Politics & Policy

Is Liberalism Exhausted?

(Getty Images)
It may not be dead, but it looks mighty worn out.

Canaries are not very formidable birds, but they have their uses. For instance, coal miners learned over a century ago that when canaries gag and drop dead at the bottom of the cage, it’s a sign that maybe there’s something wrong with the air in the mine.

MSNBC is not a very formidable network, but its wheezing is similarly instructive. MSNBC’s slogan is “Lean Forward,” which has a robust sound to it. But it turns out the phrase is a more apt descriptor of how the Peacock Network’s mini-me is poised to teeter off its perch and plunge beak-first into the droppings-stained pages of the fading New Republic below.

It is suffering “cataclysmic ratings declines” (in Politico’s words) from ratings that were already mediocre to begin with. The hope had been that Ronan Farrow, the Prius-dashboard saint of Brooklyn hipsters and the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (or Frank Sinatra), would, like David Hasselhoff in Baywatch, leap into the waters and save the drowning network. It turned out that Farrow’s flotation device was a messenger bag full of bricks. His show has been canceled, as has Joy Reid’s daily show. Other MSNBC stars are being followed around by the Grim Reaper. Al Sharpton, a race-baiting tax cheat with blood on his hands, is slated to be moved out of his 6 p.m. slot, presumably so he can spend more time with his wayward teleprompter.

MSNBC had thought it could mimic Fox News’s success from the left. The problem is that it never understood what Fox News is. MSNBC’s execs saw it through the prism of their own ideological bias and so ended up offering a left-wing caricature of a caricature. Contrary to myth, Fox (where I am a contributor) is in fact an actual news network, albeit with prime-time opinion shows. Meanwhile, a study by Pew found that MSNBC was 85 percent opinion.

The more salient point is that there’s such a small appetite for that opinion. As Josh Kraushaar of National Journal recently observed, Barack Obama has successfully moved his party to the left but has failed utterly to bring the rest of the country with him. In 2012, James Stimson, arguably America’s leading expert on U.S. public opinion, found that the country was more conservative than at any time since 1952.

This might seem counterintuitive, given that Obama was reelected that year, but there’s an obvious explanation. Barack Obama has a singular skill: getting Barack Obama elected. In all the elections since 2008, he has shown a remarkable inability to get anyone else elected, or to move public opinion in his favor. (Obamacare, for instance, remains stubbornly unpopular.) Measured in terms of statehouses, state legislatures, and House and Senate seats, the GOP is stronger today than any point since the 1920s. If you still think Obama has generous coattails, ask Rahm Emanuel for a second opinion.

The president is unbowed, of course. He’s unilaterally using — and abusing — the powers of his office to legalize illegal immigration, throw a wet blanket on cheap energy, and turn the Internet into a government-regulated utility. He has the support of his dwindling party and the equally dwindling mainstream media. But even here his policy agenda is as threadbare as his cultural legacy. A majority of Americans believe race relations have gotten worse since he was elected.

Meanwhile, the cultural Left has disengaged from mainstream political arguments, preferring instead the comforts of identity-politics argy-bargy. You judge political movements not by their manifestos but by where they put their passion. And on the left these days, the only things that arouse passion are arguments about race and gender.

For instance, the feminist agitprop drama The Vagina Monologues is now under fire from the left because it is not inclusive of men who believe they are women. Patricia Arquette was criticized from the right for her Oscar-acceptance rant about women’s wage equality, but the criticism paled in comparison to the bile from the left, which flayed her for leaving out the plight of the transgendered and other members of the Coalition of the Oppressed.

Such critiques may seem like a cutting-edge fight for the future among the protagonists, but looked at from the political center, it suggests political exhaustion. At least old-fashioned Marxists talked about the economy.

Of course liberalism isn’t dead; it’s just resting. But it certainly could use an exciting, charismatic savior to breathe new life and fresh thinking into its ranks. Thank goodness Hillary Clinton is waiting in the wings.

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