September 11, 2012
"Forward" is a perfectly appropriate slogan for progressives.
Progress suggests forward or upward motion. That's why revolutionaries and radicals as well as liberal incrementalists have always embraced some derivation of the forward trope. So ingrained are these directional concepts in our political language, we often forget they are mere geographic metaphors applied — and often misapplied — to policy disputes.
For instance, some on the left might see enrolling more people on food stamps as a step in the right direction, moving us "forward" to a more generous and all-encompassing welfare state. But other self-described progressives might see a swelling of the food stamp rolls to be a step backward, either in strict accounting terms (we are, after all, broke) or even in cultural terms. Some Democrats have even been known to brag when people get off food stamps.
In other words, even for progressives, what counts as moving forward depends entirely on where you want to go — and where you think you've been.
And that's where the Democratic Party, and liberalism itself, tends to get horribly confused. According to President Obama and the whole team of Democratic all-stars, we've been moving forward to a better place these last four years.
Joe Biden shouted from the podium, "America is coming back, and we're not going back!"
"Back to what?" you might ask. The answers to that question are usually no less vague for being passionately stated. Perhaps the ugliest answer, an insinuation really, came from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement. He seemed to suggest that a vote for Mitt Romney was a vote to return to the Jim Crow era and the beatings Lewis endured to overturn it.
A more common answer came from Obama. "After all that we've been through, I don't believe that rolling back regulations on Wall Street will help the small businesswoman expand or the laid-off construction worker keep his home," he explained to a enraptured crowd. "We have been there, we've tried that, and we're not going back."
This is an appeal to the mythology of the Bush years as some kind of anarcho-capitalist dystopia in which "market fundamentalism" reigned and Republicans tried to shrink government to the point where "we can drown it in the bathtub" (to quote anti-tax activist Grover Norquist).
This was always pure fantasy. Government grew massively under President Bush. He was a bigger spender than any previous president going back to Lyndon Johnson. He massively expanded entitlements, grew food stamp enrollment (almost as much as Obama) and nearly doubled "investments" in education. He created a new Cabinet agency — Homeland Security — and signed into law sweeping new regulations, like No Child Left Behind and McCain-Feingold.
This, according to Democrats, amounts to telling Americans "you're on your own."
But even now, the Bush-Cheney years are being rehabilitated by comparison to the dark fantasies of what a Romney-Ryan administration might deliver.
The idea that Romney is a cut-government-to-the-bone minarchist is based on a mix of unsubstantiated assertion, wild fantasy and guilt by association; you see, even if there's no evidence that Romney's a libertarian, he's been captured by the heartless "tea party" types. Why, just look: He picked Paul Ryan, patron saint of the barbarian hordes, as his running mate. It is a sign of what an unmitigated mess we are in as a country when Ryan is considered a heartless right-winger who wants to set old people adrift.
But the famously heartless Ryan plan (moot now that he's hitched his wagon to Romney's) that supposedly slashes the budget doesn't reach a projected balance until the year 2040 and increases spending over the next decade. It is a sign of how lost we are as a country when this counts as draconian budget-cutting.
Ironically, it was Bill Clinton who mocked Republicans last week for conjuring an "alternative universe."
The real fantasy world is the one that allows Democrats to run from a past that never was to a future no one wants.
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