“What happened to Obama?” The title of liberal professor Drew Westen’s unintentionally humorous essay in Sunday’s New York Times is not so much a question as a lament. And while the mainstream media’s narrative during the debt crisis has been how negotiating with Tea Party conservatives is like negotiating with terrorists, Westen’s piece inadvertently reveals how negotiating with at least some liberals is like negotiating with children.
“It was a blustery day in Washington,” begins Westen’s similarly blustery essay. Westen describes his feelings as he stood watching President Obama’s inauguration speech with his eight-year-old daughter: “I had a feeling of unease,” writes Westen. “It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.”
What story did Obama not tell? Westen offers up the inauguration speech that might have been, the speech that Westen, speaking on behalf of “the American people,” needed to hear: “I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”
Had I been picky, I might have wondered how Republicans living in 2011 could be the “same people” who caused the Great Depression, or whether it would be wise for Obama to tout that he was trying to address modern economic challenges by digging up ideas from 80 years ago (and which didn’t even work then).
It would be news to most of us that Obama, who reflexively blames Republicans for everything, has omitted to tell the story of how “conservative extremists” and their Wall Street cronies were responsible for the mess that Obama inherited. In fact, given Obama’s compulsion for public speaking, it would be news to most of us that he has omitted to say anything. But no, insists Westen, what “the American people” hunger for is a president who is even more willing to blame others: “When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability.” That’s right. Rather than identifying the villain with specificity, Obama typically uses impersonal, cryptic code words such as “George W. Bush” and “the Republicans.”
Westen explains why it’s so important that Obama break his prolonged silence and reveal the untold story of how Republicans are to blame for everything: “The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to ‘expect’ stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.”
Hearing stories from our leaders thus fills the same psychological needs that our parents filled when they told us bedtime stories as children, and these needs indeed hearken back thousands and thousands of years to a time when we were all illiterate. And even though voters are by definition no longer children and are hopefully not illiterate, Westen insists that we need a storyteller-in-chief to treat us like kids who have not yet learned to read.
And, as Westen points out, every bedtime story needs a villain. The villain in “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, was the Big Bad Wolf who ate Grandma. In the modern liberal recreation of the fairy tale, the Big Bad Wolf is replaced by Republican Paul Ryan — and rather than eating Grandma, he throws her off a cliff. Liberal politics has disintegrated into a constant search for villains — Ryan, Bush, the Tea Party, Wall Street (at least when they’re not giving millions of dollars to Obama), Bachmann, Palin.
Of course, those who feel the need to villainize those with whom they disagree have a hard time working with such people to find common ground. During the debt-ceiling debate, “compromise” — like “civility” in the wake of the Giffords shooting — was considered a virtue by the left only to the extent that it was perceived as useful to score political points against Republicans. Westen confirms that in his view, compromise loses its virtue when liberals are the ones being asked to compromise: He complains of Obama’s “failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time.”
So, to review: When Republicans are supposedly not willing enough to pursue conciliation, they are “terrorists.” For Democrats like Obama, however, conciliation is always the wrong course of action.
Westen makes the obligatory reference to America “being held hostage” by “an extremist Republican Party.” Let’s recall that conservatives outnumber liberals in America by two to one and that independent voters gave Republicans an historic victory in the most recent elections. In light of these facts, Westen’s perception that the Republican Party as a whole is “extremist” suggests that he has fallaciously placed himself at the center of the political universe. Children — you know, the folks who crave bedtime stories — perceive themselves as being at the center of the universe. Psychologically healthy children outgrow that belief as they mature, and eventually learn to get along with others who may have views and interests different from their own. “Conciliation for thee but not for me” is the narcissistic attitude of a child who has not yet matured.
What is most offensive about Westen’s piece is the implication that the electorate should be treated like children and indeed wants to be treated as such. This type of infantilization is, of course, the logical consequence of support for a nanny state. It was on full display during the debt-ceiling debate. There were those who refused to acknowledge that our unprecedented levels of deficits, debt and spending were serious problems, insisting that the issue was made up by mean Tea Baggers to prevent Obama from getting his way. Speaking of “Tea Baggers,” a barrage of childish name-calling was unleashed against those with the nerve to suggest that there was no Santa Claus, and that our government could not keep living beyond its means. They were called “Tea Baggers,” “terrorists,” “Taliban” and many other epithets best left unprinted. When people like Paul Ryan had the honesty and courage to tell the American people that our entitlement programs are unsustainable, he was viciously attacked by those showing a child’s lack of concern for how much things cost. As we see in Greece, such tantrums can quickly turn violent when an unrealistic sense of mass entitlement collides head-on with fiscal reality.
Now that our credit rating has been downgraded for the first time in history, we need to end our childish search for villains and search for solutions instead. Paul Ryan — who, despite his boyish looks, has been the true adult in this debate — has offered sensible plans for pro-growth tax reform (closing loopholes but lowering rates) and eventual entitlement reform. Obama’s own debt commission has offered important ideas as well, and has been largely ignored. All of these proposals should be properly discussed and not demagogued.
What we need most of all are leaders who will treat us like adults and tell us the truth, rather than treating us like children and telling us stories.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.