Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy's Politico Magazine piece, "Time Bomb: 238 years after its first birthday, America is in deep denial," is two pages of thoughtfulness in a three-page essay. It has a strong beginning--compared to, say, violent national divisions over slavery, our present "mutual loathing is a tempest in a pisspot," writes Purdy--and a smooth middle, wherein a call goes forth to grapple with "structural" issues such as wealth inequality and climate change with the kind of "politics that recognizes the legitimacy and persistence of competing interests."
Then comes page three, and the essay unravels with, for instance, this peculiar encomium to disheveled, unfocused, leaderless, ragtag politics:
Less than three years ago, Occupy Wall Street opened a floodgate, moving inequality from a pariah issue to a major theme of the next election. Americans were ready to acknowledge inequality and argue over it. But they needed, somehow, to give themselves permission. A small, mainly symbolic encampment movement found itself giving that permission. Political shifts can be surprising like that--which is probably why the conventional wisdom that Occupy "failed" got it wrong.
Purdy follows up this wistful revisionism with the dubious observation that "working-class internationalism was one of the political signatures of the last Gilded Age, so maybe now is the time to recapture and expand it." This put me in mind of the lament expressed by Orwell--a dedicated socialist--about elusive class consciousness, a term similar to "phrases like 'international proletarian solidarity,' pathetically repeated by ignorant men who believed them to mean something."
But the real kicker--the real killer of thoughtfulness--precedes Purdy's delirious praise of a grassroots leftism. To wit:
[C]ynical and superficial polarization is just another form of denial ... [which] produces infernos of political passion--think of the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012--followed at most by trickles of change. All this confirms the suspicion that government is always ineffective, that politics is a show of empty gestures and hollow promises.
Purdy's conflation of "cynicism" and the two Obama campaigns is cynical itself, of course. It is cynical largely in its casual neglect of the forces of Democratic conservatism and Republican obstructionism which produced those "trickles of change"--also a cynical, even tendentious phrase that dismisses a depression averted and healthcare greatly expanded.
In contradistinction to what he sees as the "empty," "hollow" passions of '08 and '12, Purdy hankers for ...
a major-party candidate calling for a modest annual wealth tax, as Piketty has urged... [and] defending spending on public higher education to raise social mobility and ease the debt crunch for middle-income and poorer graduates ... [and] defending infrastructure investment and public services as benefits for everyone, and opposing spending cuts and privatization for reserving goods to those who can buy them.
This reads as though Purdy has missed the last six years. No, Obama has not called for an "annual wealth tax" along the lines of Thomas Piketty's proposal, which even Piketty characterizes as "utopian." But, Obama did consistently advocate a return to the Clinton-era tax structure--which, well, see: Democratic conservatism and Republican obstructionism"--and his last budget recommended killing the carried-interest monstrosity. He has also championed greater investments in "public higher education to raise social mobility and ease the debt crunch for middle-income and poorer graduates," he has defended "infrastructure investment and public services," and he opposed the austere insanity of sequestration.
Is this to say that Obama's political artistry has been flawless? Of course not. Name one president's that was. Not even the sainted Lincoln can claim the mantle of infallibility. Nor is it to say that sympathetic critics such as myself should always emphasize our sympathy and silence our criticism. Indeed the absence of friendly pressure is lethal to any administration. (Just look at what the monolithically uncritical Bushies did for W.)
It is to say that critical assessments should at minimum be grounded in realism, empiricism and a ruthless self-honesty--all of which bracingly disintegrate in Purdy's essay. And that's a shame, because he was on a roll.