Why liberals are not in a good mood by mattsteinglass
January 28, 2010, 11:22 am
Filed under: Liberalism

This is going to be an impressionistic post, but here’s the sense I’m getting from reading a lot of young center-left bloggers’ extremely angry reaction to the reluctance of House Democrats to pass the Senate’s health reform bill.

Basically, if you’re under the age of 40 or so, pretty much your entire political life has seen Republicans in control of at least two out of three of the elected bodies of government. More important, there’s been a constant and powerful anima of conservatism either driving the direction of political life, or sort of roosting over it menacingly, threatening to return at the first stirring of progressive activism.

So if you’ve grown up liberal in this period, you’ve gotten used to the idea that you have to conceal or water down your ambitions in order to get anything through. You’ve gotten used to watering down your expectations by choosing a Southern centrist like Bill Clinton rather than a flaming California liberal like Jerry Brown who could never win; and then you’ve gotten used to Clinton himself triangulating his modest aspirations away in the face of Republican headwinds. And you’ve gotten used to backing your half-traduced liberal candidates to the hilt, acknowledging that they’re doing the best they can to get something worthwhile accomplished. You’ve gotten used to never saying things like “cut defense spending” because of fear of the conservative madness that could descend upon your centrist candidate, and that might force him to disown the liberal wing of the party. You’ve gotten used to endless Sister Souljah moments. (Or, more important, Lani Guinier/Van Jones moments, where your candidate is forced to sever ties to a smart, morally upstanding, politically solid progressive with excellent policy ideas because they once wrote something that stupid, provincial, ignorant people think is Communist, or that white people think favors black or Hispanic people. You’ve also gotten used to the idea that you can never, ever call people stupid, ignorant, or provincial, certainly not if they’re white.)

You’ve gotten used to the expectation that any good progressive policy initiative will be bastardized and bargained down until it’s only half as good as it might have been, and that this remainder will then be laced with a cocktail of industry giveaways and sweetmeats for particular “centrist” Democrats in order to have any hope of passing. You’ve gotten used to the idea that you will then need to express full-throated support for the resulting mess of a bill because, after all, it’s better than nothing, and this is the way things work in our democratic system. You’ve gotten used to the idea that the solutions that emerge from the process will be not first-best or even second-best but third-best solutions that are then made even worse in committee.

But you’ve learned to take all this like a grownup. Political reality is what it is. You’re in this to get things done, not to preen. You’re not a Nader voter, prizing your moral purity above your actual accomplishments. You don’t have the luxury of declaring “a pox on both your houses” to Democrats and Republicans alike. You want things to get better, you have one life, you live in the real world. And so you vote Democratic. You put your shoulder into it and try to push that rock a little further up the hill.

And then you get the 2008 election. A once-in-60-years majority in House and Senate, plus the presidency. This is as much as the Democrats can ever hope to have in your lifetime. This legislative moment will not come again. These chances don’t come around twice. There are pressing problems to be solved: a vicious recession, global warming, the combustiflating health-care system that will bankrupt the government in 25 years. This is the moment to take these challenges on.

Then you watch Senate Democrats f*** up the health reform bill to within an inch of its life, over the course of 9 months, because they’re too cowardly to get out there and pass something decent, too stupid to realize that their Republican opponents are trying to kill the bill and kill the Democratic majority, too selfish and puerile to give up the opportunity for rent-seeking behavior of fiddling with this and that little piece of crap provision so they can have some kind of goody for their own local voters. And yet still, you back the bill. It’s still got the most important, powerful reforms in it — guaranteed issue and community rating, the exchanges, the stuff that will help people. It’s still got some cost-control measures — $500 billion in Medicare savings and the employer insurance tax aren’t too bad. It’s reasonably fiscally responsible. You back it the way you’ve backed everything Democrats have tried to do for the past 30 years, acknowledging the crippling political realities that make it worse than it might be.

And then the Democrats lose their 60th vote in the Senate, and the Democrats in the House panic and won’t take the last available possible way forward and just sign the Senate bill.

At this point, a certain number of those reasonable, mature, grown-up younger people who’ve backed the Democrats this far are going to start reassessing their understanding of political reality. If you give up your purism in the interests of pragmatic accomplishment, and spend 10 or 20 years working towards that pragmatic accomplishment, and you get this close to that pragmatic accomplishment only to have the people who could make it a reality drop the thing and back away because they’re scared to do it…you start to think maybe those people aren’t actually going to get you any pragmatic accomplishments. Ever. You start re-evaluating your feelings about Naomi Klein. You start wondering whether you might perhaps accomplish more by pulling a black mask over your face, picking up a baseball bat, and charging into the AHIP building yelling “here’s your public option” and smashing shit up trying to nudge the Overton window a bit further left.

So that’s what I think is going on with those young liberals who are now saying they might consider staying home and not voting Democratic next fall. I don’t belong to that camp. I still think that fragmenting your party is almost always a mistake. I’ll be voting next fall. But I can see where they’re coming from.


16 Comments so far
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Thanks for writing this article. I’m a disillusioned lifelong progressive voter and I’ll be using your sensible and reasoned argument about fragmenting the party to get myself to the polls this November. Writers named Matt at True/Slant are the best way to cope with the insanity!

Comment by orleyallen

In other words, inside the Veal Pen, or outside the Veal Pen. You’re damn right, I’m angry.

Comment by ncfrommke

Stay in the veal pen. We need you. We’re all gonna get together and try and push down that one side of the fence. You go out there on your own, the dogs’ll tear you to pieces.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Its really poor timing for Liberals in the House to decide they have a backbone now. They need to suck it up and pass the Senate bill, and the longer they delay the more ammunition they give Republicans to frame the issue. That they (Democrats) could be so stupid as not to see this unfolding is mind blowing. I wonder if they CAN govern. Is the tent just too big? It reminds me of a bunch of spoiled brats. If I dont get my stuff I’m taking my marbles and going home so there! I think rather than stay home, its time to get MORE involved in the political process. Hold your elected officials accountable and work to defeat them when they are not with people who will.

Comment by scottnatlanta

That’s the worst of it:that this chance will never,ever come again and the Dems are blowing it big time.We know this is the last best chance because of the recent SCOTUS decision that will essentially allow FOX NEWS to pour a billion smackers into getting Glenn Beck elected President.The Democratic Party is not used to being in a position of such potential power.It’s like a horror movie where the woman manages to snatch up a gun to kill the monster scrambling toward her,but she can’t figure out how to fire the gun.The people of America concerned about this “last best chance” need to help this poor girl “pull the trigger” by getting out there in massive displays of solidarity and support for the progressive cause.It has to be so big as to overwhelm any notion by the media to ignore it.It HAS TO BE DONE.

Comment by bluesborn

It’s nice to wake up and see an accurate summation about how I feel about party politics and politics in general up on the Internets. I don’t want to be a “Nader voter” (made that mistake when I was 18), but I don’t want to associate myself with a bunch of incompetents either. Being a “Lovable Loser” still means you’re a loser.

Comment by humphreylee

You had me until that end bit about fragmenting the party. I’m a bit older than the under 40’s you’re targeting with this post, but I gotta tell you that to continue voting Democratic is the definition of insanity. (You know, that old chestnut about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results…?) I’m already a registered Independent–I left the Dem fold after they f***ed up the 2004 election–and fed up with this bunch of do-nothing weenies. We have got to build a real Progressive party in this country, even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.

Comment by inmyhumbleopinion

[…] here’s Matt Steinglass on why liberals are not in a good mood: At this point, a certain number of those reasonable, […]

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I get the frustration in that history has granted them, in this moment, not only power but two big issues (health insurance and carbon) to be right about. I’m nothing like a progressive, but I was happy to see Democrats succeed in a few things I find foolish just to get a price on carbon and some sense into healthcare.

Comment by citifieddoug

I think that anyone whose definition of “human being” includes people who are not Christian and not American, and who have earnestly studied history — North and South American, European, and Asian — understands how dangerously far to the right the center of the US political spectrum has lurched. Past mistakes are glossed over, lines are drawn under them, poor performance is rewarded, and they move on.

Contemporary managers of “common sense” frame rational solutions as extremist and revolutionary, even after right-wingers and their centrist enablers have trashed the economy, lost two wars, and turned Americans into a sad joke for the rest of the world.

Will only the most extreme pain — financial and physical — make Americans see the error of their ways?

Comment by exitstan


I do believe things have to get much worse. The depression and WW2 changed this country far more than any other time in our history.

In history a professor once told me that one has to understand the frame of reference of the time. In the 1930’s the country was racist to the extreme, white Anglo Saxon protestants controlled much of the national political scene.

There were cities in which the Irish or Polish had some sway but mostly it was onward christian soldier.

Then something happened: the rich, the powerful were brought to their knees. However the country was not an urban nation as it is today. It was a country of hard working farmers and tough urban poor, an underclass, that survived on guile and grit. The underclass was cut loose and all the farmers and urban toughs found themselves in the same struggle and when the work programs through them together a gigantic social experiment.

Then came the war and suddenly Polacks and Wops and Micks were thrown together and they became: Americans. In stories from GI Joe to film and later television. In Glorius Basterds confirms the last minority…Jews Killed Hitler.

The labored point I am trying to make is that things, as in policy have to reach a crisis point before a clarity is reached.

I think that is where the country is headed. Obama’s pledge of more exports is, frankly, a pipe dream. We do not make anything…does he think exporting rice made with federally supported water to desert communities will balance our trade and is somehow a job program well, is dishonest and beyond me.

Somehow protecting american jobs has become irrational and in fact letting jobs go overseas provides more jobs. Really?

Logic, basic look around at what happening logic, doesn’t matter…it is think tank, corporate, MBA teaching theory, that matters.

As the Titanic went down someone last words were defiant and certain that the ship was unsinkable.

Comment by libtree09


We’re on the same page — you and I. I think that a cruel reality must seep into the majority of US voters’ skulls: they elected to keep their advertising industry at home and relocate their manufacturing base to other countries — instead of retooling them for modern times, akin to the way the Depression generation retooled their factories for war. Voters decided that someone else’s quick profit was far more desirable than (gasp!) long term economic planning.

The country’s “best and brightest” gravitated to investment banks adhering to the AFAB creed: Anything For A Buck… Now! Teachers are poorly compensated, engineers are derisively labeled “pointy headed geeks”, the military gets an unlimited budget, is worshiped, and sent off on offensive missions that end in failure.

Voters have no one else to blame. Until they accept this fact — and start paying attention to issues that matter — they will not change their priorities and send a different breed of politician to their state-houses and Washington D.C.

While I’m on my soap box, I want to reiterate the following: US voters who assume extreme positions on the war and peace issues of our time, while insisting on knowing nothing of them, do not deserve to be secure. And they are not. Here is a suggestion to gradually improve the situation: If parents insist on filling their childrens’ bookshelves with fairy tales such as the Old/New Testament, please do. But if they will give equal space on those shelves to history books covering diverse times and places, the American people will grow wiser.

Comment by exitstan


Comment by libtree09

I too, am well over the 40 mark.

In 1968 my personal hero died, wait…was murdered, after I spent the day of driving old ladies to the polls for him and spent an evening trying to crash the party.

It has been downhill ever since.

Nixon. Really?

I am an old school democrat, a Studs Turkel working man democrat, we are the ones who created that middle class the republicans feed off. Dumbfounded was my reaction to Reagan becoming governor of California and thought something was wrong with our water supply when he became President. How could so many people vote against their own pocketbooks? How could so many union workers support a union buster? A Red baiter?

They did.

When Bush the younger won I hung a flag upside down on my lawn and sat there to explain to passerbys why.

During that time people said I was being unreasonable.


In the history of liberal causes, unions, going after bankers, housing, civil rights, woman’s movement, poverty, environment were not really fought without a bit of anger and outrage. No lots of outrage and a few riots too.

Today. What? we should be polite? Some guys come into our house and take our jobs and homes and rob the country blind and we should be polite? Now Obama said we shouldn’t punish the bankers…well rewarding them ain’t a great idea either.

So about that bat…wood or aluminum?

We do still make bats here….right?


Comment by libtree09

[…] obviously I’m still not over the State of the […]

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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Steinglass and Tweets Tube, cf bateman. cf bateman said: RT @trueslant Why liberals are not in a good mood – Matt Steinglass – Accumulating Peripherals – True/Slant […]

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