Monday, April 25, 2011

Wishful Thinking and Sour Grapes about Obama

We’re all starting to appreciate that there’s a decent chance Obama won’t win reelection. With a little ingenuity, we can all identify superficial similarities between his electoral predicament and Jimmy Carter’s in 1980. Yet Republicans' readiness to jump to the conclusion that Obama's the political reincarnation of Carter owes more to wishful thinking than to sound reflection. Carter was the last one-term Democratic president and Republicans are hoping that Obama will be the next one.

That gets Republicans “reasoning” along these lines. They’ve persuaded themselves that Carter lost in 1980 because his presidential ineptitude was widely appreciated within the voting public. Now, Republicans are telling themselves, voters can’t miss the obvious fact that, being similarly inept, Obama is equally unworthy of reelection. That’s a perfectly understandable leap of faith inasmuch as we’re all susceptible to wishful thinking; sometimes we can’t help believing that something desirable will happen just because we desire it.

That Republicans are thinking such things shouldn’t dishearten liberals because we all know that wishing doesn’t make it so. But now influential liberals are starting to see disquieting similarities between Obama and Carter themselves. Here, for example, is Eric Alterman, a sturdy liberal who, I presume, ardently desires Obama’s reelection:
“Stylistically speaking, Barack Obama could hardly be further from Jimmy Carter if he really had been born in Kenya. Carter was a born-again Baptist who was raised on his father’s peanut plantation and supported George Wallace on the road to the Georgia state house. Barack Obama—well, you know the story. But the two men have a great deal in common in their approach to the presidency, and not one of these similarities is good news for the Democrats or even for America. Both men rule without regard to the concerns of the base of their party. Both held themselves to be above politics when it came to making tough decisions. Both were possessed with superhuman self-confidence when it came to their own political judgment mixed with contempt for what they understood to be the petty concerns of pundits and party leaders. And worst of all, one fears, neither one appeared willing to change course no matter how many storm clouds loomed on the horizon. . . .

“Well that was the ‘70s, you say, and America is a different country these days. True enough, but while history never repeats itself, political patterns do. More and more, Democrats are starting to worry they that they have a more um, colorful version of Jimmy Carter on their hands.”
Read Alterman’s piece for yourselves and decide whether the similarities he’s pointing to are any less superficial than the ones that are inspiring Republican hopes. If you agree with me that they aren’t, how do you explain Alterman’s readiness to jump to the conclusion that Obama is well on his way to sharing Carter’s dismal electoral fate?

Consider the psychological phenomenon of sour grapes. In the Aesop fable the fox, once he realizes that he’s not going to taste the grapes he wanted so badly, persuades himself that they weren’t that sweet anyway. Like wishful thinking, sour grapes is a mechanism that reconciles us psychologically to the disheartening fact that the world is unresponsive to our desires. The wishful thinker’s desire that something happen causes him to embrace the groundless, but comforting, belief that it will happen. The sour grapist copes with the fear that something undesirable will happen by persuading himself that it never really was all that undesirable in the first place.

"Sour grapes" is the only explanation I can come up with for why liberals would think of comparing a president who achieved the greatest expansion of the welfare state in nearly fifty years to the least successful Democratic president of the last one-hundred years.


Anonymous said...

Liberals won't forgive Obama for messing up his clear shot at governing they invested too much of their self-esteem in his presidency.

Anonymous said...

Has it ever occurred to a liberal with both feet firmly inside the tent that maybe there is a better democratic candidate than Obama to be in office? Is this so far fetched? Doesn't it make sense that it could happen? Why fear the scary Republicans when maybe all you need is a decent liberal candidate.