The American left’s summer of fear

Left-wing blogger Matthew Yglesias has a piece in the Washington Post called “Welcome to the Summer of Fear.” His central claim is that the non-purely economic issues that have so many people riled up are trivial ones that would lack resonance in better economic times.
I suspect the real fear that exists this summer is the fear of leftists like Yglesias that the political course charted by President Obama is about to be overridden. Attempting to whistle past that fear, and to avoid panic in the ranks, Yglesias argues that many of the issues that seem to be damaging the left — issues he declines to discuss on the merits — are trivial. Accordingly, once the economy improves, the left will have the upper hand politically.
To make this self-serving case, Yglesias commits a series of howlers. But before discussing them, we should recognize the kernels of truth in his argument. First, there probably is a relationship between the state of the economy and how the public views some non-purely economic issues. Thus, while large scale illegal immigration will always be a concern, we should not be surprised if the concern is heightened in bad times.
Second, it can be more difficult in hard times to gain support for certain types radical economic reform, particularly those intended to confer benefits on low-income individuals at the expense of the middle class. Thus, a stimulus package or the government takeover of an industry or two might well have broad support during a severe recession. But altering a health care system that most Americans are pretty satisifed with in order to benefit the uninsured is likely to encounter even more resistance than normal in a bad economy.
But these widely recognized realities do not support Yglesias’s attempt to explain away many of the left’s difficulties. To accomplish this, Ygelesias must distort the historical record.
For example, he claims that until the past two summers, the political “silly season” lacked vitriol. Yglesias thus chooses to overlook the viciousness of the left’s attacks on President Bush and the Bush administration – claims that Bush is a morally corrupt fool; that he was attempting to promote theocratic rule; that he was destroying the Constitution and placing us on the same moral footing as al Qaeda and/or the Taliban; that he intentionally lied in order to get us into war (quite possibly to benefit oil interests and Haliburton); and, in some precincts of the left, that the U.S. brought 9/11 on itself or may even have been behind the attacks (see the “truther”).
Let’s assume for a moment that current conservative vitriol is based on bad economic times. What was the left’s excuse?
Yglesias also pretends that concern over illegal immigration is largely the product of our economic woes. Before the recession, he says, “we” were “discussing comprehensive immigration reform” and nominating presidential candidates who wanted to provide a path to citizenship for illegals. But Yglesias declines to mention that the bipartisan comprehensive reform that would have created such a path failed in Congress before the economy was perceived as having turned south. It failed because of grassroots uproar in a “pre-fear” summer.
In a similar vein, Ygelesias wants his readers to believe that the economy is driving public unhappiness with the racial policies and posture of the Obama administration. Once again, his case does not withstand scrutiny. He writes:

Many expected racial tension during the 2008 presidential campaign, but it barely materialized. However, as unemployment and foreclosures have increased in the years since, so have trivial, race-based controversies, such as those surrounding the New Black Panther Party and Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod.

But race was barely an issue in 2008 because Obama convinced America that his presidency would be “post-racial.” To the extent race has emerged as an issue since then, the explanation likely resides not in foreclosures, but in evidence that Obama is not post-racial. That evidence includes his knee-jerk support of a black Harvard professor who claslhed with a white cop who was doing his job and indications that the Obama/Holder Justice Department is reluctant, if not unwilling, to enforce civil rights laws against African-Americans.
Yglesias may consider preferential treatment for members of a particular race a trivial matter, but Americans never have. They oppose such preferential treatment in good times and bad. For example, it was in good economic times, 1996, that liberal California amended its constitution to prohibit public institutions from considering race.
Except for a certain kind of grumpy conservative, everyone who engages in issue-oriented politics wants to believe that history is on his side. It is much easier for leftists to believe this if they can take a host of vexing issues off the table. Yglesias tries to accomplish this through the time-honored leftist device of reducing everything to economics. This crude, intellectually dishonest effort may impress the folks who control access to the Washington Post, but it shouldn’t fool the rest of us.


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