Jonathan Chait has written a good companion piece to David Frum’s complaining about liberal Democrats being too demanding and whiny. Excerpts:
For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace. (Except for Johnson, who was a bloodthirsty warmonger.)
Is it really likely that all these presidents have suffered from the same character flaws? Suppose you’re trying to find dates online, and everybody you meet turns out to be too ugly. Might it be possible that the problem isn’t the attractiveness of the single people in your town but rather your standards?
Of course, the mere fact that the same people make the same complaints all the time does not render all those complaints false. All presidents screw up at least some of the time, and some of them, like Carter, screw things up almost all the time. What’s more, constructive criticism serves a vital role in democracy, and even unreasonable criticism can helpfully push the boundaries of the possible. Yet none of this justifies or explains liberals’ constant depression.
The 1968 Democratic convention—“which consisted of spokespersons for about 253 major ideological factions giving each other the finger through clouds of tear gas,” as Dave Barry put it—is the sort of scene that could not occur within the Republican Party. Or consider the contrast in style between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. These two movements, allegedly mirror images of each other, perfectly display the differences between the right and the left. The Occupy activists abhor anything that would force any member to subsume his or her individual autonomy to the greater good. Did the drum circles drive everybody else to distraction? Too bad—you can’t tell the drummers what to do, man. There are no leaders, no organized speakers, no attempts at organizing anything except addressing the protesters’ elemental need for food and shelter. The tea party was mostly able to suppress the racist signs that popped up in the early stages of the movement. Occupy Wall Street has been unable to silence a handful of anti-Semites because it can’t silence anybody.
Democratic Party politics, obviously, do not have the anarchist style on display at Zuccotti Park for almost two months. But liberals’ chronic discontent with their leaders is a fainter version of the same impulses. It is not just that conservatives are more prone than liberals to band together behind a leader in the face of external threat. Liberal politics has a concern with process that is largely absent from conservative politics. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor, defines the contrasting moral styles of right and left like so: Conservatives excel at competition between groups—your team, your nation, your tribe—while liberals care more about fairness within a group.
There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.
To what extent, I wonder, can this liberal psychology Chait explores in left-of-center political dynamics also shed light on why religious liberals think and act the way they do? Any ideas?