Michael Gerson has another one of his fake elder statesman columns in today’s Washington Post. It is useful reading in that he often takes the point for right-wing propagandists in launching a trial balloon to see how far it will fly. Today he is giving us a trial run as follows:
“Following two years of poor economic performance and electoral repudiation, liberalism is casting around for narratives to explain its failure—- narratives that don’t involve the admission of inadequacies in liberalism itself.”
Let us ignore for now the several assumptions in this one sentence that are breathtaking in their banal falseness, and let Mr. Gerson spin out his own narrative, being aware as we do so that what we are reading is another Rovian attempt to program Mr. Gerson’s designated opponents to defeat themselves, by internalizing whatever mantra he is pushing today.
After stating to his satisfaction that “liberalism” has clearly failed (under the Presidency of Obama, it is understood), Mr. Gerson offers the first rationale he says the left is using to explain away its purported failure: blame Obama, and he quotes Robert Kuttner’s article in Huffington Post, “Obama is fast becoming more albatross than ally.” Gerson calls this approach by liberalism cynical in that it is “attempting to throw overboard its once-revered leader to avoid the taint of his problems.”
He graciously offers a second narrative for those who still “revere” Obama: since Obama has such quality and intelligence, it is not his fault he has so many problems, it is “because his opponents are uniquely evil….The problem is not Obama but the ruthless conspiracy against him,” he explains, tongue in cheek, and he mocks Matthew Yglesias because Yglesias warns Obama to be wary of “economic sabotage,” as though, giggles Gerson, “Chamber of Commerce SWAT teams, no doubt funded by foreigners, are preparing attacks on the electrical grid.” Gerson also patronizes Paul Krugman (frequently used for target practice by Free Trade acolytes), and Steve Benen, whose posting was even (gasp!) entitled “None Dare Call It Sabotage.”
The accusation by Benen that Republicans are deliberately undermining the strength of the country for political advantage must have struck home, because Gerson shows a little desperation himself in trying to counter it, mainly by setting up a strawman and, he thinks, demolishing it in time-honored debate society fashion. The sabotage charge, in his strawman, is based on what he says without proof is liberals’ criticism of Republicans for opposing federal spending in general and, in particular, the Fed’s new quantitative easing (QE2) program of creating more fiat dollars out of thin air. Liberals, he says, should consider that such economic policy debates have two sides, that liberal policies are not self-evident, and that opposing liberal policies is not “malevolent.”
Now comes the injured innocence, the usual whine of the put-upon victim so often heard from the right wing: “It is difficult to overstate how offensive elected Republicans find the sabotage accusation,” especially when, in Gerson’s view, Obama himself came very close to making the same charge when the President said “before I was even inaugurated, there were leaders on the other side of the aisle who got together and they made the calculation that if Obama fails, then we win.” Gerson makes very clear: “No charge from the campaign more effectively undermined the possibility of future cooperation.” Translation: Republican intransigence and sabotage is totally Obama’s fault; because he called attention to earlier public statements by Republican leaders that they wanted Obama to fail and be a one-term president—- this hurt their feelings, and that justifies anything Republicans might do to create that failure.(That strikes me as an inadvertent proof out of Gerson’s own mouth that the conspiracy theory he mentioned indeed has some justification).
Gerson carries his strawman further: “The sabotage theme, once implicit, is now direct among panicked liberals,” whom he sagely accuses of strategically using the sabotage idea to pressure Obama not to move to “the center” and not to indulge in Clintonian triangulation, forcing Obama to “double down on liberalism once again.”
Gerson’s conclusion, couched in portentous phrases, is that this doubling down is “very bad political advice. It also indicates a movement losing contact with political reality… Conspiracy thinking is not only addictive, it is tiresome. It precludes the possibility of interesting policy debate or genuine disagreement- how can you argue with a plot?” He even drags in John Stormer, a right wing conspiracy theorist from the 1960’s, who wrote a book, None Dare Call It Treason, and pretends that today’s progressives are descendants of Stormer. (As I recall, Stormer was a wild-eyed John Bircher, pretty far from progressive by any definition). Therefore, says Gerson, progressives are discrediting their own ideas. He leaves unsaid, but one gets the message: progressives should shut up already with this sabotage nonsense, forgo doubling down on liberalism per se, and slink quietly away.
Mr. Gerson’s basic assumptions, delivered with majestic certainty, are incorrect, i.e., lies. Economic performance over the last two years is not exactly “poor,” inasmuch as it shows improvement. Yes, the recovery is fragile, but it is definitely there. Even if it is not “there” to the degree desired, the reason is more likely the depth of the disaster created by Republican policies that caused the economic meltdown in the first place, and Republican meddling which short-circuited or, ahem, sabotaged, Democratic policies intended to repair the mess. As for “electoral repudiation,” there is absolutely no evidence that most voters in the mid-term were repudiating Obama’s policies; in fact, when questioned, most of them wanted more rather than less (more money to create jobs, more and better health insurance reform and coverage, more regulation of Wall Street, and so on). Republicans strenuously keep trying to claim the American voter rejected Obama and rejected his so-called “liberal policies,” hoping if they say it often enough, it will become Conventional Wisdom. Truthiness in action, in other words.
What all this is really about, is yet another way to enforce corporate Free Market policies and cast aspersions on, even demonize, absolutely anything that challenges them. Another bit of truthiness-by-repetition is the insistent claim that so-called liberal policies (which Republicans generally believe to be based on Keynes’ economic theories) have failed. It is actually the Republican policies, based on Free Market or Friedman economics, which have failed spectacularly, over and over, most notably in the Wall Street meltdown and subsequent economic crash under Bush, a determined acolyte of the Free Market. As it happens, Mr. Obama’s major economic advisors are themselves members of the Free Market class of Wall Street financiers, which makes Republican arguments about liberal policies somewhat disingenuous. More than a few liberals question Bernanke’s QE2, by the way, and for more than simple economic reasons. Gerson’s strawman is actually irrelevant to the basic argument here.
Gerson says that economic policy debates have two sides; I would say they may well have more than two sides, and it would be nice if Democrats and our Democratic President understood that we are in the midst of an existential debate here. There is far too much wimpy, if often unconscious, acceptance of Free Market economics by Democrats themselves, when what we need is an up-front challenge about the whole fabric of economic theory as a determinant of political policy. Until we fight our way out of that box, develop a better theory or guide, we will be trapped in recurring, ever greater, economic disasters, and we will be under the thumb of corporate interests, interests frequently inimical to real people.
Which brings me to the conspiracy theory. Here, Mr. Gerson got something right when he said conspiracy theory is addictive and precludes productive debate. Unfortunately, it is the Republican right which has had the most conspiracy-oriented thinking. It seems that Gerson is engaged in projection here, describing his own favorite Party and its business plan and pretending to see its agenda in the liberals. Liberals are far too diverse and disorganized, as well as too fact-oriented, to come up with grand conspiracies… until, that is, the Republican right-wing, which now rules the Party, and Glenn Beck, its mouthpiece, keep weeping about one conspiracy after another, such as Obama is a secret Muslim, he was born in Kenya, he is plotting with terrorists, liberals hate America and want to turn our children into lesbians and gays, and so on.
Since Republicans and their apologists frequently accuse opponents of what they themselves are doing, or plan on doing, I ask you: Why does the right always go ballistic every time the sabotage conspiracy subject comes up? Why would they instinctively react so viciously, unless it were true?