by Jeremy Young | 1/18/2008 02:18:00 PM
[Cross-posted at Open Left and My Left Wing.]

The politicos in the left blogosphere are up in arms about history, and it's Obama's fault.

Matt Stoller has a strident response:

But if you think, as Obama does, that Reagan's rise to power was premised on a sunny optimism in contrast to an out of control government and a society rife with liberal excess, then you don't understand the conservative movement. Reagan tapped into greed and fear and tribalism, and those are powerful forces. Ignoring that isn't going to make them go away.

Here, Matt elaborates on this point:

Reagan was a psychotic man who nearly blew up the world and used paranoia and fear to change our culture and government in horrible ways. He also wasn't particularly popular, though as a politician, he's worth admiring for his raw political skill. Conservative ideology is based on greed and fear. There's no such thing as a good conservative leader, period. It is a fundamentally bankrupt, corrupt, and fraudulent ideology, and there is nothing laudable about people like Reagan who tap into the worst of America.

Well, okay. I agree that conservatism in its purest form is an ideology of fear, and I agree that Reagan was a dangerous, insincere, and fundamentally evil man. But we need to remember that Reagan didn't walk up to people and say, "I'm here to satisfy your greed, fear, and tribalism," and then waltz into the White House. It's not enough just to say Reagan was "an evil man," as Bush was fond of saying about Saddam; we need to examine why people voted for such an evil man, and why they felt good about doing so. It's not because of the weakness of his opponents; Carter, at least, had already defeated a sitting President, so we know he possessed considerable electoral strength. And while international security and virulent anti-Communism was always a part of Reagan's message, it wasn't the kind of extreme fear-mongering we see in Jonathan Edwards' Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God or Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech. Look at some of his speeches, and you'll see that Reagan was more belligerent than fearful.

Instead, what Reagan represented for many Americans was a kind of positive vision for the future that made them feel secure and optimistic. It's worth noting that "greed, fear, and tribalism" are all related to far more appealing traits: greed to hard work, fear to protection of one's family and loved ones, and tribalism to pride in one's fellows. While I agree with Matt that Reagan truly stood for the first set of attributes, for many voters in the 1980's he symbolized the second. That symbolism is what Obama wants to capture, not the nefarious acts of Reagan's presidency.

As for the other problematic part of Obama's comments, his distaste for the dirty hippies of the late '60's and early '70's whom he thinks destroyed America, I can't defend them. But they're also nothing new to anyone who's followed the Obama campaign as much as we in the blogosphere have. Obama has an intense dislike of people who use divisive tactics to push their agenda, whether liberal or conservative. This view is not only implicit in his unity message, it's explicit in his previous writings. In his book, Obama takes the argument to its logical conclusion, saying how great it was that liberal Northern senators in the 1960's worked collegially with segregationist Senator James O. Eastland. It's not easy for a black man to glorify collaboration with an overt racist, I think; this unity thing is something that is obviously deeply real and important for Obama. You can hate him for this opinion -- and it's the reason I'm not supporting him for President -- but it's silly to claim that his recent restatement of it is anything new.

Which brings me to the most disturbing part of this whole situation. The Nevada primary is tomorrow, and some observers argue that a Clinton win could be a decisive blow against Obama. Let's face it, folks -- this isn't about an unfortunate comment Obama made to a newspaper; this is about people far more conservative and Reagan-loving than Obama who are desperate to kill his campaign. I'm not accusing Matt or these guys of employing this type of strategy, but the folks in the mainstream media and from other campaigns -- and yes, that includes you, John Edwards, with your hideous misquote of Obama and subsequent quiet retraction -- are simply trying to kill off the man who has become the most viable progressive candidate in the race. We've all seen this before with the Dean scream, and if you were around in 1988, with Dukakis on the tank; the establishment seizes on a single out-of-context moment, trumpets it endlessly before the crucial primary, and silences the candidate most aligned with change. This isn't about Reagan or hippies or anything else -- it's dirty anti-progressive politics at its most brazen. I wish my fellow progressive bloggers would stop unwittingly helping along the establishment in its campaign of character assassination.

[Update] Markos, of all people, gets this one right. This is the smear of this primary, folks. And many in the left blogosphere just played right into it.



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Anonymous sansouci on 1/18/2008 10:29 PM:

"his distaste for the dirty hippies of the late '60's and early '70's whom he thinks destroyed America, I can't defend them." Great diary, I agree for the most part. However Obama never said "dirty hippies" I believe his references to the excesses may be refering to the deep divisions and tensions of the era. Pres. Carter himself described the national mood as a "malaise." The excesses also could be the struggle of Watergate or the Oil embargo or the deteriorating sense of national confidence as linked to these deep divisions. Why would Obama, whose present position is the result of the various progressive struggles of the 60s and whom you have described as a progressive, reject the movements that he is beneficiary of and heir to? Let's not put words in his mouth. Otherwise, a great diary. I agree John Edwards lost whatever respect I had for him as a result of how he took the moral gighground in the midst of Obama/Clinton's "Racegate." Political opportunism is bad but clumsy and obvious political opportunism is despicable.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/18/2008 11:21 PM:

I do think Obama's taking the centrist thing a bit too literally: unity for unity's sake makes, to paraphrase Somerset Maugham, as much sense as gin for gin's sake.

That said, he's running against a woman whose husband invented 'triangulation'....


Anonymous Jake on 1/18/2008 11:35 PM:

More here:


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/19/2008 1:27 AM:

Sansouci, you're correct that that's a valid counterinterpretation of Obama's comments, which at least one other blogger (I think it was at TNR) did point out. However, I'd note that it's very plausible that Obama could be a "liberal" who thinks the "radical" movements of the 1960's killed liberalism. He wouldn't be alone in that argument, which was made brilliantly by Alan Matusow in The Unraveling of America (1984) and has been repeated many times since. (I disagree with Matusow's argument, but Obama may not.)

Ahistoricality, I fully agree with you.

Jake, if you click the Edwards link above, you'll notice that Edwards has already retracted the misinformation and apologized for it. That doesn't make what he did any better, though, certainly not two days before a primary. It reminds me of Lee Atwater's infamous statement that he wanted to accuse opposing candidates of beating their wives, just to make them deny it on national television. Despicable.


Blogger mark on 1/20/2008 12:06 PM:

"Reagan tapped into greed and fear and tribalism, and those are powerful forces"

If this guy thinks Ronald Reagan or his administration was about "tribalism" then he probably lacks the wit to analyze Obama. Or any serious figure in American politics.

Partisanship is fine but it really works better when used after the analytical process rather than at the inception.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/21/2008 1:25 AM:

Sorry, Mark, but the Reagan administration was very much about tribalism. Start with basic racism and Reagan's role in the creation of the black welfare mom stereotype. Then there's the raw nationalism -- and a love of violence and disdain for law bordering on the fascist -- which characterized every element of US foreign policy and domestic rhetoric. Then there's the class warfare -- I know that's a term usually used by the right, but nobody championed the interests of the rich and powerful as effectively as the Reaganites.

On Martin Luther King's Birthday, observed, I declare Reagan to be the Anti-King. Any way to divide and conquer, distract and obscure, extoll and exploit, Reagan took it. If the US devolves into Balkanized disaster, Ronald Reagan will be the president who initiated the decline.


Blogger mark on 1/21/2008 10:40 PM:

Sorry Ahistoricality, the tribalism bit is pure ideological luncy. Or at least hyperbole of the ad hominem variety.

I realize that on a site like this one, no one here is cheering for the kind of policies implemented by Ronald Reagan. I expect that. However, the U.S. bureaucracy, even under very ideological presidents, only shifts policy by so much ( and usually, it's not much).

I have a hard time believing that you are applying the same metrics to presidents (or other leaders) you favor that you are to Reagan. Was Reagan's presidency really more "racist" on welfare than Bill Clinton's? Or more violent or lawbreaking than LBJ's ? For class warfare, what president can top Truman's threat to draft strikers into the Army?


Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/21/2008 11:30 PM:

ZP, I'll put the objection another way: given the ludicrousness of the threat we actually faced from Communism in the 1980's, what can you call Reagan's belligerent speeches against Gorbachev other than tribalism?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/22/2008 2:27 PM:

I have a hard time believing that you are applying the same metrics to presidents (or other leaders) you favor that you are to Reagan

Tu Quoque, the failure to answer the charge.


Blogger mark on 1/22/2008 8:39 PM:


Asking for your standards by which you are measuring Reagan and if you apply them consistently to comparable figures that you find more congenial, politically speaking, is fair game. More than that, it gets to the heart of any disagreement we might have by defining the yardstick being used.

Your normative judgment of Reagan might be defensible, though clearly I'd disagree but not if you you have used shifting goal posts to get there.


I'm not clear what belligerence you are speaking of in regards to Gorbachev. President Reagan had some exceptionally anti-Soviet speeches but most of those were pre-1985. Reagan went quite far in reaching out to Gorbachev in private and public channels in a way that belied his record of militant anti-Communism.

I'm also not sure that too many Soviet experts, Left, Right or Center, viewed the USSR's threat at the time as "ludicrous". Moscow had some 30,000 + nuclear warheads and 50,000 tanks and APCs and had their armored divisions in a forward position in East Germany and Czechoslovakia until political unrest caused a shift to motorized infantry in the mid 1980's.

Suggestions then, that the Soviet Union might disappear sometime soon- as the dissident Andrei Amalrik did - were written off as mere anti-Soviet fantasy of the wildest kind.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/23/2008 8:10 PM:

Shifting goal posts? I made fairly specific claims about historical events, none of which you've addressed. Instead, you've asked me to announce my ratings of every (Democratic) President of the last century, to see whether I'm pure enough to engage you in discussion.

Thanks for playing, come again soon.


Blogger mark on 1/24/2008 12:28 PM:

Ahistoricality wrote:

"Instead, you've asked me to announce my ratings of every (Democratic) President of the last century, to see whether I'm pure enough to engage you in discussion."

Nice try, but no cigar.

I didn't ask you for your ratings per se but the *standard* by which you would use to rate them along with Reagan. One is a measurement, the other a tool. Why exactly, is that a problem ?

This is not a discussion intended to persuade you that your values are wrong -it's a discussion over whether your values are the a priori determinant of your historical analysis. I can disagree with somebody's philosophy while admiring their analytical methodology or not.

If I believed in ideological litmus tests I'd be somewhere other than here. :O)


Blogger darrelplant on 1/25/2008 2:44 AM:

For every Bushian "Axis of Evil" comment you can find a parallel Reaganesque "Evil Empire" statement. He used fear of "godless Communism" and the imminent threat from their thousands of nuclear missiles every bit as much as Bush uses "Islamofascism" and the possibility of terrorist attack. Issac Asimov even pointed some of this out after just a few months of Reagan's first term:

Despite the happy talk in his later years, for many people Reagan represents a period of American decline and economic disaster. 10% unemployment, growing homelessness, mentally ill people left to fend for themselves, while people like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken sucked companies dry and spit workers out. Sure, the people on the TV and the upper middle class may remember him fondly, but there are a lot of other folk who don't write for the papers or get invited to talk on "Hardball" who have a whole different take on RR.

Reagan's crazed anti-Communist crusades didn't end, of course, with his re-election. Much of the Iran-contra dealings went on after 1984. And support for the Afghan rebels -- continued from the Carter administration -- went on even after he left office.