Saturday, August 14, 2010

The politics of the infantile

By any reasonable measure, some important legislation has been passed since Pres. Obama took the oath of office. The healthcare and financial regulatory reform bills are significant overhauls that, while not perfect by any means, should eventually result in substantial improvements. That the electorate seems in no mood to give the administration credit for these achievements does not negate them. It does, however, perhaps go some way toward explaining what led Robert Gibbs to make his remarks about the 'professional left'.

There is a professional left, of course. There is also a much better-funded professional right: the conservative think tanks, trade associations, and lobbying houses which have wielded considerable influence in Washington for decades. As the American electorate in general has become more polarized, political elites and activists and their 'professional' extensions have also become more polarized, producing an environment in which shrillness and the capacity to take offense have increasingly become substitutes for reasoned discussion.

Anyone who has observed and/or participated in American politics for any length of time should know that the ability of presidents to ignite transformational change from above is limited. Sweeping changes have occurred on fairly rare occasions when social forces and movements outside the formal political arena have pushed those inside that arena to take action (the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s being probably the paradigm case, at least for the second half of the twentieth century). It should never have been supposed, therefore, that Obama's election, in itself, would work some equivalent of a revolution, nor should it have been supposed that Obama in office would prove able to carry out all the promises he made on the campaign trail. Yet some people apparently made these suppositions, and their generally unrealistic expectations not having been met, their reactions have been correspondingly intense.

It should be possible to criticize the administration from the left while simultaneously recognizing its achievements. This kind of criticism would be different from the cries of betrayal that can be found in the progressive blogosphere (and apparently also on cable TV, which I don't watch). The disappointed wail "but you promised," especially when unaccompanied by recognition of the circumstances that may have made the promise hard to keep, is something one expects to hear from a five-year-old, not from adults. To live, as a presidential press secretary presumably has to do to some extent, in an echo chamber of infantilized wailing and insult-hurling -- which is to say, to attend closely to the 24-hour cycle of news and comment as it plays out in various media -- cannot be pleasant. In fact, it must be so unpleasant that I'm surprised Gibbs did not say something stronger than the remarks which caused such an uproar. Perhaps the administration's spokespersons should pay less close attention to every wail of complaint, lest they risk validating and inadvertently strengthening the politics of the infantile. And perhaps progressives should develop ways of indicating their disappointment with the administration's performance that sound more like adult disagreement than childish whining.

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