What a difference a month makes! When my last controversial column posted on Salon in the second week of August, most Democrats seemed frozen in suspended animation, not daring to criticize the Obama administration's bungling of healthcare reform lest it give aid and comfort to the GOP. Well, that ice dam sure broke with a roar. Dissident Democrats found their voices, and by late August even the liberal lemmings of the mainstream media, from CBS to CNN, had dramatically altered their tone of reportage, from priggish disdain of the town hall insurgency to frank admission of serious problems in the healthcare bills as well as of Obama's declining national support.
But this tonic dose of truth-telling may be too little too late. As an Obama supporter and contributor, I am outraged at the slowness with which the standing army of Democratic consultants and commentators publicly expressed discontent with the administration's strategic missteps this year. I suspect there had been private grumbling all along, but the media warhorses failed to speak out when they should have -- from week one after the inauguration, when Obama went flat as a rug in letting Congress pass that obscenely bloated stimulus package. Had more Democrats protested, the administration would have felt less arrogantly emboldened to jam through a cap-and-trade bill whose costs have made it virtually impossible for an alarmed public to accept the gargantuan expenses of national healthcare reform. (Who is naive enough to believe that Obama's plan would be deficit-neutral? Or that major cuts could be achieved without drastic rationing?)
By foolishly trying to reduce all objections to healthcare reform to the malevolence of obstructionist Republicans, Democrats have managed to destroy the national coalition that elected Obama and that is unlikely to be repaired. If Obama fails to win reelection, let the blame be first laid at the door of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who at a pivotal point threw gasoline on the flames by comparing angry American citizens to Nazis. It is theoretically possible that Obama could turn the situation around with a strong speech on healthcare to Congress this week, but after a summer of grisly hemorrhaging, too much damage has been done. At this point, Democrats' main hope for the 2012 presidential election is that Republicans nominate another hopelessly feeble candidate. Given the GOP's facility for shooting itself in the foot, that may well happen.
Why did it take so long for Democrats to realize that this year's tea party and town hall uprisings were a genuine barometer of widespread public discontent and not simply a staged scenario by kooks and conspirators? First of all, too many political analysts still think that network and cable TV chat shows are the central forums of national debate. But the truly transformative political energy is coming from talk radio and the Web -- both of which Democrat-sponsored proposals have threatened to stifle, in defiance of freedom of speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights. I rarely watch TV anymore except for cooking shows, history and science documentaries, old movies and football. Hence I was blissfully free from the retching overkill that followed the deaths of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy -- I never saw a single minute of any of it. It was on talk radio, which I have resumed monitoring around the clock because of the healthcare fiasco, that I heard the passionate voices of callers coming directly from the town hall meetings. Hence I was alerted to the depth and intensity of national sentiment long before others who were simply watching staged, manipulated TV shows.
Why has the Democratic Party become so arrogantly detached from ordinary Americans? Though they claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics and lawyers (one reason for the hypocritical absence of tort reform in the healthcare bills). Weirdly, given their worship of highly individualistic, secularized self-actualization, such professionals are as a whole amazingly credulous these days about big-government solutions to every social problem. They see no danger in expanding government authority and intrusive, wasteful bureaucracy. This is, I submit, a stunning turn away from the anti-authority and anti-establishment principles of authentic 1960s leftism.
How has "liberty" become the inspirational code word of conservatives rather than liberals? (A prominent example is radio host Mark Levin's book "Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto," which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three months without receiving major reviews, including in the Times.) I always thought that the Democratic Party is the freedom party -- but I must be living in the nostalgic past. Remember Bob Dylan's 1964 song "Chimes of Freedom," made famous by the Byrds? And here's Richie Havens electrifying the audience at Woodstock with "Freedom! Freedom!" Even Linda Ronstadt, in the 1967 song "A Different Drum," with the Stone Ponys, provided a soaring motto for that decade: "All I'm saying is I'm not ready/ For any person, place or thing/ To try and pull the reins in on me."
But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it's positively pickled.
Throughout this fractious summer, I was dismayed not just at the self-defeating silence of Democrats at the gaping holes or evasions in the healthcare bills but also at the fogginess or insipidity of articles and Op-Eds about the controversy emanating from liberal mainstream media and Web sources. By a proportion of something like 10-to-1, negative articles by conservatives were vastly more detailed, specific and practical about the proposals than were supportive articles by Democrats, which often made gestures rather than arguments and brimmed with emotion and sneers. There was a glaring inability in most Democratic commentary to think ahead and forecast what would or could be the actual snarled consequences -- in terms of delays, denial of services, errors, miscommunications and gross invasions of privacy -- of a massive single-payer overhaul of the healthcare system in a nation as large and populous as ours. It was as if Democrats live in a utopian dream world, divorced from the daily demands and realities of organization and management.
But dreaming in the 1960s and '70s had a spiritual dimension that is long gone in our crassly materialistic and status-driven time. Here's a gorgeous example: Bob Welch's song "Hypnotized." which appears on Fleetwood Mac's 1973 album "Mystery to Me." (The contemplative young man in this recent video is not Welch.) It's a peyote dream inspired by Carlos Castaneda's fictionalized books: "They say there's a place down in Mexico/ Where a man can fly over mountains and hills/ And he don't need an airplane or some kind of engine/ And he never will." This exhilarating shamanistic vision (wonderfully enhanced by Christine McVie's hymnlike backing vocal) captures the truth-seeking pilgrimages of my generation but also demonstrates the dangerous veering away from mundane social responsibilities. If the left is an incoherent shambles in the U.S., it's partly because the visionaries lost their bearings on drugs, and only the myopic apparatchiks and feather-preening bourgeois liberals are left...
Wednesday, September 09, 2009