What's the Matter with Provincetown? the Democrats' Two Years of Control Delivered Zero Social Liberalism

By Cavanaugh, Tim | Reason, February 2011 | Go to article overview

What's the Matter with Provincetown? the Democrats' Two Years of Control Delivered Zero Social Liberalism


Cavanaugh, Tim, Reason


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

BARACK OBAMA the hard-left bomb thrower is gone. I miss him already.

Yes, I know. The president routinely depicted by detractors as the demon seed of the '60s counterculture is in fact an establishment figure who blocks efforts to end federal discrimination against gay people, supports immunity for federal agents who illegally engaged in warrantless wiretapping, declines to withdraw on any front from either the war on drugs or the war on jihad, made insurance giganticorps the centerpiece of his health care law, failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and helped deriver hundreds of billions of dollars into the hands of insolvent bankers and industrialists.

But for the two years prior to the midterm elections, while all of Washington was captive to the whim of Eldridge the Jackal Obama, it still seemed faintly possible that the government might permit some more of the personal freedoms Democrats claim to favor. In a pre-election New York Times Magazine profile, Obama claimed to have achieved 70 percent of his goals in his first two years--a high success rate for any president. Maybe somewhere in there with Cash for Clunkers and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the triumphant Democrats might, say, repeal Bill Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act, which imposes legal, tax, and inheritance troubles on gay Americans, one of the party's most loyal constituencies. Perhaps there would be time, between the short Summer of Recovery and the debt-wracked Fall of the Economy, for the Obama team to stop winking about its reefer-friendly liberality and push for changes in the federal scheduling of controlled substances, which puts marijuana into a more restrictive category than morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

That tiny hope is now gone. Forced to negotiate with a Republican Congress, Obama must lean "right," probably by pursuing the publicly muscular foreign policy that glues Republicans to Democrats. Progressive Obama is gone, and he may not be back even when the Republicans inevitably bungle their advantage.

Cheer yourself up with University of North Florida historian David T. Courtwright's potluck history No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America (Harvard), which hit bookstores just before the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and pared back the Democrats' Senate majority. Spectacularly bad market timing is always enjoyable. But there is an important question buried in this analysis of a culture war that, by Courtwright's estimation, lasted from 1968 to 2008: Why do Democratic voters allow themselves to be hoodwinked by promises of social expansiveness into voting against their interests?

This is emphatically not the question Courtwright means to ask. The book's premise is that the culture war ended in a "messy failure of reaction, obscured by the illusion of conservatism." As Courtwright tells it, "Culture warriors blasted secularists while Republicans used popular anger over crime, drugs, welfare, and taxes to win office.... Yet, for all the tough talk, no national politician slowed the culture's leftward drift or reined in the size and power of the government."

To which I reply: What leftward drift in the culture? To the extent that America is any less shriveled, boring, and uptight than at any time in its past (a point that is open to argument), the grooviness has not been coming from Democrats. …

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