Jonathan Chait has written a thoughtful, if debatable, 6,000-word article on race in the Obama years that has stirred a good deal of discussion. It can be read as an advance apologia for the Democrats’ defeat in the 2014 elections. Chait’s thesis, as he sums it up in an online surrebuttal, is that “American politics in the age of Obama has become balkanized not along racial lines, but by how people think about race.” In other words, Chait argues, “the Obama era has produced a cleavage along ideological rather than racial lines,” so that neither black conservatives who support the Tea Party nor the far more numerous white liberals who nod in agreement with Al Sharpton’s preachings on MSNBC are as anomalous as partisans assert. “Liberals,” Chait writes, “dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable.” Similarly, he goes on, “Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.”
One can commend Chait for his evenhandedness—which has stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition from liberals—without accepting the equivalence he draws between these two views. But the real problem with his essay comes when he steps out of the realm of ideology and into the world of practical outcomes. Six years into the Obama presidency, Americans have ample grounds, independent of race, to dislike him.
The shortcomings of the Obama administration, ranging from a still-sluggish economy to a slow-witted foreign policy, have produced an opposition that doesn’t always fit into Chait’s ideological grid. Parts of the public, not necessarily on the right, have caught on to Obama’s double game, in which his administration has been rhetorically egalitarian and operationally elitist. The economic winners of the Obama years have been, in Joel Kotkin’s terms, the “oligarchs of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.” The losers have come not only from the private-sector middle class, but also from heavily Democratic minority groups.
“Many of the Americans who support government programs that disproportionately offer blacks a leg up are Democrats,” Chait blandly asserts. This is only half-true. Democratic politicians have been the great beneficiaries of the racially charged patronage programs spun off by the Great Society—but the supposed “leg-up” offered to blacks has produced, despite trillions in expenditures, a relatively stable poverty rate over the past 50 years, with African-Americans disproportionately present among the poor. Chait never considers the possibility that some who oppose Obama are tired of paying for an ongoing failure. They’re also tired of liberals’ inability to come to grips with it.
Despite a welfare state roughly as generous as Europe’s, American society is increasingly divided between those from two-parent families, who do okay or better, generally speaking, and those forced to struggle against the odds because of the absence of fathers. Today’s liberalism has little to say about how to help people rise from the bottom into the middle class. Rather, its proposals—like raising the minimum wage—are designed to make the already-working poor more comfortable. That’s perhaps an admirable goal, but it’s also a path to a class-stratified society.
The other great liberal political success story has been the rise of public-sector unions, which fueled both Obama’s reelection and Bill de Blasio’s victory in New York City’s mayoral race. They are now a key component of the liberal coalition. The upshot of Obama’s policies is that he has, Chicago-style, fed the top-bottom alliance of crony capitalists and the social-service state—the government-worker providers and the recipients of aid. This has left the private-sector middle class out in the cold.
Chait’s rhetorical nuance leaves no room for anger at a president whose supervision of Obamacare combines the administrative failings of George W. Bush in Iraq with the underhanded tactics of Richard Nixon. (Like Obama, Nixon tried to use the IRS to attack his enemies.) Obama has also shown no qualms about misleading the public—from claiming that the terror attack in Benghazi was the product of an anti-Islamic videotape to promising that “if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.”
If the Democrats do take a shellacking this November, they will no doubt attempt to pin blame on the supposed psychological failings of Republican voters. It’s a trope dear to liberals since the 1920s. For the good of the country, though, let us hope that, unlike Chait, they will come to grips with the all-too-material failures of the Obama years.