The latest cover story in the New York Times Book Review is a long, pseudo-erudite bashing by Mark Lilla of a conservative book, marinaded in Lilla's selective view of the history of Progressivism in the United States. Lilla, humanities professor at Columbia University, lambastes Charles Kesler's "I Am The Change – Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism." The text box portrayed conservatives as motivated solely by blind rage: "More than a few American citizens are loathing themselves blind over Barack Obama. Why?"
Lilla opened with a standard "clever" bait-and-switch that he probably thinks will shock people, but which most conservatives will figure out long before the end:
Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers’ health and safety. Had Congress not stood in his way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it off, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized.
His name was Richard Nixon.
Whenever conservatives talk to me about Barack Obama, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. But what exactly? The anger, the suspicion, the freestyle fantasizing have no perceptible object in the space-time continuum that centrist Democrats like me inhabit. What are we missing? Seen from our perspective, the country elected a moderate and cautious straight shooter committed to getting things right and giving the United States its self--respect back after the Bush-Cheney years. Unlike the crybabies at MSNBC and Harper’s Magazine, we never bought into the campaign’s hollow “hope and change” rhetoric, so aren’t crushed that, well, life got in the way. 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. We liked him for his political liberalism and instinctual conservatism. And we still like him.
But more than a few of our fellow citizens are loathing themselves blind over Barack Obama. Why? I need a level-headed conservative to explain this to me, and Charles R. Kesler seems an excellent candidate.
This kind of "loathing" actually happened among liberals when Bush was president, but the Times didn't see it as troublesome.
Later, Lilla mocked Kesler for his choice of villain: Woodrow Wilson, but had to leave out a lot of history to do so.
...For some years now the Claremont Institute has been promoting the idea that Wilson was a kind of double agent, whipping the Huns in World War I while surreptitiously introducing the Hegelian bacillus into the American water supply and turning us into zombie-slaves of an elite-run progressivist State. Glenn Beck popularized the notion among grass-roots conservatives by placing Wilson at the center of his Jackson Pollock blackboards, with spokes running out to Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, Saul Alinsky, Acorn, George Soros, Cass Sunstein and now I’m forgetting who else. Kesler gives us a more sober account of what Wilson wrought.
There is, of course, a real story here, but also a much simpler, Idea-Frei way of telling it. Yes, the hydra-headed Progressive movement, resisting varied but real economic threats to democratic self--government, did extend the jurisprudential limits of government activity in ways that were wise and sometimes not so wise. Yes, the New Deal did convince Americans that citizens are not road kill and that government can legitimately protect public welfare and basic human dignity. And yes, the Great Society’s liberal architects vastly overreached and overpromised, destroying the public’s confidence in active government and threatening the solid achievements of the New Deal and the Progressive Era.
Unlike the evasive Lilla, Jonah Goldberg's best-selling Liberal Fascism detailed the liberty-sapping machinations of the Progressive movement: "The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous "poison" into the American bloodstream; [and] newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government[?]"
Lilla continued to condescendingly accuse conservatives of being in need of therapy for their rage over the moderate Obama.
What role does Barack Obama play in that struggle? A rather small one, as this book unintentionally shows. Had the Supreme Court overturned the Affordable Care Act, the right’s fever would not have dropped one degree, nor, I predict, will the patient come to its senses if the president is defeated in November. Is there a doctor in the house? Conservatives need a psychological specialist, someone at the level of the great Jewish sage and sometime physician Maimonides. In the late 12th century Maimonides received a letter from a group of rabbis in Marseille who had worked themselves into a frenzy over astrological predictions of the End Times. His prescription -- I translate loosely from the Hebrew -- was, Get a grip! “A man should never cast his reason behind him,” he warned, “for the eyes are set in front, not behind.” Excellent advice then, excellent advice now. And it sounds even better in German.