The Corner

Debates 2012: An Exercise in Liberal Pathology

Liberalism isn’t doing so well lately.  In fact I’d go so far as to say that liberalism is becoming downright pathological.  The disease is progressive (in more ways than one).  Precursors were visible as far back as 1964, and again in the 1980s.  Yet this latest uspsurege has been building since 2000, and has never yet spread so widely or threateningly across the body politic.

The chief symptom of liberal distress is an intense form of denial.  Liberals now actually deny that conservatives exist.  There are, of course, strange, cartoon-like images that liberals call conservative, yet these bear little resemblence to complex conservative human beings with thoughts capable of posing a reasoned challenge to liberal convictions.  In psychiatic terms, liberals have split off an all-bad version of conservatism in an effort to defend against the intolerable reality of actual threats to the liberal point of view.  I don’t think this denial has quite reached the level of psychosis.  Perhaps we could call it high-functioning borderline instead.  At any rate, we are now clearly in the realm of pathology.

The problem is visible in the 2012 presidential and vice-presidential debates.  If we treat President Obama and the three debate moderators as manifestations of a troubled liberal mind, the progress of the debates makes perfect sense.  It is an exercise in the gradual breakdown of denial, accompanied by increasingly frantic efforts to shore that denial up.

The first debate reflected a relatively stable form of denial.  It had been going on for years, after all.  President Obama and Jim Lehrer simply assumed that no conservative opponent existed.  There was thus no need to prepare, no real need to show up, and no need for the moderator to impose time limits or interrupt the conservative with questions.  It’s easy enough to crush a stick figure.

Once Romney broke through this first form of denial, more active and less stable attempts at denial were required to hold reality at bay.  In the next debate, Vice-President Biden adopted a manic air, automatically rejecting all of his opponent’s arguments as absurd.  Biden’s comportment was socially dysfunctional and could not be maintained consistently throughout the debates, yet it served for a time to stave off a severe threat to liberal self-esteem.  The moderator, meanwhile, sharing the vice-president’s disregard for Paul Ryan’s existence (as anything other than a cartoon bad-guy) was oblivious to Biden’s bad behavior, and so refused to stop it.

By the third debate, the liberal patient’s internal conflict was out in the open.  Obama was forced to deal with his opponent as an actual being, worthy of serious argument.  Yet this distrurbing intrusion of reality forced the moderator into an embarrassing public display of total denial, simply negating the reality of Obama’s Libya coments, and breaking with her proper role (more social dysfunction).  Frequent interruptions of the conservative’s argument were necessary for the moderator at this point.

So can we say that liberalism has become pathological?  Yes, although perhaps not in a strictly psychiatric sense.  There is a perspective from which liberalism’s apparent pathology would in fact be completely normal.  If America’s liberals were gradually turning into leftists, their denial that a thoughtful and reasoned form of conservatism even exists would make perfect sense.  After all, from a leftist perspective, conservative arguments are not so much substantive contributions to a necessary debate in which all sides hold some share of the truth as they are despicable manifestations of grasping wealth and power.  If liberals were increasingly becoming lefists, we might say that their growing and apparently pathological denial was a form, not of madness, but of ideology.  Obama’s portrayal of Romney lends considerable credence to this alternative diagnosis.

From the standpoint of the liberal democracy established by America’s Founders and elaborated upon by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, however, this new leftist liberalism would indeed represent a form of pathology–not psychopathology, but a pathology of democracy.

It seems fair to conclude, then, that liberalism isn’t doing so well lately.  In fact I’d go so far as to say that liberalism is becoming downright pathological.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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