Political Blind Spots, Ctd
I’ve been struggling to formulate a decent post in the broad arena covered by Ned this morning – ie, understanding apparent dishonesty and cognitive dissonance in others – for a couple of days, but to no avail, so maybe this is a good opportunity to ask for help on the specific phenomenon I’m trying to understand. I’ll ask for forgiveness in advance if my formulation below is inartful or confusing – as I said, I’m struggling with this. I’m also writing this on the fly, so I apologize for the lack of supporting links.
Similarly, those on the left who expressed outrage at the Bush administration’s civil liberties abuses yet remain silent through Obama’s aren’t opportunists indifferent to the horrors of torture and indefinite detention. It’s just significantly harder to accuse someone whose success you feel invested in a war criminal.
On the surface, I think there’s a lot of truth to this, especially if you accept the corollary that “it’s significantly easier to accuse someone whose failure you feel invested in a war criminal.”
But there’s something else at work here, too, which is bugging me and which I can’t put my finger on.
In the context of civil liberties, it’s certainly true that most movement liberals still express opposition to civil liberties violations under the Obama Administration (well, except for the folks at The Nation, who now seem to think it wise to actively reinforce such civil liberties violations if they are vocally opposed by political enemies). But there’s sort of a fatalistic indifference that comes with it, as Ned suggests, in which it is assumed that the Republicans would be even worse and that all Obama is doing is simply failing to reverse the Bush Administration. It seems that there’s even often an assumption that Obama would be committing political suicide by reversing those policies because the Republicans would have a field day with any such effort. In effect, the policy is criticized, but the one person in a position to change it is not. Of course, these assumptions ignore that much of Obama’s record on civil liberties is actively worse than anything the Republicans ever tried, ranging from the notion of claiming authority to assassinate American citizens to the myriad new abuses of the TSA to the simple fact that in two years in office, Obama has not pardoned a single human being (even as he’s pardoned four turkeys). There’s opposition to the policy, but no willingness to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.
By itself, that’s precisely consistent with what Ned was getting at this morning, I think. But now let’s look at another situation where Obama’s actions have stood in stark opposition to liberal orthodoxy. Specifically, let’s look at the response to Obama’s announcement on a wage freeze for federal workers. This announcement is termed “turning on the base,” a “superficial panic reaction and political scapegoating,” a “messaging gimmick,” and “triangulation,” to note just a few of the derogatory phrases thrown at Obama for this policy.
The point here is not to say that liberals should be supportive or at least make only muted criticism of the wage freeze – whatever my personal feelings about the wage freeze, it’s almost certainly offensive to American liberal principles. Instead, I’m trying to understand why American liberals are willing to hold Obama personally culpable on this issue in a way that they are not on civil liberties issues. More confusing to me is that the wage freeze occurs against a backdrop in which there is at least some evidence that Republicans quite likely would go farther than Obama in this arena, given the example being set here in NJ by Gov. Christie, whereas many of the civil liberties violations imposed by Obama are not only worse than the Bush Administration but in some cases (ie, the TSA and the policy in which persons acquitted of terrorism charges can still be held indefinitely) so have even gone too far for most movement conservatives.
In both cases, liberals are understandably opposed to the Obama Administration’s policies. But only in the case of the wage freeze do mainstream liberals seem willing to hold the Obama Administration personally and directly accountable.
This dichotomy genuinely perplexes me. Nor is it an isolated example applying only to the Left when it is in power – a good cross-comparison would be the dichotomy between conservatives’ mostly muted reactions to the Bush Administration’s spending spree on Medicare Part D and NCLB and conservatives’ genuine outrage at Bush’s immigration reform proposal or his attempted appointment of Harriet Miers. What makes such dichotomies even more perplexing to me is that the single issue that most enraged and united mainstream liberals about Bush was almost certainly his record on civil liberties….and now Obama basically gets a pass on those issues; meanwhile, mainstream conservatives basically gave Bush a pass on government spending…..and now it is the single issue that most enrages and unites movement conservatives about Obama.
The simplistic explanation would be that, rhetoric aside, liberals simply care more about protecting the size of government than they do about civil liberties, while conservatives care more about social issues than they do about reducing or limiting the size of government. I’m not at all comfortable with this explanation, and I welcome alternative explanations.