Last week I gave a talk at the California Club in Los Angeles that I’ll post as a podcast this week if the recording turned out decently (I haven’t had a chance to listen yet), but I opened with the old line attributed to Edna St. Vincent-Millay that “history isn’t one damn thing after another—it’s the same damn thing over and over again.”
It is not a new theme here that Democrats are going through another “McGovern moment” like they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their lurch to the hard left resulted in a 49-state landslide loss to the hated Nixon in 1972, and left Democrats in disarray really until Bill Clinton came along in 1992. Is this pattern repeating itself? I think it may be. Remember that a lot of voters Democrats lost in the late 1960s were working class moderate liberals who were appalled at the lurch liberalism took toward indifference to crime and disorder, moral equivalence in the Cold War, and especially the deterioration of the public schools, which coincided with the most hated liberal policy of all: forced busing. A lot of “white flight” from the cities occurred among Democratic constituencies. And now Kamala Harris wants to bring busing back it seems.
This is preface for the most interesting part of liberal writer George Packer’s widely noticed recent Atlantic essay, “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” The article details his dismay at the identity politics/standards-shredding orthodoxy that has overtaken New York’s public schools under leftist Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Is he still a candidate for president, by the way? I’ve lost track. . .) Packer here sounds like a late-60s liberal who is about to move to a New York suburb for better schools for his kids.
Worth reading the whole thing if you have time, but the interesting part to me begins in section 5, as it tracks with a theory I first hatched in conversation with Charles Murray back around 2015 or 2016, namely, that the left had descended into a rage because things hadn’t gone according to plan under their “lightworker,” Obama. Think of it as “Obama Disappointment Syndrome.” Here’s Packer noticing it just the same way:
Around 2014, a new mood germinated in America—at first in a few places, among limited numbers of people, but growing with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It rose up toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency—out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30, which is how most revolutionary surges begin. This new mood was progressive but not hopeful. A few short years after the teachers at the private preschool had crafted Obama pendants with their 4-year-olds, hope was gone.
At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. An incident—a police shooting of an unarmed black man; news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeling during the national anthem—would light a fire that would spread overnight and keep on burning because it was fed by anger at injustices deeper and older than the inflaming incident. Over time the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radically egalitarian ideology. . .
Who was driving the new progressivism? Young people, influencers on social media, leaders of cultural organizations, artists, journalists, educators, and, more and more, elected Democrats. You could almost believe they spoke for a majority—but you would be wrong. An extensive survey of American political opinion published last year by a nonprofit called More in Common found that a large majority of every group, including black Americans, thought “political correctness” was a problem. The only exception was a group identified as “progressive activists”—just 8 percent of the population, and likely to be white, well educated, and wealthy. Other polls found that white progressives were readier to embrace diversity and immigration, and to blame racism for the problems of minority groups, than black Americans were. The new progressivism was a limited, mainly elite phenomenon.
Packer hopes that “one day the fever will break,” but what if it doesn’t? If Packer is right in his diagnosis—and I think he is—Democrats are cruising to a crushing defeat in next year’s election if they nominate a hard progressive candidate (which is all of them right bow, isn’t it?), or run on a hard “progressive” platform of slavery reparations, transgender bathrooms, banning fracking for oil and gas, etc. Joe Biden may be the Hubert Humphrey or Ed Muskie of this election cycle—throwbacks to and older liberalism—but we recall what happened to them as the 1972 Democratic primaries wore on.