The Corner

Re: Sane or Smug?

Brian, I think you’re on to exactly the problem with the Stewart/Colbert rally. Did it not seem strange to the people involved that the voice of condescending acerbic satire should be calling on others to restore civility and seriousness to our politics, complaining about political disagreement, and arguing for “sanity”? Can one really be simultaneously so detached and disappointed, earnest and smug?


But as you listen to what Stewart had to say, you come to grasp a little more about how he and his audience understand themselves, and why the contradiction really might not have seemed so strange to them. The point is clarified in particular by what they take to be the opposite of their view—that is, the position supposedly lampooned by Stephen Colbert, whose fake counter-rally to the fake rally was called The Rally to Restore Fear. Once you see that they take “fear” to be the key to their opponents’ message, and “sanity” to be the opposite of fear, you realize that the best explanation for it all was actually offered by President Obama earlier this fall, when he told a group of Democratic donors:

Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now, and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time, is because we’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared, and the country is scared.

This is the view of many urbane, sophisticated, self-satisfied liberals today: that they are the voice of reason and sanity, and their opponents are driven by fear and are fundamentally irrational—if not indeed insane. It’s a view that Stewart delivers in the form of the superior, disdainful, caustic (though of course often funny) satire of his show, offered up with a sense that the solutions to the problems facing the country are actually pretty obvious but some very stupid people insist on not seeing them. Other liberal critics have offered an even more explicit version of this attitude: George Packer of The New Yorker writes that Obama is “the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia.” Senator John Kerry thinks that “facts, science, truth seem to be significantly absent from what we call our political dialogue.” 


But both of the premises these folks advance—that they are themselves the voice of reason and that their opponents are caught in the grip of irrational fear—are rather problematic. To begin with, the idea that Obama and the left stand for pure reason makes it difficult to understand the election of Obama himself—both his nomination and his general election victory—which hardly amounted to an exercise in cold reason. The Obama campaign was, rather, a circus of charisma and cult of personality, complete with comically nebulous promises of hope and change, vaguely uplifting self-help rhetoric (think “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”), absurdly messianic talk of pushing back the oceans and the like, and fevered leader-worship (think of the bizarre celebrity fawning and loyalty pledges).


This was surely far more about naive passion and blind hope than pure reason. And it was intended, among other things, to paper over the fact that the Obama campaign was basically asking us to elect as the nation’s chief executive a thoroughly inexperienced smug intellectual whose radical past put him far to the left of the country, whose voting record made him the most liberal member of the Senate, who had never had to be answerable to an ideologically diverse electorate, and who had never run anything before. That’s what something closer to pure reason would have suggested about Obama, but his supporters argued we should vote out of motives other than the straightforward implication of these facts.


That’s not necessarily a bad thing — such passions have a very important place in political life, and human beings are not purely rational animals. “Politics,” a wise man said, “ought to be adjusted not to human reasonings but to human nature, of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.” Their case and their motives were not out of bounds. But people who acted in a crucial moment on the basis of such motives are hardly in a position to lecture their fellow citizens about reason incarnate.


President Obama has since governed precisely as a thoroughly inexperienced smug intellectual whose radical past put him far to the left of the country, whose voting record made him the most liberal member of the Senate, who had never had to be answerable to an ideologically diverse electorate, and who had never run anything before should be expected to govern. This of course has not worked very well, and has drawn a rather strong reaction from some of the public. And the only way some of his (increasingly frustrated and disappointed) supporters can explain that reaction is that the opposition is motivated by irrational fear, if not insanity—hence the second premise so powerfully evident at Saturday’s rally. Cynicism is the opposite side of the coin of naiveté, and we have seen both powerfully on display on the left in the past two years.


But Obama’s opponents are not motivated by irrational fear. They (or rather, we) are motivated by deep concern about the direction of the country and by a commitment to some key American ideals, as we understand them. Yes, the resulting politics can be messy, and can even have some occasional ugly edges (though no more ugly than, say, carrying signs depicting the only Jewish Republican in Congress as a Nazi, as one of Stewart’s fans did on Saturday), but it’s fundamentally a serious and reasonable response to the direction of public policy in recent years. It may be unwieldy, it may be mistaken, and it is surely still groping for a concrete policy agenda, but it is neither irrational nor a joke.


As long as liberals see their opposition as merely a travesty of sensible politics, they will have no answer to it. It seems likely that tomorrow’s election will show them what the consequences of that look like.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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