What was the political ideal of liberals in those years? Well, obviously there were many different ideas. But I don't think that many people really were waiting for a charismatic leader. At least in the circles in which I moved, it was a combination of community organizing and technocracy. One day the dam of reaction would break, and we'd be able to implement policies that actually made people's lives better. Then they'd see that which politics they supported really did make a difference.
That dam broke with Obama's election. Oh, it wasn't because of anything we did, or anything he did, it was because Bush screwed up so badly. Still, we had the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Yes, Obama is really a centrist, not a liberal, but he was as liberal as we were ever likely to get.
That's the last I want to mention Obama in this post, because what happened next really, I think, wasn't just his individual failure. What did we get? Well, let's just look at one really important fact. We got coverups of and immunity for torture. We got, in fact, continuing torture of people in the custody of the state, justified with the full Bush era legal justifications that amounted to anything that the President said was legal, was legal.
Don't believe me? Try here. It's the Kafkaesque news of torture victims who could not pursue torturers in court, because the fact that they had been tortured was a state secret, because it made the U.S. look bad. Or want more on Executive power more generally? Try this, about our official assassination program.
Why did this happen? Let me dismiss a few of the arguments I've heard. It wasn't because of GOP pressure. The GOP was already calling the President a traitor and soft on terror and, for that matter, a Kenyan, so they had already reached maximum rhetorical saturation and clearly weren't going to back down no matter what he did. It wasn't because of Congress. These were executive decisions, ratified by our judiciary. It certainly wasn't because no one understood that the issues were important.
And it wasn't really an individual failure either, I think. It was too widely supported. It was one of those moments that reveal the truth about political systems, via an inexplicable failure for something to occur. Somehow, despite everyone in power saying that they were against torture, we got torture. This is one of the moments when you have to realize that the system is running into a constraint that people don't want to talk about but that nevertheless exists.
America needs to torture people. Our system literally can not function without it. There can be no crackdown on it by elites, because our security apparatus is thoroughly implicated in it, our military is thoroughly implicated in it, and, to tell the truth, a near majority of ordinary people really want other people to be tortured. It's been a method of social control in America right from the start, with slavery, and continued through Indian genocides, lynchings, the Philippines, the Cold War, and the way we treat criminals in our prisons. Reagan had people tortured, mostly in Central America, so did Bush I, so did Clinton (the beginning of "renditions", if I remember rightly). Bush II made it official policy. Obama -- I suppose that I have to mention him again after all -- continued and reinforced it as official policy, making it thoroughly bipartisan.
What's been the liberal response to this? Well, take it away, Brad Delong:
Social Studies 50th Anniversary Symposium: Is There Hope for the Rule of Law in America?
That was the question asked by Denver University Professor Alan Gilbert during the morning panel.
Here is the answer I gave, as best as I can reconstruct it:
The question is: "Is there hope for the rule of law in America?" My answer is: No.
By 2001 with a Republican as president John Yoo had reversed field 180 degrees. He was making a very different set of false claims about what the law of America had been. He was then claiming that the president's commander-in-chief powers contained within them prerogative powers to torture and kill outside of legal procedure that would have astonished George III Hanover, and even exceeded those of William I Conqueror. When William I Conqueror tortured or killed, he agreed owed his barons at least an after-the-fact accounting of why if not any before-the-fact procedural checks.
Backed by John Yoo and company, George W. Bush claimed that he did not owe even an after-the-fact accounting. And Barack Obama holds to the same line.
So I see no hope.
Now, one of DeLong's often repeated phrases is "The Cossacks work for the Czar", meaning that you can't blame political decisions on underlings. Given that, I don't see why anyone should care about Yoo. He's been a convenience for two administrations, that's all. If not him, someone else would have been found. But pass on. Is there hope for the rule of law? No. That's the opinion of a middle-aged, middle class, respectable economics professor.
So, why liberalism? Everyone knows that it's failed. But they hold to it ... why? Without rule of law, really, why bother?
I don't think that there's anything to be gained by holding on to liberalism after it's failed in such a way that reveals that it never could have succeeded. I don't see anything in our remnant of a Constitutional order that is worth defending. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life working for liberal ideals that are fruitless.
Has conservatism won, then? No, of course not. No variant of conservatism is going to get anything that conservatives want. Not a smaller government, not the establishment of religion, not the suppression of non-white people. All of that is impossible for various economic and demographic reasons. Effectively, what happened is that everyone in my generation failed, all of us together. The only people who won were a tiny sliver of the super-rich -- but although they certainly have a political ideology that supports them, they don't have a political philosophy as such. Only an economic interest, one that their own success is going to subvert.
Leftism lost, for a variety of reasons, in the generations before.
What's left? Personally, I suspect that I'm going to end up as some variety of anarchist. I see no point in going into what exact type: politics is meaningless for me unless it involves practice, and I don't know of any group of anarchists I can work with locally, yet. Of course anarchism is quixotic. It has no chance, and even if it did succeed in America, the immediate effect would be to let a thousand death squads bloom. No matter. My being a liberal quite clearly had no practical effect either. The actual events are at this point turned over to the next generation. If I'm not going to affect them, I might as well not bother to be respectable, or pretend to believe in something that I no longer believe in. I always had an attraction to a form of (oh, all right) anarcho-socialism, but I figured that if it happened, it was probably going to happen a long time from now, after productivity had gone so high that it was really too much trouble to exclude people from the necessities of life. Better to be a liberal now, I had thought, and be involved in politics that had a chance of making some difference in the short term. But it doesn't have that chance to make any difference.
It's annoying, becoming a 46-year-old anarchist. I could deal with it better if I'd been one from my youth, but now, face it, it's both silly and annoying, having to start over with basic political books... I mean, these are the days in which I'm supposed to comfortably live off the seed corn I'd planted and settle into being a pillar of the community.
So much for that.