Heresy is a difficult pill to swallow but it goes down easier with a modicum of orthodoxy. So, I’ll begin by confessing that once upon a time the Daily Show was a species of religious observance for me. There were few more avid fans and — run if need be — bets were that by 10:55 I was firmly planted in front of the TV. This October, I attended Steward’s rally in D.C., but, by that point my attendance was largely perfunctory. Stewart hadn’t changed – if anything the Rally to Restore Sanity was a more spectacular elaboration of the themes that had defined him for the past decade. However, the ground on which he stood had shifted too rapidly for Stewart to keep pace. His critique of irrationality was cogent when our commander-in-chief was a religious extremist careening off a ledge because of his almost inhuman capacity to ignore plain facts. Now, as the left searches for a positive agenda, the idea that we should just “be sane” sounds insipid.
Much of the bewilderment which has seeped into the left recently stems from an unwillingness to recognize the truth which the last couple years has demonstrated – that reason will not bring us together. For so long we naively believed that if Americans were well educated and rational we would all fall behind the smart course of action. We should have known better. It’s perfectly reasonable for your boss to make his business more efficient by cutting labor costs, but it’s hardly rational, oftentimes not even possible, for you to support yourself with a minimum wage job. Our society is composed of distinct, even inimical, interests and our old faith in logical persuasion’s capacity to create a consensus is more fanciful than any of the stories in the Old Testament. The weakness of “reasonableness” as a political platform became obvious within a year of Obama taking office. Many social liberals were upset that Obama put all of his political capital into healthcare — a reform that the well-to-do often cared little for — and not enough into gay rights. People of color resented the fact that he seemed to ignore the distinctive issues they faced. Environmentalists found scant offerings in Obama’s agenda. Because Obama came in with exceptional political power, he was able to win enough victories to prevent discontent in the liberal coalition from erupting into mutiny, but the fissures in the coalition were evident. Far from uniting all Americans behind a platform, “reasonableness” couldn’t even create a coherent agenda amongst Democratic Party activists.
Nowhere, though, were the weaknesses of liberalism more evident than in the flagship reform of the Obama administration: healthcare. Liberals tried to appeal to everyone, but the result was a pluralistic, patchwork reform that actually satisfied no one. The law was replete with subsidies for the health insurance industry. It left intact the substantial profits of doctors. It certainly dare not deal with the employer-provided healthcare system, even though it puts powers over life and death into the private sector that we would cringe at granting to the state. The only people on the hook are the poor, who are now required to buy healthcare with few new tools to acquire it. That the reform which emerged was so similar to those proposed by conservatives over the past 20 years was no accident. The loudest voices in the cacophony of pluralist democracy are those of the wealthy and powerful. Republicans bluntly represent society’s elite; Democrats, by aiming to represent all Americans, intentionally or not, end up doing the same.
In one line of his inaugural address, Obama summarized, with impressive succinctness, the premise of American liberalism: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” Smart, efficient government will work for the benefit of all. Real politics, though, requires taking sides. If you ask Halliburton or the millionaires whose mansions are now legally exempt from foreclosure, they’ll tell you government under the Bush Administration worked very well. The half-educated farmers who formed the Populist Party demonstrated an admirable acuity for politics when they demanded that government bend to the will of an alliance of farmers and workers. Even Franklin Roosevelt, to whom the current cadre of liberals owes a significant intellectual debt, railed against “economic royalists” and suggested that the true Americans were those who built the country with their hands. Both understood that politics is never just about whether or not government works, but who it works for. The whole science of government can fairly be summarized in a single question: who is it to govern? Everything beyond that is window dressing. Until the left recognizes that, it has little grounds to claim the mantle of intelligent government.