In an excellent piece about Obama’ s troubled relationship with his liberal base, Ta-Nehisi Coates hints at something I’ve long felt but have yet to see discussed in print:
Obama has been much praised for the magnanimity he shows his opposition. But such empathy, unburdened by actual expectations, comes easy. More challenging is the work of coping with those who have the disagreeable habit of taking the president, and his talk of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” seriously.
Among the pundits and the polite, there’s no greater virtue for a political leader than to break with his base and embrace some point or principle of the opposition. In practice, at least since the 1970s, this has meant Democratic politicians getting praise for breaking with their liberal base (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and Republican politicians getting praise for working with their conservative base (Reagan, Bush).
But even if the principle were universally applied, it would still make little sense. Though this is certainly not the only way to think of morality, we usually assume that a good deed or virtuous act requires some kind of sacrifice or imposes some sort of difficulty on the doer or the actor.You know, I give up a portion of my time or income to help out the homeless shelter down the street. I don’t, but you get the idea.
What’s odd about the pundit principle is that betraying one’s friends, allies, and beliefs for the sake of personal advance is the easiest thing to do. That’s why politicians, at least on the left, do it every day. Pundits do it too; that’s how they get to be pundits. In fact, you might say it’s the American Creed, what William James famously described as “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success.”
But in the eyes of the pundits, selling out is the hardest—and therefore the right—thing to do. And you know what? I don’t think they’re being insincere; I think they really believe it.
That’s the craziness—or genius—of America. We take a vice, and make it a virtue.