Unsatisfied: Why Liberals Are Never Happy with Democratic Presidents
Jonathan Chait’s debut (I think) long-read for New York Magazine is on liberal discontent with President Obama, something Chait has grappled with, argued against, and endeavored to understand throughout the Obama Presidency — or at least ever since the so-called Professional Left first began voicing significant complaints. His conclusion here is the same as it’s been elsewhere: liberals have unrealistic expectations and hold Obama to an ahistorical standard. There’s much truth in this analysis; but I think the explanation for the tradition of liberal disappointment and unhappiness with Democratic Presidents is primarily structural, not psychological.
Here’s how Chait describes the problem:
For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace…
Is it really likely that all these presidents have suffered from the same character flaws? Suppose you’re trying to find dates online, and everybody you meet turns out to be too ugly. Might it be possible that the problem isn’t the attractiveness of the single people in your town but rather your standards?
Not discounting how our expectations can reveal the ultimate irrepressibility of a childlike belief that Everything Will Be OK in the end, might it also be possible that, extending Chait’s analogy, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our too-high “standards” but, instead, simply look for a different online dating service? If we’re not into Knight-and-Damsel role play, maybe a “Game of Thrones” dating service just isn’t the right fit for us.
The problem for liberals in the United States, though, is that however lacking they may find its standard-bearers, the political system does not offer Leftists a legitimate alternative to the Democratic Party (it’s easy enough to consign yourself to third-party irrelevancy, if you so choose). If this were a parliament, I think it’s quite likely that the people Chait’s referring to here — left undefined, by the way; but I assume he’s talking about the type who voted, or would vote, for Nader — would be members of an American equivalent of Canada’s New Democratic Party or Germany’s Green Party.
But you only get to pick between two options in big time American politics; and with the Republican Party increasingly becoming more demographically homogenous than has been the historical norm, that leaves liberals little choice but to join the Coalition of People Who Aren’t Republican — aka the Democratic Party. Within that patchwork political coalition, however, the liberal bloc is relatively unified and organized, and while that unity has its benefits, it also gives the misleading impression of the Democratic Party being ideologically liberal. It’s not.
Yet because the media, voters — and, indeed, many liberals themselves — think it is, many lefties end up frustrated whenever a Democrat wins the White House. Why? Because they’re soft-headed romantics who can’t deal with the ugly, grinding, transactional nature of national politics? Because they believe their own politicians’ hype? Because they’re decadent and immature? Maybe. But more than that, it’s because Democratic Presidents govern like Democrats, not liberals; and there’s a real difference.