A major difference between conservatives and progressives

The right marched in uncritical, creepy devotion to Bush for the first six years of his presidency. The left has been leading the way in criticizing Obama when warranted.

Published March 24, 2009 1:14PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

One of the linchpins of the Bush presidency, especially during the first term (and well into the second, until he became a major political liability), was the lock-step uncritical reverence – often bordering on cult-like glorification – which the “conservative” movement devoted to the "Commander-in-Chief."  An entire creepy cottage industry arose – led not by fringe elements but by right-wing opinion-making leaders – with cringe-inducing products paying homage to Bush as "The First Great Leader of the 21st Century" (John Podhoretz); our "Rebel-in-Chief" (Fred Barnes); "The Right Man" (David Frum); the New Reagan (Jonah Goldberg); "a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius" who is our "Big Brother" (John Hinderaker); and "the triumph of the seemingly average American man," the supremely "responsible" leader who, when there's a fire, will "help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, 'Where's Sally'?" (Peggy Noonan).

Even as Bush implemented one massive expansion of government power after the next -- the very "un-conservative" policies they long claimed to oppose -- there was nothing but (at best) the most token and muted objections from them.  The handful of conservatives who did object were cast aside as traitors to the cause, and criticisms of the President became equated with an overt lack of patriotism.  Uncritical support for the Leader was the overarching, defining attribute of conservatism, so much so that even Bill Kristol, in The New York Times, acknowledged: "Bush was the movement and the cause."

Whenever I would speak at events over the last couple of years and criticize the Bush administration’s expansions of government power, extreme secrecy and other forms of corruption, one of the most frequent questions I would be asked was whether "the Left" -- meaning liberals and progressives -- would continue to embrace these principles with a Democrat in the White House, or whether they would instead replicate the behavior of the Right and uncritically support whatever the Democratic President decided.  Though I could only speculate, I always answered -- because I believed -- that the events of the last eight years had so powerfully demonstrated and ingrained the dangers of uncritical support for political leaders that most liberals would be critical of and oppositional to a Democratic President when that President undertook actions in tension with progressive views. 

Two months into Obama’s presidency, one can clearly conclude that this is true.  Even though Obama unsurprisingly and understandably remains generally popular with Democrats and liberals alike, there is ample progressive criticism of Obama in a way that is quite healthy and that reflects a meaningful difference between the “conservative movement” and many progressives.

Over the last month, the Obama administration has made numerous decisions in the civil liberties area that are replicas of some of the most controversial and radical actions taken by the Bush administration, and the most vocal critics of those decisions by far were the very same people – ostensibly on "the Left" -- who spent the last several years objecting to the same policies as part of the Bush administration’s radicalism.  Identically, many of Obama's most consequential foreign policy decisions -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan -- have been criticized by many on the Left.  Opposition to Obama’s bank bailout plan is clearly being driven by liberal economists, pundits and bloggers, and much of the criticism over the AIG debacle came from liberals as well.  There was pervasive liberal criticism over some of Obama's key appointments, including Tom Daschle, John Brennan and Tim Geithner.  That's more independent progressive thinking in two months than the "conservative movement" exhibited with regard to Bush in six years.

It’s certainly true that one has no difficulty finding cult-like liberal veneration for Obama – those who invoke Bible-like "he’s-a-master-of-11-dimensional-chess" clichés to justify whatever he does (the Lord works in mysterious ways but even when we don't understand what He does, we Trust that He is Supremely Good and more Wise than us and knows best); who declare, in Bush-like "with-me-or-against-me" fashion, all critics of Obama to be the Enemy; who pay homage to Kim Jong Il-like imagery such as this and this; who believe that "trust" -- a sentiment appropriate for family and friends but not political leaders -- should be vested in Obama and thus negate any concerns over how he exercises power.  Some overly-eager journalists and bloggers are devoted to carrying forth the administration's message (usually delivered anonymously) in exchange for favorable treatment and/our due to a painfully excessive sense of devotion, and there's a Democratic establishment with a built-in machinery to defend Obama no matter what he does.

But outside of those anonymity-granting blogger/journalists and Democratic apparatchiks, these drooling, worshipful, subservient sentiments are largely confined to the fringes.  With some exceptions, to find this right-wing-replicating blind loyalty to the Leader, one has to search blog comment sections and obscure diarists.  Many -- arguably most -- of the most vocal liberal Bush critics have kept their critical faculties engaged and have been unwilling to sacrifice their political values and principles at the altar of partisan loyalty.

It should be emphasized that mere criticism for its own sake is also not a virtue.  Those who reflexively and blindly criticize whatever Obama does (based on the immovable, all-consuming conviction that he is intrinsically Evil) are nothing more than the opposite side of the same mindless coin as those who reflexively and blindly praise whatever Obama does (based on the immovable, all-consuming conviction that he is intrinsically Good). Pre-ordained, overarching judgments of Obama that are detached from his actions and grounded in Manichean caricatures are irrational in equal measure, whether that judgment yields praise or condemnation.

A rational citizen, by definition, praises and supports political leaders only when they do the right thing (regardless of motive), and criticizes and opposes them when they don’t.  It's just that simple.  Cheerleading for someone because they're on "your team" is appropriate for a sporting event, not for political matters.  Political leaders deserve support only to the extent that their actions, on a case-by-case basis, merit that support, and that has largely been the behavior of progressives towards Obama.

Hence:  civil libertarian critics of Bush have vehemently criticized the Obama administration for embracing Bush’s secrecy theories, shielding government policies (including torture) from judicial review, denying all rights to Bagram detainees, and retaining some of Bush’s extreme detention powers, but have praised him -- often lavishly -- for restricting FOIA secrecy, banning waterboarding and CIA black sites, disclosing key Bush-era OLC memos, bringing charges against the last "enemy combatant" in America, and guaranteeing International Red Cross access to all detainees.  Foreign policy critics have objected to Obama's escalation of our military presence in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan while praising him for preliminary changes in our tone (if not policy) towards Israel and his diplomatic overtures to Iran.  Economic critics have attacked his bank rescue plan as a sleazy give-away to Wall Street and his excessive stimulus compromises, while praising his ambitious domestic budget and his core stimulus approach.  In most areas, his record has been mixed, and thus progressive reaction to it has been as well.

Critical analysis is how a political culture and even a political movement remains vibrant and worthwhile, and is the only way political leaders and a political class will remain responsive and accountable.  Blind reverence and uncritical loyalty -- the need to see a political leader as one who embodies infallible truth and transformative justice and can deliver some form of personal or emotional elevation -- breeds ossification, intellectual death, and authoritarian corruption.  Anyone who doubts that should look at the state of today's conservative movement to see what the fruits are of that cultish mentality. 

Many conservatives typically use the excuse that a national crisis (9/11) is what led to such lock-step and uncritical support for the Leader, but many progressives are retaining their critical faculties despite the (at least equally threatening) economic crisis consuming not just America but the world.  There are many legitimate criticisms one might make of liberals but, with some exceptions, replicating the Leader worship and blind reverence that dominated the Bush era doesn't appear to be one of them.


UPDATE: I'm well-aware, and explicitly stated, that there were some conservatives who dissented early on from the Bush movement as an assault on their ideological convictions -- I devoted an entire chapter of my first book to those individuals -- but they were a tiny minority (and were cast out of the movement).  Even as Bush's popularity collapsed across the spectrum, self-identified "conservatives" continued to support him overwhelmingly and "movement conservatism" devoted itself blindly to Bush. Indeed, even as recently as December (three months ago), by which point the Bush disaster was undeniably apparent to everyone else, self-identified "conservatives" continued overwhelmingly to support their leader.  

The point, though, isn't so much the lockstep devotion to Bush among the conservative rank-and-file as it is the blindly uncritical, cult-like glorification of him by the Right's opinion-making leaders and their refusal to criticize what he did -- until they sought cynically to distance themselves from the stench of his failure late in his presidency (and anyone who doubts that should just click on the links in the first paragraph or read this).  If one searches for it, one can find that devoted reverence towards Obama among some creepy cultists and overly eager supporters, but that has not been the predominant behavioral trait among progressives.


UPDATE II:   Here is about as pure an example of the right-wing-mimicking sickness of claiming that Obama is so much wiser and smarter than everyone else that we should all meekly keep our mouths shut and submit to and cheer for whatever it is he that he decrees -- from Jacob Heilbrunn at The Huffington Post:

The chorus of criticism of President Obama's economic plan has been almost deafening, and it isn't coming from Republicans but Democrats. Sure, the Republicans are engaging in scare tactics about tens of trillions in deficits, but it's the liberal naysayers such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who've been the real critics.

They should lay off . . . . Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the liberal attack on the Obama administration is that it betrays a kind of pathological political death-wish among Democrats. When Ronald Reagan was trying to extricate America from recession in his first term, Republicans weren't denouncing him. Democrats, by contrast, seem to have no compunction about flaying their president a few months into his first term as courting failure. No doubt they depict it as concern for his success. But it remains astonishing that a variety of pundits and lawmakers continue to underestimate Obama, who is, by a wide margin, the most shrewd [sic] and thoughtful president America has had in decades. Will Obama rescue the economy? Yes, he can. But not if the Democrats try to stop him first.

To recap:  Republicans never criticized Reagan, and Democrats should copy that sychophantic behavior and loyally get in line behind the great man in the White House.  Obama isn't merely our Leader, but he's Our Great and Wise Leader -- the greatest and wisest that "America, by a wide margin, has had in decades," maybe ever -- and what he deserves and is entitled to is meek and uncritical support to ensure that The Team succeeds.  Even if you think that what Obama is doing is wrong and counter-productive, you should keep your mouth shut and pretend to agree with him and realize that he is smarter and better than you and therefore probably right, even if you don't see or agree with the rationale behind his actions.  Obama works in mysterious ways, yes he does.

Nothing is worse, says Heilbrunn, than Democrats who "seem to have no compunction about flaying their president" -- i.e., criticizing his policies when they think the policies are wrong and bad.  What kind of person would think that it's a bad thing for citizens to disagree with and criticize their political leaders?  Actually, here's one answer to that question:  Bill Kristol said once that all Americans have the solemn obligation to "keep quiet for six or nine months" about the Iraq War to enable The Surge to succeed.  It looks like Heilbrunn learned a little too much when writing his book on neoconservatives.

By Glenn Greenwald

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