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Mark Lilla, in his entertaining and often brilliant cover piece for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, paused from the volume he was working over (another piece of right-wing blather, not worth mentioning) to assure us that he is a “centrist Democrat,” and not some left-wing loony like the kind usually associated with, well, this publication.
“Unlike the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine, we never bought into the campaign’s hollow ‘hope and change’ rhetoric, so we aren’t crushed that, well, life got in the way,” writes Lilla, a humanities professor at Columbia University, in describing himself and those of his fellow smartypants who were able to figure out that Barack Obama was, well, lying to us.
“At most we hoped for a sensible health care program to end the scandal of America’s uninsured, and were relieved that Obama proposed no other grand schemes of Nixonian scale,” he continued. “We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.”
Well, I like the president too. What’s not to like? Or at least, I think I’d like the man, if I knew him. Which I don’t. The only part of him I can know, of course, is the public man who, in Professor Lilla’s own description, filled our ears with “hollow rhetoric” during the campaign.
The professor appears to be saying that he likes people who pepper him with empty, deceptive promises. If that’s so, well, to each his own. Though what I rather suspect Lilla means is that he and his fellow centrist Democrats understood that a certain amount of that “hopey-changey stuff” was necessary to reel in the rubes. In that respect, it’s a little hard to understand exactly how Lilla differs from Sarah Palin, save that he approves of fooling voters, and she doesn’t.
But I digress. In the course of his generally delightful review, Lilla tells us “Conservatives have always been great storytellers; it is their fatal weakness. They love casting their eyes back to the past to avoid seeing what lies right under their noses.”
In this, he is spot on, and he uses this insight to tear and rend at the unfortunate right-winger in question until there is not much left. It’s great fun to read: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/books/review/the-great-disconnect.html.
Yet Lilla also provides us with his own cosmogony, which goes like this:
The Progressive movement: “did extend the jurisprudential limits of government activity in ways that were wise and sometimes not so wise.”
The New Deal: “did convince Americans that citizens are not road kill and that government can legitimately protect public welfare and basic human dignity.”
The Great Society’s architects: “vastly overreached and overpromised, destroying the public’s confidence and threatening the solid achievements of the New Deal and the Progressive Era.”
Just what part of the Great Society does Lilla believe represented vast overreach and overpromise? He doesn’t say, which can only leave us to guess. Could it be the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, or Fair Housing Act, which ended the system of legalized “Jim Crow” segregation in America once and for all?
Was it the Job Corps, the Food Stamp Act, Legal Aid, or the other programs of the War On Poverty, which sought to directly aid and empower the urban poor at the astronomical cost of $3 billion spread over three years?
Was it the massive aid to education at all levels? The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which equipped low-income schools with supplies and special-education programs, including Head Start? Was it the Teacher Corps? Was it the Higher Education Act, which brought us Pell Grants, and the other college scholarship and loan programs that made it possible for so many young people from middle- and working-class families to fill the seats in Professor Lilla’s classrooms?
Was it the Wilderness Act? The Endangered Species Preservation Act? The other environmental laws that constituted the first significant clean-air and -water legislation in our history?
Was it the Consumer Protection Act, which made cigarette companies put warning labels on their lethal product, or the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act, which still saves the lives of tens of thousands of motorists every year?
Was it the Fair Labor Standards Act, which extended the minimum wage to another 9 million workers? Was it the Wholesome Meat Act, or the Truth-in-Lending Act? The support for the arts and culture that gave us NPR and public television, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kennedy Center, and the National Art Gallery?
Or . . . could it have been Medicare and Medicaid?
I cannot believe that even a centrist Democrat of Lilla’s persuasion would really object to any of the above programs.
The Great Society was a group of long-overdue reforms that brought basic justice and opportunity to many millions of Americans, greatly spurred our prosperity, and probably avoided a race war. What truly undermined confidence in government among some whites at the time was the extension of full civil rights to black Americans and, much more lastingly, LBJ’s misadventure in Vietnam.
Centrist Democrats like Lilla know this full well. What they are really trying to construct is a posture, a pose, a brand label that will allow them to pursue a certain political agenda today. For “centrists” everywhere in the West now—in America, and in Europe—this depends on maintaining that no complaints from the right or the left have any validity. It is absolutely required that the “center”—that is to say, the status quo—be the only viable alternative, even as millions of Americans lose their homes and languish in the unemployment ranks, and as the people of Greece and Spain strike, and riot, and comb through trash bins for food.
The past, then, must be sacrificed to maintain this aura of reasonableness. Lilla doesn’t actually object to the real Great Society. What he feels he must object to is what has become the popular perception of it: that because of “overreach and overpromise”—Poverty wasn’t eliminated in the space of seven years! It was only cut in half!—the entire program must be sacrificed on the altar of moderation.
The trouble with this strategy is that it never works. All of the Democrats elected president since Lyndon Johnson ran as populists but governed as centrists—the very formulation of which Lilla seems to approve. And under each of these presidents, Democrats suffered their greatest losses in local, state, and congressional elections since the 1920s, opening the door again to increasingly radical right-wing Republicans and their wealth-destroying policies.
It has become a defining characteristic of the centrist Democrat that he never stops saying he’s saving you, even as keeps shoving your head back underwater.
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
Chance that an American would give up at least one week of life to avoid taking a pill every day:
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