Before I begin, let me offer up the usual disclaimers: no, I don’t think Jonathan Cohn is the worst thing since sliced dogshit. No, I don’t think he’s never had a decent idea or never taken a position I agreed with. But it’s pretty clear from Cohn’s recent column in
The Joe Lieberman Gazette The New Republic (see here for explanation of why I call TNR the “Lieberman Gazette”) that Cohn thinks almost that badly of me and other liberals who’ve been happy with the Obama administration when they’ve done the right things, but also disappointed with – and not shy about expressing our disappointment or even opposition to – the things they’ve done wrong.
Cohn’s piece is entitled The Stupidity of Liberal Apathy, hence the title of this post. I am a liberal who’s been regularly disappointed with the Obama administration’s actions, so I figured if Cohn was going to directly insult me and everyone else who thinks more or less like me, the least I could do was return the favor, so we’re on a level playing field. However, lest you think my parodying (parroting?) Cohn’s insulting title is merely a childish exercise in tit-for-tat, or even simply a pedantic attempt to make a point, let me be clear: I wouldn’t have copied Cohn’s formulation had I not felt it was more than justified, and the insults it contained more than suitable to describe Cohn’s thinking on this issue.
Where do I even begin? Cohn tepidly covers all the usual “pragmatic” talking points: that although Obama may not be perfect, he’s the most successful liberal President in two generations, and that in any event, he’s certainly unquestionably better than what we’d all be faced with should the Republicans re-take congress – and especially if they were to retake both congress and the White House. This sort of thinking reminds me of the excuses I remember hearing conservatives use when defending the Bush administration’s use of torture, “black sites,” etc: they’d watch sixteen straight hours of “24” on DVD, and then say, with a straight face, that war is hell, and that although we as Americans really do value the rule of law and human rights, you just had to crack a few terrorists if you wanted to make a Democracy omelette (or something), and that – this is the part that struck me as ludicrous and indefensible in that “would-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad” kind of way – at least we could still claim the moral high ground because we weren’t cutting detainees’ heads off and broadcasting video of it on the Internet. It was as if otherwise rational people expected everyone to agree with them that “hey, at least we’re not as bad as the worst lawless, stateless nihilist terrorists in the world” was sufficient justification for whatever treaties we broke, moral codes we abandoned, fingernails we extracted, what have you. As long as we could say “our enemies are worse,” that made whatever we did OK – or at least tolerable – by comparison. Obviously, there’s a huge difference between conservatives’ apologias for US torture and pointing out that an Obama administration, on the whole, would do fewer bad things than were the GOP to retake congress and/or the White House. But the urge to excuse bad behavior on a comparative basis is the same. It is utilitarianism yanked inside-out; instead of merely praising or supporting whatever accomplishes the greatest good for the greatest number of people, it’s also excusing whoever does the least bad to the fewest people. And it completely abdicates any responsibility for asking what other, less relativistic yardsticks should be used to determine whether any bad acts are allowable. This thinking simply says: if it’s not as bad as Bush was – or as bad as we all can imagine another GOP takeover would be – then it’s not only acceptable, it’s praiseworthy.
That’s where I really get off the boat with arguments like Cohn’s: when they not only excuse failings and bad acts by saying the alternative would be worse, but actually insist that everyone “on our side” stop being critical because doing so damages the Obama administration’s ability to accomplish as much as it otherwise would be able to. In some quarters (and certainly, in Cohn’s – at least given his statements in this article), any progressive, liberal or Democrat who speaks up from solid liberal principles against something the Obama administration or the Democratic congress has done (or had the chance to do but failed), is a near-enemy, because their actions only help tear down Obama and the Democrats, which leads to only one place: another GOP takeover. It’s actually insinuated – and sometimes outright stated – by these apologists, that if you criticize Dems overmuch (or even at all, sometimes), you are aiding the GOP. If you ride alone, as the saying goes, you ride with Hitler (and Godwin-shriekers may feel free at this point to take three paces to the rear and go fry their faces lightly over a slow over, thankyouverymuch):I’m almost embarrassed to put such crude thinking into a post of mine, but that is literally the level at which Cohn’s (and other
apologists pragmatists’ thinking) operates. But Cohn’s not finished with the geyser of stupid yet; it gets even better than that in just a few sentences. Try this on for size and see if you can believe it:
But if the left is going to demand action, it has to do more than sigh when action–even modest action–actually happens. The left has to show some enthusiasm, if not locally then at least nationally.
Yes, you read that right: Jonathan Cohn, writing in the same “liberal” publication which, in 2002 and 2003, editorially waxed flatulent about “the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics,” and in 2004 endorsed Joe Lieberman for President, tells all those dissolute, ungrateful, short-sighted liberals that if they expect to be able to demand action, then they should by golly show some gratitude and enthusiasm whenever Democrats do anything short of caving completely to Republicans, or entirely failing to use their majorities to outmanuever the GOP. The logic – and the implication – is that if we liberals don’t cheer hard enough, then everyone from Obama on down to the lowliest freshman Democratic representative “won’t have much incentive to vote liberal next time around.”
Does Jonathan Cohn believe that the degree to which a Democratic representative or senator – or even President – is interested in voting for liberal, Democratic principles is directly proportional to the amount of attaboys heaped on him or the volume of the cheering he receives from liberals? Shit, is Cohn RIGHT? Because if he is, then we unquestionably elected the wrong people. I voted for people because I believed that the actually want to vote for liberal, Democratic bills and support liberal, Democratic principles and values because they share them, not because they’re being stroked the right way, or often enough, or vigorously enough, by the base. Any elected Democrat who doesn’t vote that way out of a personal desire to do so isn’t actually a liberal, and possibly not even a Democrat in any meaningful sense of the word (and no, Ben Nelson is not a Democrat just because he put a capital D after his name). But if I’ve been naive, and, as Cohn and others have stated, how loudly the base cheers when Democrats do something right (no matter how much they’ve done wrong) truly IS essential to our elected Democrats getting as much of the agenda enacted as possible, then I’d think “rational pragmatists” like Cohn and Karoli might realize that calling liberals who express frustration idiots or insisting that they fall in line because the alternative would be worse will only serve to increase friction and divisions and drive the base even further away. And I’d think that the elected officials themselves might realize that the way to get us to cheer louder is to accomplish more of our agenda more of the time. That’s the way I’ve always observed that it works: you do well, you get rewards and praise and support. The Jonathan Cohns of the world are looking through the telescope from the wrong end; to them, it’s the base’s duty to cough up support and enthusiasm up front, on demand, for as long as it takes until we get whatever portion of our agenda enacted that the elected officials can manage. And if that turns out to be not much, well tough. We should still be grateful. After all, it’s still better than
the guys who cut captives heads off on teh internets the Republicans.
And that’s just plain stupid.