Last Friday I asked a question for which I didn’t have a ready answer. Why, I asked, do people across the political spectrum doubt the authenticity of Mitt Romney’s conservatism more than they doubt the authenticity of Obama’s liberalism?
Romney’s eleventh-hour conversion to conservative positions with respect to abortion and federal health care reform excites the distrust of conservatives and nurtures hope among non-conservatives that his conservative professions are an affectation. Obama has done a lot of equivocating himself on such ideologically contested issues as same-sex marriage, how to fight the war on terror and whether overseas military operations like the one he undertook in Libya without congressional consent fall within his constitutional and statutory authority. Yet that seems neither to excite abiding ideological distrust among many liberals nor reassure many conservatives. From all appearances, despite Obama’s numerous concessions to political realities, neither confirmed liberals nor confirmed conservatives seriously doubt that, deep in his bones, he’s a confirmed liberal.
The different ways people across the political spectrum think of Romney and Obama suggest that we apply different standards of ideological authenticity to conservatives and liberals. The latest spot from the Obama campaign points toward the difference:
The ad asks: Are you in? Well, in what, exactly? The answer can only be in the enterprise of keeping all those sinister Republicans from reversing the progress of the last three years. And what progress is that? The Obama campaign apparently doesn’t think it has to say because its unnamed achievements, such as they are, are the culmination of a “movement” of “we” the people who “changed the course of history” by accomplishing something “no one thought was possible.” Whatever Obama has accomplished over these last three years must be progress, I guess, because it was the work of self-styled “progressives.”
So “are you in?” can only be a way of asking whether you’re ready to pull your weight in the progressive community doing the things (whatever they may be) that we progressives are now inclined to do. “Change isn’t something you can stop fighting for” if you’re a genuine progressive, not because anything in particular needs changing, but because fighting for Change, is integral to your identity, an expression of who at bottom you are. How does that go? “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Try imagining a version of this ad in behalf of a conservative candidate. I submit that you can’t because we all tend to think of authentic conservatism as essentially a matter of being true to a certain set of identifiable convictions whether we share them or not. You can say pretty much the same of liberals of, say, Nancy Pelosi's generation, for whom "progress" still means such identifiable things as expanding the welfare state, limiting the effects of white racism, protecting the environment, etc. Yet if this ad is any indication, authentic liberalism is becoming less a matter of being true to one's convictions about how the political economy should work and more a matter of being true to one's progressive self. You can decide for yourself whether that's progress.