As the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party continue their journey into the Slough of Despond, it’s interesting to watch Obama’ supporters try to process the unfolding events.
Some blame it on a failure to communicate. E.J. Dionne, Jr., for example, ascribes the Democrats’ problems to the fact that Obama “has chosen not to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all his achievements together.” Joe Klein offers this explanation: “If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living.” And John Judis points to the Obama administration’s “aversion to populism.”
Others are aiming their sound and fury at the American people. According to Maureen Dowd, “Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America — a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age. The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown.” Jonathan Alter argues that the American people “aren’t rationally aligning belief and action; they’re tempted to lose their spleens in the polling place without fully grasping the consequences.” And Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg has written that “the biggest culprit in our current predicament” is the “childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.”
For still others, Obama’s failures can be traced to James Madison. George Packer complains that Obama’s failures are in part institutional. He lists a slew of items on the liberal agenda items “the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing.” Paul Krugman warns that the Senate is “ominously dysfunctional” and insists that the way it works is “no longer consistent with a functioning government.” For Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, “The evidence that Washington cannot function — that it’s ‘broken,’ as Vice President Joe Biden has said — is all around.” The modern presidency “has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives.”
Commentators such as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein place responsibility on “powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents” (though Klein does acknowledge other factors). The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait pins the blame on “structural factors” and “external factors” that have nothing to do with Obama’s policies.
Then there are those who see the pernicious vast right-wing conspiracy at work. Frank Rich alerts us to the fact that the problem lies with “the brothers David and Charles Koch,” the “sugar daddies” who are bankrolling the “white Tea Party America.” Newsweek‘s Michael Cohen has written that, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain.” And Mr. Krugman offers this analysis: “What we learned from the Clinton years is that a significant number of Americans just don’t consider government by liberals — even very moderate liberals — legitimate. Mr. Obama’s election would have enraged those people even if he were white. Of course, the fact that he isn’t, and has an alien-sounding name, adds to the rage.” Krugman goes on to warn that “powerful forces are promoting and exploiting this rage” — including the “right-wing media.” And if they come to gain power, “It will be an ugly scene, and it will be dangerous, too.”
What most of these commentators are missing, I think, are two essential points. First, the public is turning against Obama and the Democratic Party because the economy is sick and, despite his assurances and projections, the president hasn’t been able to make it well. And in some important respects, especially on fiscal matters, the president and the 111th Congress have made things considerably worse. Second, an increasing number of Americans believe Obama’s policies are unwise, ineffective, and much too liberal. They connect the bad results we are seeing in America to what Obama is doing to America.
But there’s something else, and something deeper, going on here. All of us who embrace a particular religious or philosophical worldview should be prepared to judge them in light of empirical facts and reality. What if our theories seem to be failing in the real world?
The truth is that it’s rather rare to find people willing to reexamine or reinterpret their most deeply held beliefs when the mounting evidence calls those beliefs into question. That is something most of us (myself included) battle with: How to be a person of principled convictions while being intellectually honest enough to acknowledge when certain propositions (and, in some instances, foundational policies) seem to be failing or falling short.
It’s quite possible, of course, that one’s basic convictions can remain true even when events go badly. Self-government is still the best form of government even if it might fail in one nation or another. And sometimes it is simply a matter of weathering storms until certain first principles are reaffirmed. At the same time, sometimes we hold to theories that are simply wrong, that are contrary to human nature and the way the world works, but we simply can’t let go of them. We have too much invested in a particular philosophy.
President Obama’s liberal supporters understand that he is in serious trouble right now; what they are doing is scrambling to find some way to explain his problems without calling into question their underlying political philosophy (modern liberalism). If what is happening cannot be a fundamental failure of liberalism, then it must be something else — from a “communications problem” to “structural factors” to a political conspiracy. And you can bet that if things continue on their present course, ideologues on the left will increasingly argue that Obama’s failures stem from his being (a) not liberal enough or (b) incompetent.
If the Obama presidency is seen as damaging the larger liberal project, they will abandon Obama in order to try to protect liberalism. They would rather do that than face an existential crisis.
Liberalism’s Existential Crisis
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Has Washington given up on Syria?
Last week, I wrote about one of the troublesome byproducts of the Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg: a ceasefire in southwestern Syria that Israel worries will entrench Iranian control of that area bordering the Israeli Golan Heights. The day after my article came out, the Washington Post reported on another troubling decision that President Trump has made vis a vis Syria: Ending a CIA program that had provided arms and training to anti-Assad forces.
Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, insisted that this decision was not a sop to Russia. But whether intended that way or not, that is the effect of this decision. The Post quoted a current U.S. official as saying: “This is a momentous decision. Putin won in Syria.” That seems indisputable. By stopping support for the anti-Assad forces, the U.S. is conceding that Bashar Assad—Russia and Iran’s client—will stay in power indefinitely.
The U.S. continues, of course, to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, the misleading name of the largely Kurdish YPG rebels that are besieging the Islamic State city of Raqqa. But the YPG has no interest in overthrowing Assad and no interest in governing Arab areas. Their objective is to set up a Kurdish state, Rojava, in northern Syria, and they have friendly relations both with Damascus and Tehran. There is no way that the Kurds can rule the majority of Syrian territory, which is populated by Arabs.
That will leave multiple factions to battle it out for control of most of Syria: the Iran-Assad-Russia axis (spearheaded by Hezbollah and other Iranian-created militias, and backed by Russian air power), the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is rumored to get support from Gulf states), and the Islamic State, which may be down at the moment but hardly out. These factions have their differences, but they are united on certain core essentials. All are rabidly anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli, and all are violent jihadists, whether of the Shiite or Sunni persuasion.
It is not in America’s interest for any of these groups to control a substantial amount of Syrian territory. Yet President Trump has now made the puzzling decision to stop support for the only faction that could keep substantial swathes of Syria out of jihadist hands.
Granted, the moderates loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army have been losing ground for years. That is largely the fault of President Barack Obama, who unwisely refused to heed the advice of the officials in his administration who advocated a vigorous train-and-assist program for non-jihadist rebels. Such a program would have had a much greater chance of working in earlier years. America’s failure to help the moderates has led many fighters to defect to more radical groups, and many of our allies have been killed or expelled.
But it would not be impossible to reverse these trends, and trying would be worthwhile. There are, after all, scores of military-age Syrian men who have fled the country as refugees. If the U.S. had the will to act, they could be trained, armed, and organized into an effective military force on Jordanian or Turkish soil and then sent with U.S. advisers and U.S. air support to secure Syrian territory. We currently provide that kind of aid to the Kurds, but we have cut off the Arab fighters, who are willing to risk their lives to fight against one of the biggest war criminals in the world—Bashar Assad, who is responsible for upwards of 400,000 deaths.
This decision makes little sense on strategic or moral grounds. Instead of abandoning the moderates, we should be doing more to buttress them. Even if it’s too late to overthrow Assad, who is more secure than ever since Russia entered the conflict in 2015, it might at least be possible to limit him to a few major cities and the Alawite heartland and prevent jihadists from taking control of most of the Syrian countryside. If we stop trying, we are conceding much of Syria to the Iran-Russia camp indefinitely. That is not in our interest, nor in that of our regional allies. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, will be very happy.
It's a duck.
Democrats are finally digging out of the wreckage the Obama years wrought, and are beginning to acknowledge the woes they visited upon themselves with their box-checking identity liberalism. So, yes, the opposition is moving forward in the Trump area, but toward what? Schizophrenia, apparently.
The party’s rebranding effort began in earnest last week when Democrats revealed a new slogan meant to evoke an old one: “A Better Deal.” Writing for the New York Times opinion page on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted the Democratic Party’s new agenda “is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum.” Any sentient political observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“First, we’re going to increase people’s pay,” Schumer wrote. “Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” He endorsed Bernie Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, a national paid family and sick leave program, and a hike of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. To reduce the cost of consumer goods, Democrats will pursue changes in the law to allow Congress to break up big firms with oppressive capriciousness.
When pressed on Sunday about what the “Better Deal” agenda may mean for health care, Schumer confessed it meant the most radical expansion of entitlement benefits in American history. “Medicare for people above 55 is on the table. A buy-in to Medicare is on the table. Buy-in to Medicaid is on the table,” the senator said. All options are available—including, apparently, a single-payer system in the form of voluntary Medicare-for-all—once Democrats “stabilize” ObamaCare’s insurance market.
Schumer admitted that the source of Democratic troubles in 2016 and since isn’t Moscow or former FBI Director James Comey; it’s that the electorate doesn’t know what values or beliefs his party represents. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy agreed. “Our failing historically has been to focus on very targeted demographic messages, cultural issues, rather than broad-based economic themes,” he insisted. So the Democratic Party’s message in 2018 will apparently be not just big government but behemoth government. And yet, the faintest warble of Schumer’s conscience compelled him to assure voters that big government isn’t the Democratic objective. Why?
Because the way for Democrats to win involves party members farther to the Right—that faction of Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. “The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] recognizes that the path to the majority is through the Blue Dogs,” asserted Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. She told Politico that she is in talks with at least 20 potential candidates vying to revive this endangered species. “We are able to convince folks who normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to vote for this Democrat.”
Before voters purged moderate House Democrats by voting for Republicans instead in 2010, their eventual disappearance was heralded as a great victory for the Progressive Monolith. “Democrats aren’t ideological enough,” wrote Ari Berman in an October 2010 New York Times op-ed. He argued that ideological homogeneity would make Democrats “more united and more productive.” In fact, the 2010 midterm elections marked the end of the legislative phase of Barack Obama’s presidency. Good call there.
The House’s Blue Dog Coalition is “dedicated to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines,” according to its mission statement. How those objectives comport with Schumer’s platform—cutting a 13-figure check for infrastructure, rampant economic interventionism, and a semi-single-payer system—is anyone’s guess. Democrats may plan on localizing individual races so as to shield their candidates from the party’s negatives, but that’s easier said than done. Just ask Jon Ossoff, who lost in a Georgia special election despite having done precisely this.
The party’s leaders seem aware that the kind of hyper-liberalism articulated in the “Better Deal” agenda is incompatible with the kind of “economic populism” that proposes individual frugality and prudence as well as solvent safety nets for those who need assistance. For all his faults, Trump was able to marry these two concepts in a way that appealed both to Republicans and enough swing Democrats to win the White House. Democrats appear to be appealing to centrists only at the point of a progressive bayonet. If Democratic candidates start winning again, it won’t be a result of their party’s coherent platform.
The border of incitement.
The idea that speech can itself constitute an act of violence grows ever more popular among the left’s leading polemicists. They argue that employing a politically incorrect word can be triggering; that the wrong gender pronoun can provoke; that words and sentences and parts of speech are all acts of aggression in disguise. The left seeks to stop this violence, or less euphemistically: to silence this speech.
Given their particular sensitivity to the triumphant mightiness of the pen, it’s profoundly disturbing to note where lines are drawn and exceptions made.
Linda Sarsour, the left’s darling of the day, posted a widely-shared picture of Palestinians praying in the streets of Jerusalem, an act protesting the placement of metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. “This is resilience. This is perseverance. This is faith. This is commitment. This is inspiration. This is Palestine,” Sarsour wrote. “Denied access to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque in their own homeland, Palestinians pray on the streets in an act of non-violent resistance. They are met with tear gas and rubber bullets.”
Absent from her platitudinous prevarication was any mention of the inarguably violent act that led Israel to construct the metal detectors in the first place, the recent killing of two Israeli police officers at the Temple Mount. Also absent: any reference to the three Israelis who were brutally murdered in the settlement of Halamish on Friday night. It was a far cry from nonviolent resistance when 19-year-old Omar al-Abed entered a home, saw a family finishing a Shabbat dinner, and began indiscriminately stabbing his victims.
Sarsour’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because she understands her audience and how to appeal to their emotions. She peppers her statements with a few felicitous bromides like “non-violent resistance” and hopes no one notices the inconsistency of her arguments. Others on the left are slightly more honest about their intentions.
Writing in Al Jazeera, Stanley Cohen called on Israel to “accept that as an occupied people, Palestinians have a right to resist—in every way possible.” He begins by telling his readers: “long ago, it was settled that resistance and even armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is not just recognized under international law but specifically endorsed.” His entire article is predicated on a false premise in that it demands the characterization of Israel as a “colonial occupation force”— a characterization that is categorically incoherent.
Cohen cites a 1982 UN Resolution which “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” He does not mention which countries voted for and against this resolution.
Among the countries that voted for it: Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Qatar, Niger, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq.
Among the countries who voted against it: Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States.
On college campuses, the call for armed struggle has become the Cri de Coeur of leftist students who are otherwise hypersensitive to the impact that intangible words can have on corporeal beings. On Columbia’s campus, students who form the backbone of the BDS movement have successfully blurred the line between incitement and impassioned—albeit severely misguided—opinion. In 2016, the Columbia/ Barnard Socialists concluded one social media post by declaring: “long live the intifada.” As recently as Sunday—after the Halamish attack— the Students for Justice in Palestine shared the Al Jazeera article calling for armed resistance. Where are the outraged professors, administrators, and students concerned for the safety of the student body? Where are the charges of bigotry and racism, the calls to silence this speech, to stop this violence?
Nowhere does the idea that speech can constitute violence find more support than on elite liberal arts colleges. But regardless of whether they have intellectual or moral merit on their own, calls for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and micro-aggression-free environments that come from groups or individuals who not only condone, but use their words to quite literally call for violence, must be ignored, and the hypocrisy highlighted.
From the safe confines of an ivy-covered campus–or from the relative safety of this country, for that matter–it’s easy to preach justice and retribution, to portray armed struggle as the necessary means that will find justification through a righteous end. But especially those who are sensitive to the power of language should understand: euphemistic terminology does nothing to mitigate the violent nature inherent in this rhetoric. There must be no confusion. The left’s glorification of armed struggle is nothing short of approval for those Palestinians who target and kill innocent men, women, and children. Those who proclaim to speak for social justice have been damningly silent.
Podcast: How bad is it?
On the first of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald join me to sort through—and we do it systematically, which is a first for us—what is going on with the Russia investigation and how it divides into three categories. There’s the question of the probe itself, there’s the question of collusion, and there’s the question of obstruction of justice. It’s really good. I mean it. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.
Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.
After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.
That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.
Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.
Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”
There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”
In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.
During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”