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Movement Vision Lab

The Mirror of Our Discontent

It is impossible to turn on the television or open a newspaper today without apocalyptic speculation on the status of Obama’s presidency. The opinion media, pack animals that they are, have latched on to the storyline that stalled health care reform plus Massachusetts election results plus a still-sputtering economy means the White House is stumbling. But what’s more noteworthy than the media blowing a story out of proportion to have something dramatic to talk about is the fact that liberals seem to also be piling on to the narrative.

Once afraid to criticize the White House lest they be disinvited from the cocktail parties or Common Purpose meetings, even the usually tow-the-line liberals are now sharpening their elbows (see, e.g., this, this and this). Freud would call this transference. In lemming-like fashion, the liberalati are joining the chorus undermining Obama to distract attention from where the fault really lies. Let’s look in the mirror and acknowledge what is really happening…

Liberals failed to build any real power in the period leading up to Obama’s election.

While it’s fair to say that liberals laid the moral and political groundwork for Obama to win, he mostly won on his own — thanks to the unpopularity of Bush, the faltering economy and an unprecedented grassroots organizing effort the Obama campaign built largely on its own. With a few exceptions like MoveOn and SEIU, which did genuinely offer some muscle that helped Obama to victory, the rest of the left had little practical claim on Obama’s presidency. So any seats at the table the left were given stemmed from the benevolence of the White House not the demands of powerful constituencies. And the nature of any power—but especially false, illusory power we don’t feel we have a legitimate claim to—is that it creates a desperate insecurity. You don’t want to do anything to jeopardize your seat.

It’s not surprising that it is only now that Obama seems on the ropes—and thus the seat at the table depreciating in value—that more liberal leaders are stepping out to critique Obama. But to the extent their criticism isn’t about opportunism but genuinely holding the White House accountable to the best interests of the majority of Americans, it’s too little, too late.

Liberal interest groups have lacked the audacity and ideology to channel the frustrated, populist majority.

Even without any nuts-and-bolts role in the election of Obama, the left could have projected itself as the rightful representative of the majority of Americans. But that would have required believing that (a) the majority of Americans support bold ideas for changes to our economic and political system (which poll after poll shows they do — for instance) and (b) liberals are ideologically and morally positioned to lead that majority. Therein lies the rub. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, “born-again” Christians represented at most 15% of the electorate. And despite the fact that Reagan won mostly because Carter lost (evangelicals had previously backed Carter by a four-to-one margin), Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the evangelical movement boldly claimed to represent a governing majority in the wake of the election (i.e., “Moral Majority”). Their audacity became one of the most successful self-fulfilling prophecies in recent political history and re-shaped our legislative and cultural landscape, despite the fact that fundamentalist Christians were not and have never been a majority of Americans.

On the other hand, the majority of Americans think our economy is working for the elite but not for working people, that we need health care reform and financial regulations and government investment to spur recovery, that the interests of communities should be balanced against the tyranny of big business. While it’s far time we get beyond the false dichotomy of right-versus-left, the kinds of policies average Americans are clamoring for are most commonly identified with classic liberalism. And liberals and Democrats are championing these policies, they’re just doing so in an apologetic, cautious way. Imagine if Democrats and liberal interest groups had acted from the get-go as though most Americans support bold health care reform. Do you really think we’d have the cobbled-together, compromise-destroyed policies now stalling in Congress?

The Tea Party movement swayed political power not because it actually represented the majority of Americans (witness the poor turnout at the national conference) but because they projected such power. Meanwhile, liberals actually represent the majority but are failing to rhetorically and demonstratively connect with the populist masses. Maybe its because we’re afraid we can’t explain our failed attempts at centrist accommodation, including policies that got our country into the mess we’re in. Perhaps it’s because liberals are psychologically accustomed to being underdogs. I’m not sure. But what worked for Obama in the election was that he spoke from his heart and articulated his hopes and dreams as the hopes and dreams of the nation. That’s Obama at his best. Rather than critiquing the President for when he falters from his heights, the left should aspire to replicate anything close to moral leadership.

The original phrase, “the winter of our discontent,” comes from Shakespeare. In Richard III, Shakespeare characterized King Richard as a deeply negative, even malevolent character. It turns out, this was just a dramatic plot device, to make Shakespeare’s story work. Rising liberal discontent with Obama may serve the same purpose—to further our convenient narrative in which the left is righteous and effective but not victorious because of the failure of forces beyond our own control. Good grist for the talking heads in the media. But not helpful for a movement in need of deep self-criticism and self-correction.

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Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn

Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

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