I’m certainly interested in Rick Perlstein’s new book, although who knows when I will have time to read it. While it sounds like he probably gives more transformative agency to Reagan than I am really comfortable with, I have no doubt the insights will be very useful. I did think a bit of his interview with David Dayen worth mentioning here:
And that was true on both sides of the political aisle, right? You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.
Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It’s very similar. Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper’s, there was an article by Steven Brill called “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,” pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it’s a powerful force.
This is a useful lesson. I’ve said this before, but there is no reason to think Democratic presidents are going to create the change you want. They are a necessary tool to sign the bills legislating that change, but just choosing the right president and–poof–everything changes is never, ever going to happen and Democrats are far better off understanding this. Barack Obama was never going to lead a transformative movement and it was silly to think so. Even if Elizabeth Warren was elected president, she wouldn’t either. The constraints are far too great. That change has to come through grassroots organizing that make cowardly politicians afraid to resist or try to buy you off through compromise measures that are victories in themselves. There are of course areas where disappointment in Obama is quite justified–education, public lands, energy development, etc–but these are areas where executive authority dominate policy making. Even in these areas, there was no evidence in 2008 that he’d be any different. It’s not as if Arne Duncan appeared out of thin air.