To qualify as a respectable liberal, one must of course value the life of an American citizen over that of any foreigner. Oh, there’s the necessary uplifting rhetoric about promoting democracy and human rights abroad, the passionate arguments on behalf of the poor citizens of countries that inexplicably align with U.S. foreign policy objectives. But when it comes down to it, any good liberal will gladly take the technocratic thrill of a modest reduction in healthcare costs over the life of some poor bastard in Afghanistan.
Sound too harsh? Then perhaps you haven’t been reading Kevin Drum, a pundit who rose to fame as a liberal supporter of the Iraq war, demonstrating a reputation for foresight that has been impressing the blogosphere for years and landed him a gig with Mother Jones. In a recent post, he chides those perpetual adolescents that judge politicians by their policies, not their parties, and who fail to understand that we’re all better off with a liberal committing war crimes than Sarah Palin. While noting — correctly — that those who supported Obama and honestly thought he would bring about fundamental change in policy only saw in the man what they wanted to see, Drum is concerned some of them have opened their eyes and might be feeling the temptation to leave Team Blue:
The striking thing to me, though, is how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years before they really turned on him, and even then they revolted more against the Republican establishment than against Bush himself. But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too. As near as I can tell, there’s a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they’d be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It’s extraordinarily self-destructive behavior — and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. And then ask them whether liberal revolt, in the end, strengthened liberalism or conservatism.
The striking thing to me is that Drum finds this opposition to Obama to be a bad thing, as if blind conservative support for Bush were something to admire and replicate, not something to abhor and repudiate. There is also some irony in his bemoaning the “liberal revolt” to LBJ on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, though it does clearly demonstrate the respectable liberal’s tolerance for mass murder — hundreds of thousands of dead Vietnamese a necessary price for the Great Society back home; opposition to the purveyor of violence an act of myopic betrayal. In typical liberal fashion, though, Drum has plenty of rhetoric, in this case, “all sorts of complaints about Obama”:
He’s been weaker on civil liberties than I’d like. His approach to bank regulation has been far too friendly to financial interests. I’m not thrilled with his escalation in Afghanistan. He hasn’t moved as quickly on gay rights as I hoped. And he hasn’t used the bully pulpit nearly as effectively as I think he’s capable of. He could afford to attack obstructionism and conservative retrenchment far more directly than he has.
But that’s no reason “to turn on him,” opposition to the perpetuation of longstanding government policies reduced to a matter of personal support for some guy with a photogenic family. We must remember that the “national security community has tremendous influence; the financial lobby has a stranglehold; Obama told us explicitly during the campaign that he planned to escalate in Afghanistan”.
What our Exhibit A inadvertently illustrates, though, is that he too is one of those naive suckers who thought candidate Obama was the second coming (of Jesus or FDR, depending on one’s upbringing). The idea that Obama is in any way boxed in politically by Wall Street and the military-industrial complex implies a belief that his personal preference would be to oppose these interests’ agendas rather than promote them, which is not all that different from believing one of Santa’s elves shot JFK. Obama has show no inclination to impose those interests, with his actions — and the tremendous amount the financial industry spent getting him elected — in fact indicating quite the opposite.
However, despite failing to fulfill some of the lofty expectation of him, a corporatist healthcare reform bill, “the greatest piece of social legislation since Medicare” to the true believers, is reason enough to support the president, particularly if your career rests on steadfastly supporting the Democratic Party — sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes with qualms, but always in the end. And hell, Obama told us he was going to needlessly kill a bunch of foreigners before he was elected, so can you really complain — and aren’t a few thousand dead people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia worth the extension of a few lives here at home (assuming the “reform” bill is implemented as its advocates presume)? This is what passes for respectable liberalism today; indeed, The Nation is running a perhaps even more offensively silly piece on how Obama is “stunningly similar” to MLK, by necessity refraining from comment on King’s uncompromising (and inconvenient) call for an immediate end to the Vietnam war.
To the deans of the establishment left, the victims of U.S. wars and manless air strikes do not elicit the same sympathy they did for King, or for others with functioning consciences. Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war, for instance, might be unfortunate, boneheaded even, but it’s just another policy, and in Washington its impolite to allow a policy disagreement to get between friends — and one typically doesn’t call a friend a murderer. Something might appear morally wrong with accepting the escalated killing of poor people abroad in exchange for a hike in the minimum wage and a president who can articulate a coherent thought from time to time, but that’s an opinion likely to confine one to the fringes of the political wilderness if expressed in polite company.