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A Dialogue on Disappointment

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I thought that Jon Chait’s long article on leftist disappointment with Democratic Presidents was interesting, but that it succeeded in identification of such discontent without making much effort to explain it. David Atkins has a nice response with two potential explanations, first the unwillingness/inability of the last three Democratic Presidents to break from the evidently increasing economic insanity of the GOP, and second the existence and continued success of progressive-by-American-standards economic models in other OECD states.

While both of these make a lot of sense, I’m not sure they get us all the way there. For one, Atkins suggests that the primary reasons for discontent post-Carter have been economic; in this vision, although Bill Clinton’s tenure is economically successful on many metrics, it amounts mainly to pursuing GOP priorities competently rather than incompetently. The most vocal critics of Obama, however, have attacked on both the imperial executive/warmaking/etc., and socio-economic grounds (insufficiency of the ACA and the stiumlus). As has often been argued on this blog, on these former metrics Obama does fine compared to other recent Democratic Presidents.

Atkins doesn’t suggest that leftist are implicitly comparing US and European models of foreign policy and civil liberties, and it’s not hard to see why. To my mind, the difference on issues such as warmaking and aggressive foreign policy between the US and major European states is largely positional; many states joined the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while Germany and France sat out Iraq, it’s obviously not difficult to find examples of modern French imperialism or German amorality in foreign affairs. On civil liberties questions, I suspect that progressives would have a collective heart attack if anyone proposed London levels of state surveillance in New York City, or accorded US law enforcement many of the anti-terror tools that French and German police take for granted. The case of the intervention in Libya is particularly instructive. Obama’s liberties with the War Powers Resolution are notable only in domestic legal context; by and large, comparable European systems grant warmaking latitude to the executive sufficient to make comparison with the United States moot. Moreover, we have strong recent evidence of European executives (Berlusconi, Aznar) engaging in foreign conflict over nearly unanimous domestic opposition.

And so while I think that Atkins gets us some of the way to explaining the phenomenon that Chait identifies, there’s obviously something left unsettled. It’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that American foreign policy leftists in general are quite correct in the belief that they are effectively unrepresented by either of the two major parties, and that it has been thus for most of the twentieth century. Consistent criticism of Democratic Presidents, up to and including Obama, is from this perspective entirely to be expected, although such critiques could probably benefit from some comparative perspective. The civil liberties perspective is harder, because it doesn’t fit neatly into a left-right divide; many on the right hold views on “civil liberties” broadly conceived that are quite compatible with leftist attitudes, although generally for different reasons. There are also some inherent contradictions between pursuit of a socio-economically activist state and promotion of a strong vision of civil liberties, as the activist state inevitably tramples on some individual rights.

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