A similar conundrum is being faced in the United States at the moment as Obama begins his re-election campaign. A superb article published yesterday in New York Magazine by political blogger Jonathon Chait argues that ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’ as he refers to them (Not to be confused with Australia’s conservative Liberal Party), are always bound to be disappointed no matter what is achieved. A few choice quotes from the article are below:
The cultural enthusiasm sparked by Obama’s candidacy drained away almost immediately after his election. All the passion now lies with the critics, and it is hard to find a liberal willing to muster any stronger support than halfhearted murmuring about the tough situation Obama inherited, or vague hope that maybe in a second term he can really start doing things. (“I’m like everybody, I want more action,” an apologetic Chris Rock said earlier this month. “I believe wholeheartedly if he’s back in, he’s going to do some gangsta shit.”) Obama has already given up on any hope of running a positive reelection campaign and is girding up for a grim slog of lesser-of-two-evils-ism.
Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
Of course, the mere fact that the same people make the same complaints all the time does not render all those complaints false. All presidents screw up at least some of the time, and some of them, like Carter, screw things up almost all the time. What’s more, constructive criticism serves a vital role in democracy, and even unreasonable criticism can helpfully push the boundaries of the possible. Yet none of this justifies or explains liberals’ constant depression.
There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.If the best that ‘progressives’ can hope for is ‘the ceaseless grind of politics’ than what do they in fact hope to achieve? As I pointed out at the time of Rudd’s exit, it can be argued that he instituted more reform in two and a half years than Howard did in 12, and yet he holds the infamous record of being the only Labor Prime Minister deposed before he could face re-election. When you also consider that Hawke, the ALP’s most electorally successful leader was deposed by his own party despite winning four elections, you can see a huge anomaly within the ALP and in particular with its modern leaders. How do party members, and more importantly voters in general, bridge the gap between political fantasy and the pragmatism of reality?
In order to answer this question there must be a measurable way that success for political leaders can be judged, and in particular those who classify themselves as ‘progressive’. Is it through the number of policies implemented? On that score, Gillard does exceptionally well with her government passing over 250 pieces of legislation since being elected 15 months ago, yet she is doing abysmally in the polls. Or is it delivering on the promises made during an election campaign? In this regard Rudd delivered all his big ticket items promised in 2007, yet was unable to remain as leader in the long term. Or do ‘progressives’ measure current leaders in historical terms. In Australia, the ghost of Whitlam looms large, but his spectacular fall from grace hardly provides an instructive example of effective governance.
As long as ‘progressive’ supporters continue to regard their leaders as mythical figures, none of the long term goals will be achieved: whether it be an effective policy to combat green house gas emissions, or much needed international macroeconomic reform. It seems political discourse is doomed to failure because ‘progressives’ lack a much needed dose of realism.