Sean Wilentz: A Liberal’s Lament

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton and author of The Age of Reagan.]

... [H]ow has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, proposed to revivify Democratic liberalism? There is a quotation that ought to give Democrats, and not just Democrats, pause:"This year will not be a year of politics as usual. It can be a year of inspiration and hope, and it will be a year of concern, of quiet and sober reassessment of our nation's character and purpose. It has already been a year when voters have confounded the experts. And I guarantee you that it will be the year when we give the government of this country back to the people of this country. There is a new mood in America. We have been shaken by a tragic war abroad and by scandals and broken promises at home. Our people are searching for new voices and new ideas and new leaders."

Delivered in Obama's exhortatory cadences, the words are uplifting. The trouble is, though they seem to fit, the passage is from Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1976.

The convergence is revealing. As Republican strategists have begun to notice with delight, Obama's liberal alternative to the post-Bush GOP to date has much in common with Carter's post-Watergate liberalism. Rejecting"politics as usual," attacking"Washington" as the problem, promising to heal the breaches and hurts caused by partisan political polarization, pledging to break the grip that lobbyists and special interests hold over the national government, wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve as a key to his mind, heart and soul—in all of these ways, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.

In other ways, Obama's liberal vision appears clouded, uncertain and even contradictory. During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. He has offered himself as the tribune of sweeping change—yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle. He has emerged as the champion of a new, post-racial politics, even though he has only grudgingly separated himself from his pastor of 20 years, who every week preached a gospel of"black liberation theology" that has everything to do with racial politics.

The most obvious change to liberal politics Obama has to offer is the color of his skin. Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama's blackness is the rationale for making him president. But it is difficult to square such claims with Obama's appeal to a liberalism that transcends race. And when Obama himself subtly and not so subtly draws attention to his color, and charges that the John McCain Republicans will try to scare voters by saying he"doesn't look like all those presidents on the dollar bills," he turns voting for him into an intrinsically virtuous act, proof that one has resisted base appeals to racism (which, in fact, the McCain campaign has not made).

Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. Although his organizing career on Chicago's South Side was brief and, by his own admission, unremarkable, it distinguishes him as another first of his kind in presidential politics, a candidate who looks at politics from the bottom up. For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical, and they see his emergence as an unparalleled opportunity for advancing their frustrated agendas about issues ranging from the redistribution of wealth to curtailing U.S. power abroad.

Obama still has a long way to go to describe the kind of liberalism he stands for, how it meets the enormous challenges of the present—and how it will meet as-yet-unanticipated challenges after the election. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy. Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as"a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally, was enough to convince many of his supporters that he is blessed with superior acumen and good instincts about foreign affairs. Later comments, such as his promise, later softened, to meet directly and"without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and other supporters of terrorism, pleased left-wing Democrats and young antiwar voters as a sign of boldness—even as they left experienced diplomats in wonder at such half-baked formulations.

Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama's immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics....

Related Links

  • Publius: The Continuing Decline of Sean Wilentz

  • Eric Rauchway: We ♥ you, Sean!
  • Read entire article at Newsweek

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    More Comments:

    Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/5/2008

    "The most obvious change to liberal politics Obama has to offer is the color of his skin."

    This is appalling.

    Raul A Garcia - 9/4/2008

    Mr. Shcherban, I have enjoyed your responses, even if I have not always agreed with your analyses. I always try to teach my students tolerance for others. I don't presume to judge you and I agree with your resolve to live in peace in our diversity. Amen.

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/4/2008

    Mr. Garcia, ignore my previous message
    (as response to "Wilentz" one of yours). I wrote it before reading this one, and therefore apologize for being too hasty in my personal judgement on you.
    Let us all, left and right, live in peace the way we know best, without any interference from the super strong, superdemocratic, and always right or wrong ones.

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/4/2008

    Feel the pressure of facts and real
    polemics? I just don't stand right-biased-pseudo-democrats and anecdotal evidence they/you want to pass off as
    history. What life did you get: of ideological dogmatic?

    Raul A Garcia - 9/3/2008

    I confess to bias and obsession as we all must. We are who we are though some would like to forget our past.
    To repeat, both our families, my wife's and mine, suffered from right and left respectively,and this meant a necessary exile, that diaspora experienced by so many through so much history. I can understand the myopia from many.This becomes an age of sound bites and even historical thinking is reduced to formula. I admit my blood runs warm and my heart rises above dispassionate analysis and cries for justice now and not after some book is published. Mine is a small, still poor country. Many well-intentioned people are burdened by the mundane mortgage, manifold career paths, to sift all this and profess sincere concern. Yet hope looms ahead, despite what Guillermo Cabrera Infante termed "Castroenteritis".

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/3/2008

    I kindly ask you again to "elaborate on what exactly the members of your family have been jailed, persecuted for along with the story details: when, where, what they were accused of, etc."

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/3/2008

    Two examples you offered... of what?
    I was talking about the comparative
    importance of ideological statements
    and practical policies. Since when are the ideological pronouncements or silence have become equivalent of the criminal practical policies?
    Secondly, I'm actually glad that you
    reminded about Pol Pot (unfortunately you forgot to mention the second Red Khmer achi-criminal Yeng Sari) and
    Slobodan Milosevich. The search and capture of Slobodan Milosevich (whether he's guilty or not of crimes ascribed to him by US and NATO
    countries) was persisted and finalized
    by the West despite the will of Serbian and other countries' majority.
    The search and capture of the worst mass-murderers in the 20th century Pol Pot and Yeng Sari was torpedoed, by the same West, mainly by
    the US, after Vietnamese troops liberated Cambodia from Red Khmer's
    genocidal regime despite the will of the international majority.
    I wonder how great is the rhetorical sin (virtual silence) of the LEFT comparing to the practical obstruction of justice in one of the worst cases of genocide in history...

    Raul A Garcia - 9/3/2008

    Two examples suffice for now. The virtual silence about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the 70's. The defense of Slobodan Milosevic by Harlod Pinter, Norman Mailer, even with thorough evidence of "ethnic cleansing".

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/2/2008

    Mr Garcia,
    You certainly answered my first question, explaining that you <had family jailed, persecuted, deprived of property and political voice> by
    Castro's regime.
    I'm really sorry for the personal tragedies your family and, obviously, yourself experienced. But since I have natural sciences' background and therefore, investigative spirit, may I kindly ask you to elaborate on what exactly the members of your family have been jailed, persecuted for along with the story details: when, where, what they were accused of, etc.
    Unfortunately, you did not address the
    issue forwarded by yourself I gave the brief but well-argumented answer:
    the skewed ideological approach of the
    left Democrats towards left dictatorial regimes; to be exact - you did not address my mentioned answer to your grievance on that issue.

    Raul A Garcia - 9/1/2008

    Castro far exceeds the excesses of Pinochet. My wife's family left Argentina in the early 80's because of a right wing military takeover previously- we left Cuba more than a decade before fleeing a left military regime. The one big difference is that Argentina has seen the return of elected democratic regimes for some time now while my country remains in the hold of the dinosaur dictatorship. Go to Cuba, sip a mojito, get your money's worth, and pretend it is fine and dandy, you will still be a moral idiot in my mind, even though that touristy illusion may serve your dialectical wishes. I appreciate Garcia Marquez' literature but his politics are skewed as much as he ingratiates himself at the feet of the dictator, now senile and thankfully on the way out to the next world and his reckoning. You sir, have a lot of damn nerve attacking me.

    Raul A Garcia - 9/1/2008

    Mr. Shcherban, I can say what I want and I am not going to bother with you and your miasma. Get a life!

    Raul A Garcia - 9/1/2008

    Mr. Shcherban, like most people my interests are close to the chest, although I consider myself a citizen of the world. Free enterprise has its great faults but I prefer it over the sham failure that was imposed on my country. Most people are locke into circles- Iowa, Paris, the stock market, Che t-shirts, drugs, whisky, cheating on taxes, some go to church or temple and actually mean it- freedom is precious. I only want freedom for what used to be my country. I had family jailed, persecuted, deprived of property and political voice, thousand others tortured- well documented, thousands have died and continue to die in the Florida straits trying in desperation to leave that jail of an island, the moral and physical impoverishment of my counry and on and on. If you are one of those that travels there and deems it as fine and dandy, go to hell! So I have my bias as you do whatever it is. We are human and that is what makes us tick. I am tired of sterile armchair politics and suppositions that won't mean a thing.

    Michael Eric Chisler - 9/1/2008

    The comparison in the middle was to Abe, not FDR.

    Michael Eric Chisler - 9/1/2008

    While some astute observations have been made by Mr. Wilentz, I must - to a point - disagree with many of the assertions in the article. While the vision may be similar, President Carter and future President Obama have distinct character differences. Senator Obama has proved to be much more assertive in manner (and policy) than Jimmy Carter. In manner, I would have to liken him back to an Abraham Lincoln and FDR... the only reason I don't think he's seen by many as an FDR is the difference in situation facing the two administrations. The corruption that made up the Rockefeller era was much more shallow and open, not as deeply ingrained as it is now, having survived nearly unscathed since that time. The lobbyist institutions are at their height of power, and by necessity Senator Obama must be a more forceful voice than our AMZING, but timid, Jimmy Carter. As for personality and overall character -- from my grasp of history the links are manyfold: from his legendary campaign for change, to his inexperienced background, to his passion, to his thoughtful oratories and his academic's mind. Politics of Hope and Unity are the biggest thing to be garnered from an Obama presidency (that and a more liberal Supreme Court). As far as Foreign Policy goes... I'm an "ideological" liberal and I find his foreign policy, while refreshing, to be far more conservative and misinformed/mainstream than I'd like. His rhetoric on Russia, Iran and Israel do scare me just a bit. How anyone of his scholastic caliber can fully support the theocracy of Israel while simultaneously condemning Iran's is beyond me. But I do believe he keeps a historical perspective, and I'm hoping his so called "radical black background" will come in handy while solving the Palestinian issue. I'm just saying, the liberals aren't as happy as you'd think. But the best of us must remember... though we're correct with our liberal aspirations, we're not the only ones in this country.

    Arnold Shcherban - 9/1/2008

    Mr. Garcia, being a Cuban himself has apparently a lot of personal hatred towards Castro, aside from his feelings on Castro's regime brutality and economic failures, which he obviously doesn't have about Pinochet, or say, Somosa.
    Would he tell us what are those PERSONAL grievances against Castro and his regime he has?

    Secondly, Mr Garcia is asserting that the Democrat Left has always had a somewhat skewed attitude in favor to the left dictatorial regimes in comparison with the right dictarial ones. Even assuming he is correct in his estimate, I would like to remind him one major fact (in difference with opinion): the practical policy of all US governments (democratic or republican) has always been (and remains so) punishing the mentioned left regimes with economic , political, and often military sanctions - at the very least - withdrawing financial resources, trade, military aid, and severing political ties, while essentially encouraging and supporting the right ones by increasing economic, financial investments and trade, sharply hiking military aid, and protecting them on international arena from comdemnation with any practical consequences to them.
    The examples are overwhelming in number and quality: Guatemala, Cuba,
    San-Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea, Greece, Indonesia, Kongo, Angola, Pakistan, Afhanistan, Iraq, Iran, Philippines, want more?
    In case of every one of the listed countries my claim can be undeniably proved based on documentary evidence, including the American one.
    Thus, unless one have a ridiculous notion that ideological deviations and opinions are more important than consistent practical national policies, Mr. Gracia's point becomes mute.

    Raul A Garcia - 8/31/2008

    Carter did convincingly, in light of recent oil history, urge a sea change in our energy policy- the others I would not give very high marks on this point. The rest of Carter I did not really care for. The other problem with left Democrats has been their failure to view with equal crticism dictatorial/totalitarian regimes of both right and left, reserving most of their vitriol for the former. Pinochet for example, has always been the punching bag for many good reasons, but much more destructive persons, such as Castro, is seen as more benign and wholesome.
    Iraq has receded in focus for some very real improvements,many of course more due to internal Iraqi developments than results of our policy there. The few times politicians are not looking in the mirror or the news ratings, they actually are able to make sense of realities- the rest of the time they amble goofily in the world of perceptions and over-analytical gaming.

    Glenn Scott Rodden - 8/30/2008

    I am left wondering why Wilentz does not mention the Iraq War in this piece.

    Cary Fraser - 8/29/2008

    Sean Wilentz has expressed his doubts about Obama and he is entitled to articulate his views as informed by his understanding of history. It is quite striking that he seems unable to understand that the parallels he draws between Carter and Obama are valid not only for the similarities in the rhetoric of redemption that both candidates have articulated. The parallels are also valid in terms of the crises of constitutional and institutional legitimacy that the Nixon and George W. Bush eras unleashed. Further , both Nixon and W. Bush followed Democratic Presidents whose conduct in office (the Gulf of Tonkin and Monica Lewinsky) had raised questions about their regard for the truth. Both Nixon and W. Bush exacerbated the level of popular distrust of Presidential behavior (Watergate and the war in Iraq). In effect, Wilentz may need to broaden his perspective on post-1945 American history before his assessments of Obama can provide a measure of serious insight.