Monday, November 21, 2016
Liberal Blindness Destroyed both the Bush and Obama Legacies
It is the major historical irony of our new American century, but it is one I’ve seen nowhere remarked.
The legacies of both this century’s first conservative president, George W. Bush, and of his left liberal successor Barack Obama were already in tatters as their tenures ended. The irony is that both administrations undid themselves through policies only made possible by the heavy sway certain key liberal myths wield in our political life.
I would call the culprit simply liberal blindness--a blindness deeply ingrained among us and one seen, as I hope to show, most clearly in the fatal tendency of liberal thought to disconnect itself from rigorous analysis of culture. Philosophically induced, our liberal refusal to look squarely at culture destroyed both the Bush and Obama legacies.
How did it fall out in the two cases?
For the Bush administration, liberal thought induced a fatal naivety as regards political possibilities in a foreign land: Iraq. Both the extent of naivety, and the world-historical tragedy it led to, would be hard to overstate. As the apologists of regime change and nation building kept saying: “We will be welcomed as liberators” and “All people desire freedom.” Only a deep self-induced ignorance of the cultural and religious makeup of Iraq allowed policymakers to assert that the Iraqi state, once freed of Baathist rule, would transform itself into a stable democracy. We know how it ended: millions dead (including scores of our own citizens) civil war, the rise of ISIS.
The culprit here was the entrenched liberal myth that all cultures are somehow naturally “on the way” to western-style democracy. Were it not for the sway this notion held, the nation-building argument could never have been made relative the Iraqi context. Blinded by this myth, we proceeded to shoot ourselves in the foot in Mesopotamia. Both we and the Iraqis are still bleeding from our wounds.
Unaccountably, even the lessons that could have been learned from the recent fall of communist Yugoslavia and the bloodbath of ethnicities that ensued there carried no weight in our political debates going in. A smart high schooler could have seen that lesson--i.e. the fall of an authoritarian state in an ethnically and religiously divided territory is a sure-fire recipe for civil war--but our pundits and leaders could not. The liberal myth of “All peoples are on the way to democracy” prevailed, and any analysis of the actual cultures that made up Iraq carried little weight when put on a scale with that myth.
The second area in which the Bush legacy was undone thanks to liberal myth relates to the management of the US economy. Free-market fundamentalism, a myth tradition according to which markets are somehow natural, self-regulating organisms, had during the Clinton years led to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Of course Bush and his appointees were fine with that massive deregulatory move, as they shared in the liberal free-market thinking that made it possible. Planted in the 1990s, the poison poppies of Wall Street excess burst in Bush’s second term, and on the back of his pipe-dream venture in Iraq, this second liberally-induced disaster ensured Bush’s legacy would be one of massive bungling.
Just as the liberal consensus had failed to consider the cultures of Iraq, so they failed to consider the culture of Wall Street. There was no sufficient thought of what might really happen if the foxes were left to guard the henhouse. Markets, according to the meme, are naturally self-regulating systems.
Those were the Bush years. But Obama’s legacy was similarly undone by liberal blindness. The myth that ultimately undid what could have been the Obama-Clinton years relates to liberal notions of “progress"--specifically that ingrained belief among us that progress is something that must always occur, being somehow built into the very movement of history.
The Obama administration, deeply corrupted by corporate cronyism, wasn’t about to actually crack down on Wall Street (none of the banksters were jailed; Dodd-Frank was weak medicine compared to the previous Glass-Steagall) and so Obama had to show he was progressing on other fronts. Thus we have the Affordable Care Act. But more importantly, I think, in terms of Obama's progressive cred, we have same-sex marriage, followed by the now raging trans craze--in short, the ascendency of the LGBT movement, to which Obama gave belated but decisive support in an obvious attempt to reenact the Civil Rights Movement in sexual terms. It was liberal myth that made this project plausible. Since “progress” must always be happening, and since we know as a culture what “progress” looks like (namely: previously oppressed groups are given equal rights) this attempt to remake America’s thinking on marriage and gender was rendered passable as an exciting new arena for History, one in which Obama could cement his legacy as a figure comparable to Martin Luther King, Jr. Never mind that the actual Civil Rights Movement sought to undo injustices grounded in specifically modern forms of racism rooted in modern pseudo-scientific theories of race, whereas, quite differently, this new sexual civil rights movement brought with it a concerted ideological assault on much more fundamental human realities: the majority culture's thinking on sexual difference and marriage, both rooted in a traceable history stretching back to ancient times.
The problem, again, was the Obama administration’s insufficient analysis of actual American culture. Millions upon millions of Americans did not in fact agree that redefining marriage in this way was progress. Neither did religious Americans appreciate the heavy-handed way the new definition of marriage was being forced on them. More obviously, relative to Obama policy in the recent couple years, the elevation of a psychological disorder (gender dysphoria) to the status of normal (as if a boy deciding at age six that he is a girl is somehow a previously undiscovered natural development that should lead to immediate name change and eventual hormone treatment) led many Americans to react in justified anger. Yes, they may not have voiced their anger openly, given the thought police standing on every corner ready to scream "Bigot!" but they saw clearly where all this was leading, a country in which the state would dictate to them what boys and girls were, as well as dictate how they were to raise their children. I believe many of these Americans, many who might otherwise have voted Democrat, decided early on to give the whole Obama-Clinton tribe the boot, seeing that this party cabal was pushing into arenas of human meaning where government should not presume to tread. Had it not been for the offenses against religious liberty (again in the name of “progress”) and the rise of the trans craze, I believe Hillary Clinton would have won and her party would have held the Senate. Yes, the fury at Obama and the Washington elites over economic issues was certainly crucial, but this cultural blindness of the Democratic leadership might have been the final thing to tip many voters into the Trump camp.
Thus again, in the case of Obama, the shattered legacy can be chalked up to a blind indifference to specifically cultural realities: a liberal refusal to look at actual communities and how they hold together; a dogmatic belief in liberal myth, in this case a myth of constant progress, as decisive.
All of this, if my reading is right, should suggest a chastened return to anthropology for anyone who claims to be a political thinker. I do believe there is much to cherish in our liberal order, but that its mythical excesses may prove fatal. Liberal consensus is fraying across the Western world. One of the central reasons, in my view, is precisely this ingrained liberal disrespect for cultural traditions. Anyone who values the liberal tradition needs to rediscover a respect for the concrete cultures of real nations, and adjust liberal prescriptions accordingly.
Check out my book Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.