1911. See much change? Pick almost any topic liberals care about -- racial discrimination, sex discrimination, provision of health care for the poor, protection of workers' safety, protection of the environment -- and we have made gigantic progress in the past century. The only major exception I can think of is our undiminished willingness to go to war, but then a big faction of liberals supports wars in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan, too. No, America is not a liberal paradise, and we could do a lot more to help poor Americans, but we do a lot more than we used to.

The world has been changing very rapidly for the past 250 years, which means that for 250 years now liberals have been winning almost every fight and conservatives losing. Yes, there has been some backsliding on certain liberal goals over the past 30 years, like high taxation of the rich and access to abortion. But that's how history works; nobody ever takes three steps forward without taking one back.

Look, people, we have a half black President with a Muslim name, and his main rival for the Presidency was a woman. And you're upset because we didn't get a public option in health care reform, or a $400 billion tax increase?

1 comment:

David said...

Of course the reasons liberals seem depressed are mostly psychological; I doubt that the list of concrete, undoubted victories you cite would actually cheer many liberals up. What are the psychological factors motivating this depression?

I'm sure there are many such factors, but it seems to me a key point would be to get away from the idea that the definition of political liberalism in contemporary America has much to do with supporting change as such, or that the definition of conservatism in contemporary America is to oppose change as such. Conservatives and liberals in contemporary America tend to embrace particular positions and alliances regardless of their relationship to change as such. As you have pointed out many times, the Republican party platform, if fully enacted, would probably change America much more radically than the Democratic platform would.

I think part of liberals' depression lies in the fact that, since they have achieved much of what they want, albeit in a compromised way, they find themselves on the defensive. Let me stress that I don't think their depression is rooted in logical dissonance based in the idea that liberals would like to be advocating change as such, and now, having won on many fronts, they find themselves opposing change. I think it is more simply that being on the defensive in politics is somewhat depressing, full stop, even if objectively that position is probably the stronger (certainly, as far as I can tell, the Republicans are unlikely to ever get much of what they really want, in part because the goals of their various factions are much more mutually contradictory than those of the various factions composing the Democratic Party).