Unruly Progressives

by Jim Geraghty
Why it’s so hard to make progressives live up to their own rules.

Shortly after Barack Obama rose to the presidency, the Right became fascinated by Saul Alinsky, and in particular by the philosopher and community organizer’s “Rules for Radicals.” Many on the right focused their attention on Alinsky’s Fourth Rule: “Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.”

The strategy of “making them live up to their own book of rules” is frequently mentioned and discussed these days at Breitbart.com, Instapundit, Ace of Spades, and just about every other conservative website and blog.

James O’Keefe, the activist and journalist behind the famous ACORN videos, articulated the approach directly: “The Left doesn’t care about the laws or the rules. They are hypocrites, and the only way to win is to make them live up to their book of rules. I have found that the only thing they care about is racism, sexism and exploitation.”

Not to take away from O’Keefe’s work, which generates must-watch videos and scandal-inspired resignations with metronomic regularity, but there may be a flaw in this strategy. Ultimately, not that many liberals care whether their brethren are following their own book of rules. They’ve demonstrated a remarkable acceptance for one another’s hypocrisy.

Sure, once in a while, a prominent liberal will run afoul of his brethren. MSNBC dropped its relationship with Alec Baldwin shortly after suspending him in the wake of video footage of the actor allegedly shouting homophobic slurs to a paparazzo. Around the same time, Martin Bashir resigned after he declared, on air, that someone should defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth.

But Democrats are given a wide, wide berth for comments they themselves would be quick to label racist. South Carolina Democratic chairman Dick Harpootlian, for example, urged his party to “send Nikki Haley back to wherever the hell she came from.” (That would be Bamberg, S.C., but her parents were Sikh immigrants from India.) Last year, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asked an Indian man at a university Q&A if he was a member of the Taliban.

Senator Harry Reid got just a slap on the wrist for his declaration that Barack Obama was a “light-skinned” African American with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia earned a pass for being an Exalted Cyclops in the KKK and filibustering the Civil Rights Act by voting the right way as his Senate career progressed. Left-of-center magazines with nearly entirely white editorial staffs tear into the Republican party for insufficient diversity in its ranks.

Sexism? Come on. The presidency of Bill Clinton proved that a powerful man womanizing with young staffers was no big deal to most liberals. Bill Maher can call Sarah Palin a “cu*t” and “tw*t” without losing any Democratic members of Congress as guests, and the Iowa Democratic party happily builds fundraisers around his performances.

In New Hampshire, Democratic state representative Peter Sullivan called Republican state representative and congressional candidate Marilinda Garcia “Kim Kardashian” and went on to refer to her as “Al Baldasarro [sic] in stiletto heels” and “a lightweight.” (Al Baldasaro is another Republican state representative.)

Exploitation? Michael Moore didn’t use union workers on his film claiming that greedy corporations exploit workers. The Nation, which pays its interns the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, wrote an open letter to Walmart demanding that it pay its workers at least $12 per hour. The American Prospect, which frequently demands a hike in the minimum wage, offers a $100 weekly stipend for a full-time internship.

Some unions may pay you a bit more than that, namely $8.50 per hour, to protest and chant outside worksites where contractors are not using union labor. Don’t give the unions too much grief about hiring non-union labor, though; Hillary Clinton served on the board of directors of Walmart from 1986 to 1992.

Gun-control advocates Moore and Rosie O’Donnell travel with armed security guards, claiming for themselves a right of armed defense that they wish to deny others. Sarah Brady purchased a rifle after years of activism in support of stricter gun-control laws.

Many opponents of voucher programs send their kids to private schools. John Edwards called for steep tax hikes, after years of using a legal loophole to save $600,000 in Medicare taxes. If you have the right party affiliation, you can do anything. You can even run up a giant carbon footprint traveling around the world urging other people to reduce their carbon footprint.

The point is not merely that prominent liberals violate the tenets of their secular faith. It’s that very rarely do many other liberals express much public criticism or even disagreement. It’s just not something they deem worth getting upset about. When the average liberal gets up in the morning, he doesn’t want to hear about how his allies and comrades aren’t living up to their professed standards. He wants to hear about how bad the opposition is.

A lot of people formulate their worldview in a particular order. From what they’re taught as children, and what they observe as they age, they come up with a series of principles. Then they assess others around them, concluding that the ones who live by those principles are the good people and the ones who don’t are the bad people. A consequence of this approach is that the practitioner is likely to find that his principles don’t always align perfectly with his partisan interests.

Conservatives encounter this all the time. If you believe that government should be careful and limited in its spending, you may find yourself at odds with members of your party who like earmarks and spending you deem wasteful. Conversely, you may want a limited government but fume at allies who declare a desire to shut down the government, hit the debt ceiling, or shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

If you believe that government should stay out of people’s personal lives and decisions, you may find members of your party all too eager to use government as a tool for social engineering from the right; conversely, if you want government’s decisions and policies to reinforce, instead of undermining, traditional values, you may find some members of your party irritatingly blasé about a decline in morality and dangerously ready to embrace the culture’s most toxic traits.

If you believe in a strong national defense and vigilance against threats, you may be worried when you find members of your party preferring to ignore the world beyond our borders; conversely, if you want a foreign policy that avoids bloody and expensive foreign interventions, you may grind your teeth at allies who seem to jump at the chance to send troops to every faraway hellhole, never mind the potential death toll.

Being a conservative means you’re going to spend some time disagreeing with your allies. Progressives and liberals spend much less energy, time, and elevated blood pressure fighting each other — at least beyond the comments section of liberal blogs. They’re much quicker to refocus on the big picture and unite in the battle against the Right. Even as titanic a battle as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s 2008 primary fight was resolved within a few months, with Hillary serving in Obama’s Cabinet.

Many progressives organize their worldview in the reverse order: They pick the good people — themselves — and everything else is negotiable. And as it’s currently practiced, liberalism doesn’t really require much of anything. Or, when liberalism starts asking sacrifices and commitments of its adherents beyond liking and sharing on Facebook, the energy and enthusiasm disappear. Close observers of Obamacare have noticed that the Millennials and other young people who voted for Obama in droves aren’t willing to pay several hundred dollars a month for health insurance.

The currency of progressivism isn’t policies, and it certainly isn’t results. It’s emotions. Back in 2008, Slate’s Emily Yoffe suggested that the newly elected Barack Obama had done nothing less than define and harness a new human emotion:

In his forthcoming book, Born to Be Good (which is not a biography of Obama), [Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley] writes that he believes when we experience transcendence, it stimulates our vagus nerve, causing “a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.” For the 66 million Americans who voted for Obama, that experience was shared on Election Day, producing a collective case of an emotion that has only recently gotten research attention. It’s called “elevation.” …

University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, writes, “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

As long as a particular position or stance lets progressives feel good about themselves, they will embrace it. Thus the measuring stick of Obamacare is not whether it’s actually providing the uninsured with health insurance — the majority of the uninsured remain oblivious to even the most basic facts about the law — but whether a liberal feels that it’s a sign that he cares about the uninsured more than other people.

Liberals will deem Obamacare a failure only if it stops making them feel good about themselves.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.