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Dead Center

Jonathan Chait's new book shows the failure of "grown up" liberalism.

Illustrations by Lorenzo Gritti

At the dawning of the Cold War, a worried Arthur Schlesinger Jr. looked out on a bleak horizon. The Soviet Union was a threat, but Schlesinger concluded that the roots of the crisis ran much deeper. “Our lives are empty of belief,” he wrote in his 1949 book, The Vital Center. “They are lives of quiet desperation.” Figures he looked to for guidance—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Camus—would become staples in the rhetoric of student protesters a generation later. So too would the concerns he dwelled upon: loss of community, feelings of powerlessness, a sense that politics had been drained of meaning. Even the poem he selected for his book’s epigraph became a touchstone in the turbulent years to come: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Custom House, 373 pp., $27.00

The Vital Center was Schlesinger’s bid to hold on to this tenuous middle ground. Unlike the youthful radicals of the 1960s, Schlesinger thought the alienation he saw around him could only be alleviated by accepting the broad outlines of the status quo. Power was more than a necessary evil. When properly restrained, it was “the source of wisdom,” a check on the juvenile tendency to seek refuge from a harsh reality in fantasy. For the childish dreamers clinging to hopes for revolutionary change, Schlesinger had simple advice: “We must grow up now.”

Yet Schlesinger had more in common with the dreamers than he wanted to admit. The Vital Center culminates with a call to turn liberalism into “a fighting faith” with a moral grandeur of its own, a creed that could meet the challenges of totalitarianism by calming the psychological anxieties of the age. Schlesinger’s bluster was a thinly concealed disguise for his own idealistic yearnings. He was as hungry for meaning as any dewy-eyed radical; he just found it in an unlikely spot. Pragmatists have their own kind of romanticism, cynics their own kind of naïveté. The twentieth century had no better spokesman for sentimental realism than Schlesinger, who could portray a vote for Adlai Stevenson as an appropriate reaction to existential dread.

More than 60 years after The Vital Center’s publication, Schlesinger’s celebration of the rational Democrat caught between ideologues on both sides continues to resonate with a certain type of liberal. Jonathan Chait is most definitely one of those. A commentator for New York and, before that, a longtime editor at the New Republic, he is one of the most influential political journalists of our time, and he has used this standing to crusade for a belligerently responsible liberalism. In his latest book, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Transformed America, Chait has taken on a challenge that provides his distinctive method of argument with its greatest test. Audacity, his early history of the Obama administration, turns his lens inward. The subject under the microscope is now liberalism itself.

Chait does not owe his success to his politics, which are conventional enough. What distinguishes him from other commentators is his knack for distilling the complicated arguments of his opponents into a few essential premises, and then, with inexorable logic, taking these streamlined arguments to absurd conclusions. He does not aim for sympathetic reconstructions that capture the intricacies of rival positions. Instead, he wants to expose the rickety foundations that high-flown rhetoric can obscure. When done poorly, this is straw manning; when done well, it has the elegance of a geometric proof. In either case, the verve with which he pursues his quarries has made him one of our great polemicists.

The 2016 campaigns supplied a depressing example of his approach at its most effective. Back in 2012, Chait repeatedly maintained that conservatism had devolved into little more than identity politics for white people. “The glue holding together the contemporary Republican agenda,” he wrote, “is ethnocentrism.” Conservative intellectuals shrugged off the charge. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat complained that Chait’s “reductionist” and “unfair” thesis used accusations of racism to dismiss legitimate debates over policy. Chait could not, Douthat noted, account for the popularity of Tea Party candidates who campaigned on reducing the growth of entitlement programs that benefited their elderly, white base. Douthat is a subtler thinker than Chait, but four years later, Donald Trump’s election made it clear who came out ahead in the exchange.

Chait has been less successful at interpreting the left, which in his analysis becomes an undifferentiated mass of rabid Marxists, politically correct ideologues, and postmodern academics. Rather than attacking these distinct factions at their strongest points, he lumps them together as products of the illiberal left, and then takes fire at the caricature he has drawn. “Marxist theory does not care about individual rights,” his readers learn, while, “Political correctness borrows its illiberal model of political discourse from Marxism”—as if Marxist theory and political correctness are buddies who meet up for drinks to plot the demise of free speech.

Chait has also used this method to explain his own politics. In Chait’s telling, “The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious.” Again, a complex philosophy brimming with internal tensions and burdened with a complex history becomes a notion simple enough to serve as a weapon. In this case, the process of simplification works in liberalism’s favor, turning it into a parent that hands out gifts (“social freedoms”) to its obedient children (“blacks, Jews, gays, and women”). Time and again, Chait sends out stick figures—liberalism, Marxism, political correctness, conservatism—to do battle while he provides snarky commentary from the sidelines.

An early supporter of Obama, Chait sees the outgoing president as a figurehead for the type of liberalism he has spent his own career vigorously defending. His assessment of Obama’s tenure is straightforward: Barack Obama “has accomplished nearly everything he set out to do, and he set out to do an enormous amount.” But Obama isn’t Chait’s real focus. His goal is not to understand the president but to prosecute a case on behalf of the liberal political tradition he believes Obama represents. In the first days of the age of Trump, the vital center is again on trial.

Chait is more firmly grounded in Washington than Schlesinger. Instead of dwelling on the philosophical stakes of Obama’s liberalism, Audacity focuses on the policy debates that occupied the White House, swapping Camus and Dostoevsky for Chuck Todd and Maureen Dowd. Obama did not always get his way, but, in chapters that make for painful reading after the election of Donald Trump, Chait insists that Obama won decisive victories in the most important battles. The stimulus was “a gigantic success”; Obamacare will be remembered as “one of the most ambitious and successful social reforms in the history of the United States”; and in the war to tame Wall Street, “The good guys won.” Chait’s foreign policy preferences are more hawkish than Obama’s, but he still views Obama’s record as a vast improvement over George W. Bush’s tenure.

It makes for an impressive catalogue—but what Chait has to leave out to mount his defense of Obama is just as striking as what he includes. On economic policy, Chait passes by the administration’s fumbling efforts to relieve households weighed down by crippling debts. On health care, Chait downplays the fact that large stretches of the country, mostly rural and poor, have struggled to attract insurers; enrollment is more than eight million below what the Congressional Budget Office projected. On national security, readers will search in vain for the name Edward Snowden, or any consideration of the surveillance state that thrived under Obama’s watch. Chait glides past the escalation in deportations—well over two million—that Obama presided over. And a chapter on racial politics compiles outrageous statements from Rush Limbaugh but doesn’t mention Black Lives Matter.

Though excluded from Chait’s account, such points have become standard elements in left-wing evaluations of the Obama years, which might be why Chait ignores them. “Liberals found the experience of Obama’s presidency mostly dissatisfying,” he claims, “because they find power itself discomfiting”—part of a larger “infantile rejection of the compromises inherent in governing” that perennially dogs the left. The tone recalls Schlesinger’s, and Chait makes the connection explicit when he quotes The Vital Center on how idealistic liberals supposedly dislike “making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences.” Chait recruits the president to the team of pragmatic liberals, too. “Obama,” he writes, “has always located himself between the despair of the left and the obliviousness of the right.”

Chait’s posture is the same as Schlesinger’s, but the content of the centrism he champions has shifted. Gone is the radical democratic tradition that supplied the moral core of Schlesinger’s politics. In Schlesinger’s interpretation, radical democrats led the charge from below; enlightened representatives from the upper classes legitimized their outrage; and “the politician-manager-intellectual type” converted these protests into policy. For Chait, as for so many liberals today, only “the politician-manager-intellectual type” remains.

This change expresses itself most vividly in his analysis of Obama. At times, he casts Obama as the latest proponent of a Democratic agenda that reaches back to Franklin Roosevelt. But he more often depicts the president as the last of the Rockefeller Republicans, a once-flourishing species that Obama’s own administration nevertheless helped push to extinction. “Obama,” Chait argues, “turned the ethos of the banished moderate and liberal Republican wing—with its support for civil rights and openness to well-designed, market-friendly public solutions to social problems—into a highly effective blueprint for Democratic governance.”

Chait has also discarded Schlesinger’s faith in political activism, replacing it with a vision of Americans too busy with their own lives to bother with politics. Ignorant of the stakes in policy disputes, they become averse to partisan conflict, assuming that the truth must fall between the two sides. Having removed voters from the picture, policy-making becomes a battle between conservative activists and liberal technocrats, with the business community often serving as tiebreaker. Chait sees the interplay between radicals and policymakers as a burden foisted on Republicans, while Democrats merely have to fend off demands from an ineffectual left.

Schlesinger had different aspirations. Despite the gloom that hung over The Vital Center’s view of its time, his account was fundamentally optimistic. He was confident that the United States had set out on a road that would lead it to social democracy. Future economic downturns would lead to more New Deals and “capitalist suicide.” His only fear was that liberals would fail to meet the craving for a deeper purpose than transactional wheeling and dealing. Chait doesn’t share this anxiety. Schlesinger’s radical democracy has become Chait’s chastened technocracy, with all Schlesinger’s self-righteousness intact. With that in mind, his claim that Obama’s distinctive genius lay in his ability to “make technocracy lyrical” becomes high praise. Today, it could hardly be more damning.

For a work arguing that Obama fulfilled the promises he made to the American people, Audacity displays little concern with the content of those promises. Chait would rather focus on the president’s concrete achievements than on his political thinking, but if the details of Obama’s proposals had been his chief attractions in 2008, he would never have made it past the Democratic primary. During the 2008 contest, Obama and Hillary Clinton both sought to magnify their differences because their real conflict was over their sense of what politics could be.

In his speech announcing his run for the White House, Obama insisted that his campaign was about more than white papers. “What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans,” he maintained. “What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

Inviting the country to free itself from decades of grinding political warfare, Obama promised to break with politics as usual. He was speaking to the same hunger for a moral depth in public life that Schlesinger believed democracy needed in the fight against totalitarianism. And he did it by holding out the possibility of a new connection between the people and their government. Obama did not make technocracy lyrical; he made reform seem radical.

Any book published in the last month of a president’s tenure is forced to reckon with the political scene that will form in his wake. While Chait was prescient on Trumpism in 2012, he underestimated its force in 2016, and was similarly blindsided by the success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. According to Chait, “The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism—i.e., liberalism—has never been stronger than now.” It is an odd claim to make in a season of populist upheavals. As the most bloodless technocrat should have long ago recognized, no policy achievement is complete without political legitimacy.

Deference to the status quo has always been a consequence of vital centrism. So is a propensity for self-important monologues on pragmatism. Schlesinger described his politics as “less gratifying perhaps than the emotional orgasm of passing resolutions against Franco, monopoly, or sin, but probably more likely to bring about actual results.” But sentimental realists are never more utopian than when they try to banish idealism from politics. Democratic leadership does not consist of lecturing voters on what they should want. The intersection of politics and policy, briefing books and ideology, is where transformative candidates stake their claims.

Obama understood that in 2008, and it made him president. The passions inspired by his first run for the White House long ago slipped out of his control. A right-wing version of that democratic spirit gave Trump the presidency, but it could not have happened without Clinton’s antiseptic liberalism—Obamaism minus Obama. Now Republicans are poised to eviscerate the achievements Chait celebrates. Reality has broken the realists.