Tok Guru Nik Aziz: People First Always

October 31, 2010

Tok Guru Nik Aziz: People First Always

by Terence

COMMENT Anniversaries are not what they are cracked up to be for reason of the phenomenon of ‘historical body-snatching’.

Whenever some anniversary occurs, there is a scramble to appropriate the occasion for the benefit of some contemporary cause or the glorification of some contemporary leader. This can introduce much confusion into present-day political discussion.

Fortunately, no appropriation or confusion occurred when one anniversary came by 10 days ago simply because there was no public marking of it.  It passed without fanfare, which was in a way revealing of the person to whom the anniversary occurred.

This was the 20th anniversary in the office of Kelantan Menteri Besar Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the PAS spiritual leader. Twenty years is a long time for someone to be in charge of a political office, though not by BN standards.

Last year S Samy Vellu completed 30 years as head of MIC and next March, Taib Mahmud will mark 30 years as chief minister of Sarawak. Among BN tenancies, they are the two longest though by no means singular. UMNO’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister for 22 years and Gerakan’s Dr Lim Chong Eu was chief minister of Penang for 21 years.

Tenures are inherently limited for occupants of political office from Pakatan Rakyat; the dynamic Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS lasted a mere 11 months. Though DAP’s Lim Guan Eng is seemingly secure in the saddle in Penang, the relentless buffeting he gets from UMNO suggests that either he is in danger of collapsing in a heap or he is doing so well that his adversaries cannot abide the thought.

Selangor’s MB from PKR, Khalid Ibrahim, may be less bedeviled. Unlike Guan Eng, however, Khalid has to tamp down opposition not only from without but also within.

Self-imposed austerity

All this provides perspective which enables a quick distillation of the essence of Nik Aziz, 69, as a leader. His is a leadership based on exceptional moral stature.  In a period of national history when every BN leader of protracted tenure is seen as well heeled – indeed some obscenely so – Nik Aziz has not waxed rich on the benefits of office. For that alone, he deserves to be canonized.


Seri Perdana, Putrajaya

Take a look at the modest house he had lived in the last 20 years and put against that the current Budget’s allocation for refurbishment to the prime minister’s residence in Putrajaya.

One depicts the spartan lifestyle of its occupant; the other reflects the penchant for extravagance that characterises the set from which the PM comes.

Self-imposed austerity is not the Tok Guru’s only strength. Sustained by certitudes of faith, the moral clarity of his vision stands fore and aft of the man. In an era when prevarication is the norm with political leaders, there’s no gray tincture to the positions Nik Aziz takes. He is surface straight through.

It was this clarity of moral vision that set him implacably against any collaboration with UMNO. Had it not been for his opposition, a defining moment in our current history would have been lost to the forces of reaction. The clarity of his moral vision and his unostentatious poverty of lifestyle mark Nik Aziz’s two decades in office as a political tour de force that posterity is certain to honour.

PKR No.2 Contest: Outcome too early to tell

October 31, 2010

PKR No.2 Contest throws up an acid test

by Terence Netto @

COMMENT A nice contrarian test of authenticity suggests itself after day one of the first weekend of the historic direct election of principal office-bearers of PKR.

Three more weekends of balloting follow in this first-ever enactment of the one-member-one-vote franchise in Malaysian politics. Truly, the very thought staggers the imagination. However, thus far the script for the prelude to the actual balloting has been unedifying. It has resembled the melodrama of soap operas than the mundane histrionics of political process.

That is why the disclosure at the end of day one that deputy presidential aspirant Zaid Ibrahim is in the lead is propitious grounds for the application of a test of sincerity that would redeem things somewhat: let’s see if his faction sustains their critical scrutiny of the electoral process and queries its “irregularities” even as he leads.

On the other side, let’s see if rival candidate for the No 2 post, Azmin Ali, in trailing in the tally of votes, keeps his cool about the electoral process, as he has thus far, and disdains to accuse the other side of resorting to underhand tactics even as he lags.

An unedifying prelude

Why the contrarian test to establish sincerity and authenticity? This is because the prelude to the actual balloting has been marked by the tendency of life to imitate art, something that’s bad for politics. It leads to exhaustion, suggests that political life is not serious, and that the PKR arena is marred by hamsters and clowns.

An unedifying prelude, if the two prime deputy presidential contestants measure up to this contrarian test, would be followed by a redemptive conclusion – just what proponents of the one-member-one-vote school argue is the elevating thing about the ‘vox populi vox dei’ theory of democratic governance.

Of course, the best test of the sequel to the deputy presidential contest would be the credible accommodation of the losing side by the winning one. That would be a test of the imagination of the most creative sort, possible when art imitates life.

Galas: The Gobbling of the Goodies

October 31, 2010

Bridget Welsh on Galas By-Election:The Gobbling of the Goodies

In this large rural constituency of Kelantan (Galas), the mood appears calm. The by-election has gotten off to a slow start, with limited posters and modest turnout at ceramahs, where enterprising Kelantanese entrepreneurs and outside supporters outnumber the local crowds.

From the onset, there is a sense of fatigue as the 12th by-election in two years unfolds. All sides say the contest in this traditional UMNO seat is close, but given the small PAS majority of 646 votes – less than 10 percent – and the resource edge that gives the Barisan Nasional (BN) weight in such a concentrated by-election, the BN has the advantage.

The bottom line is that UMNO needs the victory more, and if they lose the contest, it will be the result of their own internal squabbling.

A Malay heartland

Before outlining the five main factors that will shape the result, allow me to introduce some of the key features of this ‘ulu’ constituency in the heartland of West Malaysia. Galas is overwhelmingly rural, with limited access to many of its most remote areas, especially among the Orang Asli communities.

The intensive development of government infrastructure around Gua Musang town has increased the number of civil servants, who join the majority local Malay community – engaged in rubber production and small businesses – as voters.

There are two small pockets of Chinese voters, concentrated in the new village of Pulai comprised largely of Hakka, and in the town, which includes a combination of Hokkien and Hakka voters. The Chinese Malaysians are engaged in farming, small business, and importantly, saw-milling as the area undergoes massive environmental change with its nearby forests all but depleted.

Lorries clog the roads coming into the town, filled with Malaysia’s remaining logs as the sales fill someone’s pockets. The sheer beauty of the landscape – the wonderful rock formations, river streams and dense vegetation – complements the warm hospitality of the local communities who welcome you into their homes without hesitation, similar to the era of old Malaysia.

Galas in many ways represents this blend of the new and the old, the development of modern infrastructure and services, including a new sports stadium opened just two days before nomination, and rural concerns over land.

Traditional kampong houses co-exist with pockets of wealthier housing developments, especially near the route south to Cameron Highlands. Despite its remoteness, the area is connected, with highway access north to Kota Bharu and south to Perak.

The town is wired, although Internet use beyond the town center is sparse. With a young population, voters under 40 comprise 43 percent of the electorate (almost half), there is also concern with jobs and salaries, as average wages range from RM500 for labourers to RM2,500 for civil servants.

Those under 30 comprise 19 percent. The ethnic blend of this constituency – 61.5 percent Malays, 19.7 percent Chinese, 17 percent Orang Asli, 1.5 percent Indian and 0.3 percent Others – showcases the diversity of the rural heartland.

It many ways, this large constituency is a fitting fight for the country’s heartland between two traditional rivals, PAS and UMNO.

Ghost of 46 and UMNO ‘win-win’ dynamic

In one of the enclaves near town there is a stone representing the spirit of 46. It is now faded, but the

The Ku Li Factor in Galas

sentiment it represents persists. Gua Musang is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s political base. It is where he launched the splinter party of 46 and where he continues to be the political conscience of UMNO, fighting for a return to statesmanship and honour for the party.

Ku Li, as he is fondly known in the constituency, has been seen as an advocate for Kelantan and for a better UMNO. For his individuality and his principles, he is resented. It is clear that there are those in UMNO who want him gone and some see this as an opportunity to kill him off.

This by-election is a test for this veteran politician, as a victory for UMNO and for his chosen candidate will signal that he can deliver for the party when it is needed. The daggers from behind are out, however, as even a little movement in the voters can lead to a loss – a fact that is not lost among those who see this by-election as an opportunity to silence the voice of dissent.

It is no wonder that many UMNO leaders are confident in Galas. Either option is a ‘win’. If they win the polls then they can build momentum and break the stalemate between Pakatan Rakyat and UMNO, adding one to the BN side. If they lose the contest, then, at last, the leader of spirit of 46 will no longer be a force for change from within. This contest is a ‘win-win’ for UMNO. For Ku Li, it is another chance to show his national relevancy as a leader.

Oil goblin and PAS ‘lose-lose’ dynamic

It is important to understand that Galas is not a PAS stronghold. This state seat victory was part of the 2008 tsunami, and part of the PAS pick-up as part of the opposition in mixed seats.

The deceased state assemblyman was ill and did not build up the grassroots for the party over the last two years. This contest, like Manek Urai in 2009, will not affect the balance of power in Kelantan. Thus, it is not a surprise that the PAS campaign lacks focus and drive. There is a noticeable lack of local leadership as PAS’ faithful have come in to be the worker bees for the contest, with limited connections locally.

More substantively, this is another test in a multi-ethnic seat, similar to Bagan Pinang. It will test the party’s ability to cooperate with its coalition partners and its strength in non-Malay areas. It is a test of how comfortable the party is with a multi-ethnic umbrella in the rural settings.

There is a sense that PAS, like the rest of Pakatan, are repeating the same message – change – without clear substantive messages to the voters. The messages are ad-hoc, without a clear framework. They are almost as stale at the development mantras and chorus of ’19 years is enough’ that UMNO has adopted.

The focus is on winning protest votes, not necessarily new voters connected to positive messages. Few realise that the time for rhetoric for Pakatan has passed, as increasingly more voters want a clear picture of how the ideals are to be translated into substance. The voters want the spirit of change and campaign promises to be realised.

To realise the development goals, many at the state level in Kelantan PAS know they need money. This is where the oil goblin comes in – they want the royalty. Razaleigh has been the strongest advocate for the oil royalty for the state. PAS has been careful not to attack him directly as they know they still need his support.

While the climate has changed with the new sultan, who is seen not to be supportive of Razaleigh as he is seen to be aligned to others in the royal camp, the fact remains that this impoverished state needs resources. PAS in Kelantan has benefited from leaders within Umno such as Kelantan party chief Mustapha Mohamed and Razaleigh, who have not ignored the state’s interest.

For PAS, the election is a ‘lose-lose’ dynamic. A loss for UMNO will lose the support of a person who has been in the middle ground and been concerned for national and state interests. A loss for PAS has repercussions for its political base in Kelantan.

While a ‘deal’ is highly unlikely, despite rumours, since it would go against the overall wishes of the leadership and ultimately would be difficult to enforce, PAS has been put into a difficult position. A close result will allow all sides to save face.

The gobbling of the goodies

One factor that is always at play in a by-election is money. The record stream of by-elections has depleted party coffers, but the BN has already shown its financial superiority. It has won the poster war, featuring less-than-flattering photos of Prime Minister Najib Razak and an extremely youthful Razaleigh.

The financial advantage will yield results in this constituency, given the large number of people. In Manek Urai, it contributed to a gain of 1,287 votes, more than 10 percent, in support for the BN. In Galas, it will likely yield more in an even slimmer original majority. Recall that in Manek Urai, the majority was 1,352 originally and this led to the slim win of 65 votes for PAS.

The main reason money will have an impact is that the level of poverty and income disparities are sharp. This is most acute in the Orang Asli community where the offers of goodies will hit home. The votes are value for money unfortunately when compared to the other communities, as comparatively lower level of investment can insure votes.

The real issue that persists is land. Here is where PAS’ strength is in the Malay areas and it has been less successful among the Orang Asli communities. UMNO is already pushng home the land issue, raising questions about whether the Orang asli communities are being fairly treated. The land issue here is closely connected to development and both the state and national governments share responsibility in this multiple jurisdictions problem.

Both sides are using to land issues in all communities, and all the while small and larger rewards are coming. The development project promises are also part of the equation. Drawing from the swing in Manek Urai, PAS faces an uphill battle managing the flow of goodies. This is despite the call to reduce distribution and vote ‘persuasion’.

Youth lean towards BN

The usual national pattern is that younger voters are increasingly voting for Pakatan, especially Malays. Galas appears to be not the norm.

The younger voters who comprise the deciding votes are concerned with jobs. They want increasing development and opportunities. Many tend increasingly to be leaning toward the BN, which is portraying itself as bringing in more employment and connections, and see Ku Li as part of the answer to their needs.

It is clear that the level of political awareness and connection to Pakatan among Galas youth is much less than in other areas. Here is where the remoteness shapes the terrain. Many young people in Galas are non-political, and are less concerned with political ideals than the economic marketplace. They want the goods, not promises. They are the ‘Me Generation’, wanting to take advantage of the by-election as much as possible.

What this means is that the usual numerical projections do not offer PAS a boost. Gains in the number of voters here do not necessarily strengthen the chances for the opposition. PAS’ support is stronger among older voters where land issues were resolved when it came into power in Kelantan 19 years ago.

Haunting messaging

The BN continues to harp on the same old theme of how long PAS has been in power. Their messages in the campaign so far are stale and similarly inconsistent. The focus has been on a house-to-house campaign, but what they are offering is same old, same old. Voters in Galas are not clearly being offered alternative reasons to consider both sides.

This is where patronage has increasing salience – why not take the money when there is nothing new – and makes for a staid election. Some say nothing much will change, as the election is viewed as low impact. The only people that are happy are the businesses who are racking in their annual incomes in the short campaign period.

The candidates on both sides have not yet substantively increased the quality of the discussion. PAS candidate Dr Zulkefli Mohamad is warm, but non-communicative. He remains shell-shocked in the campaign, uttering few words.

The UMNO candidate’s experience in business has made him more articulate, and Abdul Aziz Yusof  is more comfortable with the media and has offered some ideas, but not consistently. He is seen as Ku Li’s choice. Both candidates will be expected to offer more as the campaign progresses, as the contest will not just come down to the party loyalties but candidate performance.

Not an easy choice

Beyond the goodies, the candidates and stale messaging, voters in Galas will decide if they want to strengthen Pakatan or remain committed to their own UMNO national leader, Tengku Razaleigh.

It is a vote for change from outside or change from within. It is not an easy choice, as doubts exist on all sides about the possibilities of change. Najib this time round has not made the campaign about his leadership, but let a party critic face his own music.

As the campaign evolves and gains momentum, Galas voters will decide who offers the most in a contest that for many in the constituency is not clearly seen as part of the national picture. Whether it is the ghost, the goblin or the goodies that play out is still yet to be seen, but all are at play as this campaign evolves.

My money is on the goodies, a close result and ultimately a BN victory.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She was in Galas to observe the by-election. Dr. Welsh can be reached at

A Message for PERKASA and its Patron

October 30, 2010

Misconstruing the Malaysian Constitution

by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

MISINTERPRETATIONS of and misconceptions about the Constitution have exacerbated ethnic tension and soured race relations in the country. Several issues have come to the fore lately. 

A few weeks ago, a politician alleged that the concept of 1Malaysia is against the Constitution since it promotes equality among the communities. Actually, the Constitution embodies an article on equality. Article 8 (1) states that “all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”. Discrimination is prohibited except when it is expressly authorised in the Constitution. Provisions pertaining to the special position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak would be an example.

However, “special position” — it is seldom appreciated — is also about equality. It was incorporated into the Constitution to protect the well-being of the abysmally poor indigenous Malays in the wake of the conferment of citizenship upon more than a million recently domiciled Chinese and Indians by the Malay rulers and the Umno elite on the eve of Merdeka. In other words, special position — like other affirmative action policies elsewhere — is meant to address gross ethnic inequalities.

There are also misconceptions about Article 153. The article is not just about the special position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Article 153 (1) also makes it “the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard… the legitimate interests of the other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article”.

The provisions of Article 153 go out of the way to ensure that while the special position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak is protected in public service, in the granting of scholarships, in education, in trade and in business, the legitimate interests of the other communities are also safeguarded. This balance in Article 153 is seldom highlighted.

There is another misunderstanding about Article 153 that should be set right. The article does not provide for a 30 per cent quota in equity capital for Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. That is part of the New Economic Policy and subsequent policies, but it is not stated in the Constitution. Neither does the Constitution provide for the establishment or continuation of Chinese schools in the national education system as some politicians and media commentators have argued recently.

There is no such provision in either Article 12 which deals with rights in respect of education or in Article 152 that focuses on the national language. What Article 152 (1) contains are two sub-clauses that read:

* no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (other than for official purposes) or from teaching or learning any other language; and,

* nothing in this clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any state government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the federation.

There is no need to emphasise that teaching, learning, preserving and sustaining a language can take place within a Bahasa Malaysia-based school system that provides ample scope for studying Chinese, Tamil, Arabic or any other language. Nonetheless, it should be reiterated that Chinese and Tamil primary schools are part of the national education system today, and their status is protected by the law and policy.

The Education Act 1996, for instance, makes it the duty of the education minister to provide primary education at government and government-aided schools.

Another misconception being propagated by certain individuals is that when Sabah and Sarawak (together with Singapore) joined Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963, a new nation came into being which ipso facto rendered irrelevant some of the defining Malay characteristics of the earlier Malayan state. Whatever the political rhetoric that prevailed before the formation of Malaysia, this is a view that has no basis in the Constitution.

The Constitution makes it very clear that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is also the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Sabah and Sarawak (he appoints the governor of the two states), Bahasa Malaysia is the national language of the two states and Islam their official religion. Special position also applies to the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

Besides, Article 1 (2) spells out lucidly that Sabah and Sarawak are states in the federation like the other 11 states. Of course, the Constitution confers additional rights and powers upon the two states, given their history and the circumstances of their membership in the federation.

If Malaysia in 1963 was a new nation, why didn’t we reapply to join the United Nations? The truth is Malaysia is, to all intents and purposes, an extension of Malaya.

What is important is to ensure that the rights of all states, especially Sabah and Sarawak, are protected and respected in the expanded federation.

It is a pity that such issues that impinge upon the fundamental character of the nation and the structure of the Constitution are being raised with increasing frequency. Ignorance is not the only explanation. It is part of the intensification of communal politics in the past few years which, if we are not careful, may push us all over the precipice.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia and Noordin Sopiee professor of global studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang

The State of Conservatism in the US

October 30, 2010

The State of Conservatism

by Christopher Caldwell*

Within the space of a week last summer, one judge in Arizona, ruling in a suit brought by the Obama administration, blocked a provision in a new state law permitting police officers to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants, while another blocked the implementation of a California referendum banning gay marriage. The two decisions imposed liberal policies that public opinion opposed. These things happen, of course. Congress had acted contrary to measurable public opinion when it passed health care reform in March. What made the two judicial rulings different was that both seemed to challenge the principle that it is the people who have the last word on how they are governed.

American conservatives, most notably the activists who support various Tea Party groups, have a great variety of anxieties and grievances just now. But what unites them all, at least rhetorically, is the sense that something has gone wrong constitutionally, shutting them out of decisions that rightfully belong to them as citizens. This is why many talk about “taking our country back.”

If polls are to be believed, conservatives should have no difficulty taking the country back or doing whatever else they want with it. Gallup now counts 54 percent of likely voters as self-described conservatives and only 18 per cent as liberals. More than half of Americans (55 per cent) say they have grown more conservative in the past year, according to the pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen in their new book, MAD AS HELL: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99).

America’s self-described conservatives, however, have a problem: They lack a party. While the Tea Party may look like a stalking horse for Republicans, the two have been a bad fit. Insurgents have cut a swath through Republicans’ well-laid election plans. They helped oust Florida’s party chairman. They toppled the favored candidates of the party establishment in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, New York, South Carolina, Utah and elsewhere.

More than 70 percent of Republicans embrace the Tea Party, but the feeling is not reciprocated. If conservatives could vote for the Tea Party as a party, they would prefer it to the Republicans, according to Rasmussen. (Lately, Rasmussen’s polling, more than others’, has favored Republicans. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it has picked up certain recent shifts earlier and more reliably — like the surge that won the Republican Scott Brown the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat in January.) Much of the Tea Party is made up of conservative-leaning independents.

The journalist Jonathan Rauch has called these people “debranded Republicans,” and they are debranded for a reason — 55 percent of them oppose the Republican leadership. While Republicans are likely to reap all the benefit of Tea Party enthusiasm in November’s elections, this is a marriage of convenience. The influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of, insists that one of his top goals is denying the Republican establishment credit for any electoral successes.

Hence the Republicans’ problem. After November, the party will need to reform in a conservative direction, in line with its base’s wishes, and without a clear idea of whether the broader public will be well disposed to such reform. How Republicans wound up in this situation requires one to state the obvious. Well before George W. Bush presided over the collapse of the global financial system, a reasonable-sounding case was being mustered that he was the worst president in history.

Foreign policy was the grounds on which voters repudiated him and his party, starting in 2006, and President Obama’s drawdown of forces in Iraq may be the most popular thing he has done. But foreign policy is unlikely to drive voters’ long-term assessment of the parties. The Iraq misadventure was justified with the same spreading-democracy rhetoric that Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and other Democrats used to justify interventions in Haiti and the Balkans in the 1990s. President Obama’s difficulties in resolving Afghanistan and closing Guantánamo show that Bush’s options were narrower than they appeared at the time.

Republicans’ future electoral fortunes will depend on domestic policy and specifically on whether they can reconnect with “small-c” conservatism — the conservatism whose mottoes are “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “Mind your own business,” and the opposite of which is not liberalism but utopianism. The Bush administration was a time of “big-C” Conservatism, ideological conservatism, which the party pursued with mixed results. As far as social issues were concerned, this ideology riveted a vast bloc of religious conservatives to the party, and continues to be an electoral asset (although that bloc, by some measures, is shrinking). Had gay marriage not been on several state ballots in 2004, John Kerry might now be sitting in the White House.

Ideological conservatism also meant “supply-side economics” — a misnomer for the doctrine that all tax cuts eventually pay for themselves through economic growth. The problem is, they don’t. So supply-side wound up being a form of permanent Keynesian stimulus — a bad idea during the overheated years before 2008. Huge tax cuts, from which the highest earners drew the biggest benefits, helped knock the budget out of balance and misallocated trillions of dollars. To a dispiriting degree, tax cuts remain the Republican answer to every economic question. Eric Cantor, potentially the House majority leader, told The Wall Street Journal that if Democrats went home without renewing various Bush-era tax cuts (which they did), “I promise you, H.R. 1 will be to retroactively restore the lower rates.”

Until recently, supply side was political gravy for Republicans. It confirmed the rule that in American politics the party most plausibly offering something for nothing wins. In the 1980s, the New York congressman Jack Kemp was the archetype of an ambitious, magnanimous, “sunny” kind of Republican who let you keep more of your taxes while building more housing for the poor. Democrats who questioned the affordability of these policies sounded like killjoys. In a time of scarcity like our own, calculations change. Today your tax cut means shuttering someone else’s AIDS clinic. Your welfare check comes off of someone else’s dinner table.

Deficits in the Obama era are a multiple of the Bush ones, and the product of a more consciously pursued Keynesianism. But that does not absolve Republicans of the need to find a path to balancing the budget. With some exceptions — like Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a Kemp protégé who has laid out a “Road Map” for reforming (i.e., cutting) Social Security in coming generations — Republicans have not adjusted to zero-sum economics. There is certainly no credible path to budget balance in the “Pledge to America” released in late September.

Yet the case against supply-side economics can never be airtight or decisive, and Republican tax promises will probably help the party this year. That is because taxes are not just an economic benchmark, but a political one. The public should not expect more in services than it pays in taxes. But the government should not expect more in taxes than it offers in representation. And the number of Americans who feel poorly represented has risen alarmingly during the Obama administration.

Americans’ feelings toward the president are complex. On the one hand, there is little of the ad hominem contempt that was in evidence during the Clinton and Bush administrations. There are no campaign spots showing a Congressional candidate’s face morphing into Obama’s. But the president’s ideology, fairly or not, has provoked something approaching panic. Not many Americans agree that Obama is a closet totalitarian, as the Fox News host Glenn Beck has claimed. But they have serious misgivings of a milder kind.

In retrospect it looks inevitable that Republicans would have been punished by voters in 2008; but until Lehman Brothers collapsed in mid-September of that year, it was far from certain they would be, despite strong Democratic gains in the 2006 elections. Independent and Republican voters wanted an assurance that Senator Obama would not simply hand over power to the Democratic Party. He consistently provided it. The centerpiece of his campaign was a promise of post-partisanship. He introduced himself as a Senate candidate in 2004 at the Boston convention, deriding as false the tendency of pundits to “slice and dice our country into red states and blue states” — a bracingly subversive thing to do at a partisan convention. He praised Ronald Reagan.

And in 2008 he got more than 52 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than many political consultants thought possible for a Democrat. That means he came into office unusually dependent on the good will of independents and Republicans. And yet, once in power, the president set to work enacting the agenda of the same Congressional Democrats he had implied he would keep at arm’s length. No president in living memory has compiled a slenderer record of bipartisanship.

It is often said in the president’s defense that Republican obstructionism left him no choice. Today, this is true — and it has put an end, for now, to the productive part of his presidency. But it was not true at the time of the stimulus in early 2009, when the president’s poll numbers were so stratospherically high that it appeared risky to oppose him on anything.

Republicans certainly cannot be blamed for the way Democrats passed their health care bill. Whether or not the deal-making and parliamentary maneuvering required to secure passage was unprecedented, it was unprecedented in the era of C-Span and blogs, and many voters found it corrupt. The president’s legislative program has been bought at a huge price in public discontent. The expression “picking up nickels in front of a steamroller” has been used to describe a lot of the gambles taken by A.I.G. and other companies on the eve of the financial crisis. It describes the president’s agenda equally well.

It is vital to understand where this steamroller is coming from. According to Gallup, support for Obama has fallen only slightly among Democrats, from 90 percent to 81 percent, and only slightly among Republicans, from 20 percent to 12 percent. It is independents who have abandoned him: 56 percent approved of him when he came into office, versus 38 percent now. The reason the country is getting more conservative is not that conservatives are getting louder. It is that people in the dead center of the electorate are turning into conservatives at an astonishing rate.

The frustration and disappointment of these voters is probably directed as much at themselves as at their president. There were two ways to judge Obama the candidate — by what he said or by the company he kept. The cable-TV loudmouths who dismissed Obama right off the bat were unfair in certain particulars. But, on the question of whether Obama, if elected, would be more liberal or more conservative than his campaign rhetoric indicated, they arrived at a more accurate assessment than those of us who pored over his speeches, parsed his interviews and read his first book.

Some wish the president had governed more to the left, insisting on a public option in the health care bill and pushing for a larger stimulus. But those people make up only a small fraction even of the 18 percent of voters who call themselves liberal. In a time of growing populism and distrust, Republicans enjoy the advantage of running against the party of the elite. This seems to be a controversial proposition, but it should not be.

It is not the same as saying that Democrats are the party of elitism. One can define elitism as, say, resistance to progressive taxation, and make a case that Republicans better merit that description. But, broadly speaking, the Democratic Party is the party to which elites belong. It is the party of Harvard (and most of the Ivy League), of Microsoft and Apple (and most of Silicon Valley), of Hollywood and Manhattan (and most of the media) and, although there is some evidence that numbers are evening out in this election cycle, of Goldman Sachs (and most of the investment banking profession). That the billionaire David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation supports the Tea Party has recently been much in the news. But the Democrats have the support of more, and more active, billionaires. Of the 20 richest ZIP codes in America, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, 19 gave the bulk of their money to Democrats in the last election, in most cases the vast bulk — 86 percent in 10024 on the Upper West Side. Meanwhile, only 22 percent of non-high-school educated white males are happy with the direction the country is going in. The Democrats’ overlap with elites leaves each party with a distinctive liability. The Democrats appear sincerely deluded about whom they actually represent. Democrats — who would have no trouble discerning elite solidarity in the datum that, say, in the 1930s the upper ranks of Britain’s media, church, business and political institutions were dominated by Tories — somehow think their own predominance in similar precincts is . . . what? Coincidence? Irony?

Republicans, meanwhile, do not recognize the liability that their repudiation by elites represents in an age of expertise and specialization — even in the eyes of the non-elite center of the country. Like a European workingman’s party at the turn of the last century, the Republican Party today inspires doubts that it has the expertise required to run a large government bureaucracy. Whatever one thinks of Obama’s economic team, and Bill Clinton’s before it, the Bush White House was never capable, in eight years, of assembling a similarly accomplished one. Nor is there much evidence that Republicans were ever able to conceptualize the serious problems with the nation’s medical system, let alone undertake to reform it on their own terms. “Democrats and Republicans agree that our health care system is broken in fundamental ways,” Eric Cantor notes in YOUNG GUNS: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders (Threshold, $15), a campaign book he has written with Paul Ryan and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California. Well, great. But for years now, Republicans discussing the availability and cost of health care have been like a kid who, when asked why he hasn’t cleaned up his room, replies, “I was just about to!”

It is in the context of class that Sarah Palin’s two-year career on the American political scene is so significant. She “almost seemed to set off a certain trip wire within the political class regarding access to power,” as Rasmussen and Schoen put it. But it is not an ideological trip wire. The Alaska governorship that catapulted Palin onto the national scene requires dealing with oil executives and divvying up the money from their lease payments. It is a job for a pragmatist, not a preacher. Palin has sometimes opposed big government and sometimes favored it, as became clear when journalists discovered that, contrary to Palin’s claims, she had been slow to oppose the wasteful Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” which became a symbol of federal pork.

The controversies over Palin are about class (and markers of class, like religiosity), not ideology. She endorsed several underdog insurgent candidates who wound up winning Republican primaries in the spring and summer. How did she do that, when few observers — no matter how well informed, no matter how close to the Republican base — had given them a chance? Either Palin is a political idiot savant of such gifts that those who have questioned her intelligence should revise their opinion or, more likely, she is hearing signals from the median American that are inaudible to the governing classes — like those frequencies that teenagers can hear but adults can’t.

This talent alone does not make Palin a viable national leader. But until Republican politicians learn to understand the party’s new base, Palin will be their indispensable dragoman. After November’s election, the party will either reform or it will disappoint its most ardent backers. If it reforms, it is unlikely to be in a direction Palin disapproves of.

In The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (American Spectator/Beaufort, paper, $12.95), Angelo M. Codevilla, an emeritus professor of international relations at Boston University who formerly was on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, gives a very interesting, conservative account of class politics. Codevilla sees the country as divided into “the Ruling Class” and “the Country Class,” who “have less in common culturally, dislike each other more and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners.” Codevilla’s terms are often frustratingly vague. The Ruling Class, in his definition, includes top Democrats as well as Bush Republicans, despite their many differences; the Country Class seems sometimes to mean the passive remainder of the country, and sometimes the vanguard of ideological insurgents.

And yet Codevilla captures the texture of today’s conservative grievances with admirable boldness and convincing exactitude. Slights are harder to tolerate than exactions, he finds: “Day after day, the Ruling Class’s imputations — racist, stupid, prone to violence, incapable of running things — hit like artillery cover for the advance of legislation and regulation to restrict and delegitimize.” This is a polemic, and people wholly out of sympathy with conservatism will dislike it. But Codevilla makes what we might call the Tea Party case more soberly, bluntly and constructively than anyone else has done.

Codevilla takes seriously the constitutional preoccupations of today’s conservative protesters and their professed desire for enhanced self-rule. He sees that the temptation merely to form “an alternative Ruling Class” in the mirror image of the last one would be self-defeating. Americans must instead reacquire the sinews of self-government, he thinks. Self-­government is difficult and time-­consuming. If it weren’t, everyone would have it. The “light” social democratic rule that has prevailed for the past 80 years has taken a lot of the burdens of self-government off the shoulders of citizens. They were probably glad to be rid of them. Now, apparently, they are changing their minds.

Codevilla has no illusions about their prospects for success. Americans are not in the position to roll back their politics to before the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson or whoever-you-like ran roughshod over the Yankee yeomanry. Town, county and state governments no longer have much independent political identity. They are mere “conduits for federal mandates,” as Codevilla puts it. He notes that the 132 million Americans who inhabited the country in 1940 could vote on 117,000 school boards, while today a nation of 310 million votes in only 15,000 school districts. Self-rule depends on constitutional prerogatives that have long been revoked, institutions that have long been abandoned and habits of mind that were unlearned long ago. (Not to mention giving up Social Security and Medicare benefits that have already been paid for.) “Does the Country Class really want to govern itself,” Codevilla asks, “or is it just whining for milder taskmasters?”

We will find out soon enough. With a victory in November, Republicans could claim a mandate to repeal the Obama health care law and roll back a good deal of recent stimulus-related spending, neither of which they’ve made any pretense of tolerating. But achieving the larger goal — a citizenry sufficiently able to govern itself to be left alone by Washington — will require more. The Republican Party’s leaders will need to sit down respectfully with the people who brought them to power and figure out what they agree on. If Republicans make the error that Democrats did under President Obama, mistaking a protest vote for a wide mandate, the public will turn on them just as quickly.–

*Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.”

The State of Liberalism

October 30, 2010

The State of Liberalism

by Jonathan Alter*

It’s a sign of how poorly liberals market themselves and their ideas that the word “liberal” is still in disrepute despite the election of the most genuinely liberal president that the political culture of this country will probably allow. “Progressive” is now the self-description of choice for liberals, though it’s musty and evasive. The basic equation remains: virtually all Republican politicians call themselves conservative; few Democratic politicians call themselves liberal. Even retired Classic Coke liberals like Walter F. Mondale are skittish about their creed. “I never signed up for any ideology,” he writes in his memoirs.

That would be fine (people are sick of labels) if clarity weren’t such an obvious political advantage. Simple ideology routinely trounces nuanced pragmatism, just as emotion so often beats reason and the varsity fullback will most likely deck the captain of the debate team in a fistfight. For four decades, conservatives have used the word “liberal” as an epithet, while liberals have used “conservative” defensively (“I’m a little conservative on . . .”). And Fox fans range out of factual bounds (“death panels”) more than their NPR-­listening counterparts in the liberal “­reality-based community” (a term attributed to a Bush White House aide by the author Ron Suskind).

Liberals are also at a disadvantage because politics, at its essence, is about self-interest, an idea that at first glance seems more closely aligned with conservatism. To make their more complex case, liberals must convince a nation of individualists that enlightened self-interest requires mutual interest, and that the liberal project is better constructed for the demands of an increasingly interdependent world.

That challenge is made even harder because of a tactical split within liberalism itself. Think of it as a distinction between “action liberals” and “movement liberals.” Action liberals are policy-oriented pragmatists who use their heads to get something important done, even if their arid deal-making and Big Money connections often turn off the base. Movement liberals can sometimes specialize in logical arguments (e.g., Garry Wills), but they are more often dreamy idealists whose hearts and moral imagination can power the deepest social change (notably the women’s movement and the civil rights movement). They frequently over­indulge in fine whines, appear naïve about political realities and prefer emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change. Many Democrats are an uneasy combination of realpolitik and “gesture politics,” which makes for a complicated approach toward governing.

As Senator Al Franken says of the Republicans: “Their bumper sticker . . . it’s one word: ‘No.’ . . . Our bumper sticker has — it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper ­sticker.’ ”

Action liberalism has its modern roots in empiricism and the scientific method. Adam Smith was the original liberal. While “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) has long been the bible of laissez-faire conservatism, Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), pioneered liberal ideas of social and moral inter­dependence. By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln’s support for large-scale government spending on infrastructure and appeals to “the better angels of our nature” would qualify him as a liberal. In the 20th century, progressives cleaned up and expanded government, trust-busted on behalf of what came to be known as “the public interest,” and experimented with different practical and heavily compromised ways of addressing the Great Depression.

The quintessential example of the pragmatic core of liberalism came in 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that “Dr. New Deal” had become “Dr. Win the War.” Roosevelt believed that the ends of liberalism — advancing democracy, expanding participation, protecting the environment and consumers (first promoted by a progressive Republican, Theodore Roosevelt), securing the vulnerable — were fixed, but that the timing and means of achieving them were highly negotiable, a distinction that often eludes modern liberals.

Whatever F.D.R.’s advantages over President Obama in communicating with the public, they share an unsentimental emphasis on what’s possible and what works. Both men, for instance, rejected the urgent pleas of some liberals to nationalize the banks and tacked toward their goals rather than standing ostentatiously on principle. Roosevelt was criticized by New Deal liberals in 1935 for allowing Congress to water down the Social Security bill before passage. Sound familiar?

Many movement liberals consider such concessions to be a sellout, just as they thought President Bill Clinton sold out by signing welfare reform in 1996. It’s important to criticize parts of Obama’s performance where merited — he didn’t use his leverage over banks when he had it — but some liberal writers have gone further, savaging his motives and integrity. Roger D. Hodge’s book is called THE MENDACITY OF HOPE: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism ­(Harper/HarperCollins, $25.99), as if Obama’s corporate fund-raising and failure to live up to the unrealistic expectations of purist liberals made him and his team puppets and liars. Hodge says the fact that Obama is “in most respects better” than George W. Bush or Sarah Palin is “completely beside the point.” Really? Since when did the tenets of liberalism demand that politics no longer be viewed as the art of the ­possible?

Hodge, formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, makes valid arguments about the failure of Democrats to undertake the essential liberal function of checking the excesses of capitalism. But the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson are closer to the mark in their important new book, WINNER-TAKE-ALL POLITICS: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (Simon & Schuster, $27). Without rationalizing specific policy choices, they describe the “paradox” Obama confronted on taking office when the country faced a genuine risk of another depression: “how to heal a fragile economy without simply reasserting the dominance of the forces that had brought that economy to the brink of ruin.” It’s the healing part — preventing another depression — that voters often forget in their understandable rage over bailouts, almost all of which, by the way, have already been paid back.

In making the broader case that the rich have essentially bought the country, Hacker and Pierson zero in on two killer statistics. Over the last three decades, the top 1 percent of the country has received 36 percent of all the gains in household incomes; 1 percent got more than a third of the upside. And the top one-tenth of 1 percent acquired much more of the nation’s increased wealth during those years than the bottom 60 percent did. That’s roughly 300,000 super-rich people with a bigger slice of the pie than 180 million Americans. The collapse of the American middle class and the huge transfer of wealth to the already wealthy is the biggest domestic ­story of our time and a proper focus of liberal energy.

Arianna Huffington wasn’t exaggerating when she entitled her latest book THIRD WORLD AMERICA: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream (Crown, $23.99). Poverty in the United States isn’t as bad as in the third world, but the disparity between rich and poor is far beyond that of other highly developed nations. While Huffington’s muscular tone fits the mood of today’s liberals, she insists on pivoting to the positive. After excoriating politicians, she cites innovative nonprofits that can help liberals feel less helpless.

The good news reported by Hacker and Pierson is that American wealth disparities — almost exactly as wide as in 1928 — are not the residue of globalization or technology or anything else beyond our control. There’s nothing inevitable about them. They’re the result of politics and policies, which tilted toward the rich beginning in the 1970s and can, with enough effort, be tilted back over time (emphasis added for impatient liberals). The primary authors of the shocking transfer of wealth are Republicans, whose claims to be operating from principle now lie in tatters. It doesn’t take feats of scholarship to prove that simultaneously supporting balanced budgets, status quo entitlement and defense spending, and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (the Republicans’ new plan) is mathematically impossible and intellectually bankrupt.

But of course Democrats, caught up for years in the wonders of the market, are complicit in the winner-take-all ethos. President Clinton and his Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin played to the bond market, and many of their protégés later came to dominate the Obama administration. Hacker and Pierson call Rahm Emanuel types “Mark Hanna Democrats,” a reference to William McKinley’s campaign manager, who said: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Action liberals can explain that they opposed the ruinous 2001 Bush tax cuts and that their prodigious fund-raising is necessary to stay competitive, but large segments of their base are no longer buying it. They want a more bare-knuckle attack on Wall Street than Obama has so far offered.

But now the president is getting hit from both sides. In FORTUNES OF CHANGE: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (Wiley, $25.90), David Callahan points out that Obama raised more than John McCain in 8 of the 10 wealthiest ZIP codes in the United States. Callahan, the author of “The Cheating Culture,” notes that Hollywood money proves that rich donors don’t always push the parties to the right. It can also push the Democrats left on issues like the environment and gay rights. And yet in the months since he finished his book, many wealthy Obama supporters have grown disenchanted with what they see as the president’s “anti-business” language (he attacked “fat-cat bankers”). This was inevitable. “A benign plutocracy is still a plutocracy,” Callahan concludes. He quotes Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That’s as relevant today to liberal thinking as it was when Brandeis said it, decades ago.

On social issues, liberals have mostly won, with the public backing them on abortion, gay rights and other live-and-let-live ideas. That doesn’t necessarily make liberals more libertine (in fact, divorce rates are higher in red states than in blue). But it floats them closer to history’s tide. The great hope for the future of liberalism lies in the changing demographics of the country. With younger voters and Hispanics moving sharply into the Democratic column, Republicans are in danger of being marginalized as an old, white, regional party. The Tea Party energy might be seen in retrospect as the last gasp of the “Ozzie and Harriet” order, with Obama as the scary face of a different-looking America. (Why else did Tea Partiers not seem to care over the last decade about President Bush’s profligate spending?) For now, of course, it’s conservatives who have the mojo, and not just because the economy is so bad. Despite historic advances in 2008, liberals remain better at complaining than organizing, which is a big reason they may take a shellacking in November.

A couple of new books recall the story about the civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who was visiting F.D.R. to push for a policy. “Make me do it,” the president is said to have replied. Roosevelt meant that his visitors should go out and organize and demonstrate, not just expect him to wave a magic wand. Liberals have a tendency to think that when the “right” person wins, order has been restored. The idea of permanent trench warfare between liberals and conservatives is an abstraction to them rather than a call to arms. One reason health care reform stalled in the summer of 2009 was that Tea Party forces turned up en masse at town meetings in swing districts while liberals stayed home, convinced that after electing Obama they were free to go on Miller Time.

The enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a bad experience for certain movement liberals. If conservatives were mindless in describing as “socialism” what was essentially a plan pioneered by Bob Dole, ­Howard Baker and Mitt Romney, liberals seemed strangely incapable of taking yes for an answer after more than 70 years of trying to expand coverage. They were right about the value of a public option, but wrong to attack Obama for not obtaining it when the votes were never there in the Senate. Many Democrats were ignorant of all the good things in the legislation (partly the fault of White House mistakes in framing the message) and politically suicidal in echoing Howard Dean’s infamous cry of “Kill the bill!” By the end of the process, voters were revolted by the notorious “Cornhusker kickback” and other smelly deals. If making laws is akin to making sausage (you don’t really want to know what goes into it), the stench from Capitol Hill spoiled everyone’s appetite for the liberal meal.

But somewhere Ted Kennedy is smiling. To the list of revealing Kennedy books, add Burton Hersh’s EDWARD KENNEDY: An Intimate Biography (Counterpoint, $32). Hersh, a Harvard classmate of the future senator, ignores much of his Senate career but makes good use of sources going back six decades to paint a personal portrait. While Hersh’s uncontrolled freight-train prose is loaded with often extraneous details, he nonetheless brings many of the old stories alive again. Kennedy was both the heart and the tactical brains of late-20th-­century liberalism, which won many small victories even as it fell out of fashion. Had he been vital in 2009 and able to work his charm across the aisle, senators in both parties agree, the health care debate would have been healthier.

In GETTING IT DONE: How Obama and Congress Finally Broke the Stalemate to Make Way for Health Care Reform (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $25.99), Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, strips the color from that story in order to maintain his Washington relationships. But Daschle, forced by a tax problem to step down as Obama’s health care czar, has written, with David Nather, an exceptionally clear account of an exceptionally tangled piece of recent history. He’s especially good on why the credibility of Democrats depends on how skillfully they implement the bill over the next 10 years. Left unsaid is that Democrats in 2012 will face not just hostile Republicans favoring repeal but also cost controls on Medicare that will encourage conservatives to resume their pandering to the elderly, an approach long taken by liberals to retain power. Beyond the specifics of the bill, Daschle is obviously right that “health care has become a symbol of the deep divide in Americans’ feelings about the role government should play.”

In his Inaugural Address, Obama tried to define his view of that role when he said, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” This is a sensible definition of modern liberalism but also a bloodless and incomplete one, evoking Michael Dukakis’s claim that the 1988 presidential election was about “competence, not ideology.” That definitional dispute had first flared four years earlier, when Gary Hart mounted a stiff challenge to Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination. Both have new books out.

Hart’s eccentric contribution, THE THUNDER AND THE SUNSHINE: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life (Fulcrum, $25), will remind readers why he and the presidency would have been an awkward fit. His bitterness over the sex scandal that ended his political career in 1987 hasn’t fully ebbed. As always, he tries to aim higher: Condoleezza Rice is in the index, but Donna Rice isn’t.

The book contains a sustained and ponderous “Odyssey” metaphor, with one chapter opening, “As he rises from his stony perch above the harbor, Ulysses tells his mariners that he is prepared to sail beyond the sunset.” Hart began his career as a 1960s movement liberal, a seeker and intellectual (he received a doctorate from Oxford in 2001, at the age of 64) with Homeric aspirations. He ruminates well about some of the essential differences between the American political creeds. Conservatives, by nature more skeptical, “accept that life is just one damn thing after another, that we are on our own, and it is up to us to make the most of it. But for those with a sense of commonwealth and common good, the shattering of dreams and hopes is always viewed more ­tragically.”

True enough, but it raises the question of why attaching emotion to politics makes conservatives stronger but often weakens liberals. In the years since Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, something soft has wormed its way into the heart of liberalism, a diffidence about the cut-and-thrust of politics. Carville-style fisticuffs are satisfying, but have not yet made it a fighting faith again.

Mondale’s memoir, THE GOOD FIGHT: A Life in Liberal Politics (Scribner, $28), written with David Hage, is, not surprisingly, more conventional than Hart’s, but he comes to terms more squarely with the limits of liberalism. Looking back at his early days in the Senate in 1965, at the peak of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — what he calls the “high tide” of liberalism — Mondale says: “A lot of it was wonderful, overdue and much needed. But we also overstated what was possible.” He recalls the years in the wilderness, when “I wanted to talk about poverty and opportunity, but people wondered why I wanted to give away things for free.” Even in feeling vindicated by Obama’s election, he admits that “liberalism is still on trial.”

Especially when it comes to education. It’s encouraging that even a paleo­liberal like Mondale now believes that “we should weed out teachers who are unsuited to the profession” and that teachers’ union rules “must have flexibility.” There’s a great struggle under way today within the Democratic Party between Obama and the reformers on one side and, on the other, hidebound adult interest groups (especially the National Education Association) that have until recently dominated the party. If liberalism is about practical problem solving, then establishing the high standards and accountability necessary to rescue a generation of poor minority youths and train the American work force of the future must move to the top of the progressive agenda. Education reform is emerging as the first important social movement of the 21st century, a perfect cause for a new generation of ­idealists.

Where education might offer grounds for cooperation with conservatives, foreign policy almost certainly will not. After a long period of favoring interventionism to fight fascism and Communism, liberals have been doves since Vietnam, even in a post-9/11 world. If Democrats retain control of the House, they will pressure Obama hard next year to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan as promised. Chalmers Johnson, a noted scholar of Japan, has in recent years made a point of explaining how the Afghan freedom fighters the C.I.A. supported in the 1980s, when they were fighting the Soviet Union, are now the Taliban and Qaeda forces trying to kill Americans. In DISMANTLING THE EMPIRE: America’s Last Best Hope (Metropolitan/Holt, $25), he argues for a complete reordering of the national security state to save not just lives but treasure. While Obama won’t go as far as Johnson urges, a big tussle between the White House and the Pentagon is likely next year, when we’ll learn if neoconservatives can once again convince the country that liberals are “unpatriotic.”

The answer to that question — and to the immediate fate of liberal ideas — depends largely on the performance of one man, the president. Jeffrey C. Alexander’s intriguing argument in THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICS: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power (Oxford University, $29.95), a meticulous review of the 2008 campaign, is that his fellow sociologists have over­emphasized impersonal social forces at the expense of the theater of public life — the way politicians perform “symbolically.” It’s a prosaic call for a more poetic (or at least aesthetic) understanding of politics. Ideology must connect viscerally, or it doesn’t connect at all. Liberalism, like any idea or product, can succeed only if it sells.–

*Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Newsweek and an analyst for MSNBC, is the author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope” and, most recently, “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”