There was absolutely nothing particularly profound or otherwise noteworthy about the short little article I wrote for the Paulist on-line magazine The Catholic World in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. Yet I often find myself referring back to one of my concluding observations/predictions:
Obama’s challenge will be to hold his centrist support in the country by resisting the demands of his party’s left wing and its various special interest constituencies. … Meanwhile, the significance of the religious constituency in a renewed Republican coalition will likely depend on whether or not the Democrats can deliver on the economy and stay safely in the center on cultural and moral issues.
I was reminded of those utterly obvious observations yesterday, as I read Eric Alterman’s “Campaign Stops” essay, “Cultural Liberalism Is Not Enough,” in yesterday’s New York Times “Sunday Review” section - http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/07/cultural-liberalism-is-not-enough/?scp=5&sq=Campaign%20Stops&st=cse.
The background for Alterman’s critique is the virtual collapse of what was once the centerpiece of the Liberal-Left politics – from the Progressive Era through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society – namely, the promotion of a prosperity in which more and more Americans would have a just share, and the consequent “shock and horror” of many on the Left at how much of Liberalism’s “historic achievement” President Obama “appears to have been ready to bargain away.”
Juxtaposed to this “shredding” of America’s safety net, however, Alterman notes the contrasting successes of what Alterman calls “cultural liberalism.” Despite vigorous opposition (notably in religious circles) “cultural liberalism” is thriving right now in post-safety-net America. The obvious question is “Why?” Alterman’s answer is that, caught (since the 1960s) in the crosswinds of so many crises that have threatened the more prosperous and egalitarian society they had helped America move towards, “many liberals chose to focus, rather perversely, on a ‘rights’ agenda and the internecine fights it engendered within their increasingly fractured coalition.” In the process of doing that, however, he argues, “they lost sight of the essential element that had made the coalition possible in the first place: the sense that liberalism stood with the common man and woman in their struggle against economic forces too large and powerful to be faced by individuals on their own.”
Alterman argues for the President to embrace a more authentically substantive rather than merely rhetorical populism. That advice certainly has merit. The problem, I suspect, goes deeper than that, however, for any authentic substantive populism would threaten the dominant agenda of “cultural liberalism.”
The destructive polarization of our society – which now extends to virtually everything – is rooted in a radical destabilization of culture and an undermining of moral order that has been going on for decades now – at least since Roe v. Wade (1973), if not before. Jurisprudentially, after all, it was the Supreme Court’s invention of a supposed constitutional “right to privacy” in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) which paved the way for Roe v. Wade. Certainly the process predates Roe and extends beyond the single specific problematic of abortion – although one should never underestimate the galvanizing power of that one destructive decision in creating the largely unbridgeable chasms that increasingly define our society and are getting in the way of our ability to resolve any problems at all. There is, after all, no necessary or logical link between resisting the secularization of America and, for example, rejecting the science of climate change or supporting tax breaks for the super-rich. In a system, however, in which competing elites create such linkages, citizens increasingly have to choose between complete ideological packages. Such is the human desire for coherence that undoubtedly many – on both sides – probably come to believe intensely in such unrelated positions!
It was not completely unreasonable to hope in 2008 that political calculation would steer the Obama Administration in a more moderate direction. He was elected, after all, as a consequence of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s - a crisis which should have exploded and thoroughly delegitimized reigning economic orthodoxy, much as the Great Depression had earlier done in another crisis for another generation. The Administration’s stated intention during the health insurance reform debate, that the reform should be “abortion neutral,” for example, further held out the promise of moderation.
What went wrong? Rarely does one single explanation suffice, and this issue is no exception. But I do think that one cannot underestimate the problematic of post-modern moral obtuseness. Bill Clinton, to cite an obvious contrast, was a more successful President in part because he is a more natural politician when it comes to connecting with ordinary people. But he is also older – coming from the beginning, rather than the end, of the Baby Boom – and was personally a participant in what we recall as the 60s. People from Clinton’s era may embrace the values agenda of “cultural liberalism,” but they do so with their eyes wide open. They know that many others don’t – and won’t - agree. And they even understand why others don’t agree. And they can actually appreciate the fundamental moral and social issues at stake. And finally they can recognize what is being lost, as well as what may be gained, when elites push a society to change its values. Whatever the President’s own personal take on all of this, the constituencies to which his Administration seems most responsive increasingly do not.