It’s a conspiracy! In a stunning display of harmonic convergence, the right and the left have hit on the cause of the persistent malaise that afflicts the economy: a sinister plot to destroy the country, for selfish and partisan gain. That these plots exist is the fervent belief of the most intense partisans, who believe their opposite numbers are not only wrong, but know they are wrong, and forge ahead anyhow, indifferent to consequence. But what do they know, and how do they know it? Let us look deeper and see.
The theme on the left—that Republicans in Congress are voting against things they know will revive the economy—came to the fore a year ago, when it began to be clear that “recovery summer” would in fact mark a relapse, and that the 2010 midterms were coming up fast. On June 23, 2010, the Huffington Post reported, Democrats in the Senate failed to pass “a bill to help the poor, the old, and the jobless, despite making a series of cuts to the measure . . . to appease deficit hawks.” This rang a bell in the minds of some bloggers, who put two and two together and reached twenty-four. “It may be time for a discussion about whether GOP lawmakers are trying to deliberately sabotage the economy to help their midterm election strategy,” wrote the Washington -Monthly’s Steve Benen, who noted the fact that in some other context some Republicans had voted for similar cutbacks before. The plan was to prolong the recession and wait for the voters to take out their rage on the innocent president. “If conditions do worsen, many, many, many more Americans will blame Barack Obama for the bad state of things than will blame the Senate minority,” said Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias. “The intersection of a minority that’s empowered to obstruct and an electorate that holds the majority responsible for policy outcomes is toxic.”
This theme died down until after the Democrats’ thundering loss in the 2010 midterms, when it quite quickly sprang back to life. This time there were warnings that the mischief on view before the election was nothing compared to what we should expect to encounter as the 2012 season drew nigh. “I know that tangible improvements in the economy are key to Obama’s reelection chances,” said Yglesias. “Is it so unreasonable to think that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may also know that it’s key? . . . McConnell has clarified that his key goal is to cause Barack Obama to lose in 2012, which . . . means doing everything in his power to reduce economic growth.” And the Republicans wouldn’t stop there. “National security experts are tearing their hair out over the decision of Senate Republicans to block a desperately needed new strategic arms treaty,” Paul Krugman lamented. “If sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.”
“None dare call it sabotage,” Benen wrote on November 20, a strange comment as he himself had called it that a mere five months earlier. Apparently, the Republicans’ schemes had progressed from merely hoping conditions wouldn’t improve to making sure that they didn’t; from “rooting for failure” to more intense methods. “A major, powerful political party is making a conscious decision about sabotage,” he informed us. Why wasn’t the whole nation enraged?
Perhaps because the following month the Republicans cut a huge tax deal with the president that made him look good and bolstered his approval numbers for a time, edging them back to a tick over 50. The stirrings died down. Then the president’s numbers fell back, there was a new summer, again without a recovery, and suspicions revived. Where there was bad news, there had to be mischief and subterfuge. “Republicans . . . are opposing the economic recovery itself and all that means for America’s working- and middle-class families,” said Senator Charles Schumer. “There’s a lot to recommend what they’re saying,” mused MSNBC’s Jonathan Alter. “The evidence supports it.” What evidence? That may be what they thought they were seeing. But did what they said they were seeing actually exist?
Lest you think liberals are the only ones with a rich fantasy life, banish the thought from your mind. The right has its own set of theories in mind. Two months before the 2008 election, James Simpson warned in the American Thinker that Obama, should he be elected (following a plan laid down in 1966 by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven), would collapse the capitalist system on purpose to build a social state in its place—a theory that has since found many echoes on the right.
“The Democratic party is purposely sabotaging the private sector of this economy,” Rush Limbaugh told his 20-million-plus radio audience. “It’s on purpose. All of this economic destruction is on purpose. . . . They are purposely targeting the private sector—sabotaging it, if you will.” Jeannie DeAngelis in the American Thinker agrees: “Barack Obama has spent the last 1,000+ days defying reason and choosing policy directions that seem nonsensical. . . . Could it be that [he] is purposely pressuring the system in a pre-meditated effort to foster a . . . crisis? One that would demand extraordinary measures to control?”
Thus we now have two different efforts at sabotage; each undertaken with malice aforethought, and each hoping, at least in the short term, to bring the country’s economy down. But oddly enough, the Democrats seem to believe the Republicans are undermining the president’s efforts to enact his own policies because they fear his ideas would help the economy; while the Republicans think Obama himself is enacting policies he has purposely set up to fail. This means that each side believes that the other accepts its ideas of which policies are better, a sure sign of projection and fantasy. But if both sides agree on what helps the economy, then why are there two parties and numerous arguments? This is something that neither explains.
And neither explains how they know there is malice, not merely mistaken ideas. Mistaken ideas are often adopted in earnest. Some members of the America First movement before World War II were active seditionists, but most underestimated Hitler’s ambitions, recalled World War I and did not want to relive it, and thought that if we left it to its own devices, the world would not bother us. Joseph P. Kennedy feared the loss of his children. Norman Thomas distrusted colonial powers. Charles A. Lindbergh tried to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor (he was stopped by a vindictive Franklin D. Roosevelt) and spent the rest of the war serving his country. Young members of America First campus chapters, such as Gerald R. Ford and R. Sargent Shriver, surely intended their country no harm.
A closer call was the behavior of Democrats in 2007‑08, when they did their best to kill the surge in Iraq before it got started, which would have had dire consequences for the United States, the Middle East, and the world. “This war is lost,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said in June 2007, not sounding unhappy. But perhaps they believed that the war had been lost, and that this latest attempt was merely prolonging the agony—and risking, and losing, additional lives. When the GOP sabotage theme emerged in June 2010, the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait suggested, contrary to his fellow liberal bloggers, that “Republicans probably weren’t engaged in conscious economic sabotage” but “allowed themselves to change their mind in a way that dovetailed with their political interest.” On the other hand, he linked to a rationale for conscious sedition that blogger Jonathan Zasloff had posited: “If you’re a right-wing Republican nutcase—which is to say, you are a Republican—then you think that Democratic policies are very, very bad for the country. . . . So of course you want to ‘sabotage’ any economic recovery . . . because you believe that any temporary improvement will pale in comparison to the medium- and long-term damage that Democratic policies will cause.”
But if you were a Republican nutcase who believed Obama had tanked the economy all by himself with the stimulus, health care, and deficit spending, and you wanted the economy to stay tanked through November 2012, would you oppose all of his plans for more stimuli, health care, and deficit spending? Wouldn’t you back those policies, and urge cap and trade in the bargain? More spending, more light rail, and more regulations! Now that would be sabotage! Full steam ahead!
And if you were Obama, or a liberal nutcase, and you wanted to turn the United States into a social democracy, would you start by trying to trash the economy, on the dubious chance that voters would let you hang around long enough to get a chance at redesigning what they already knew you’d destroyed? Or would you try to build programs you imagined would work, that would make people’s lives better, that would lead them to trust you, and to ask for more?
Obama no doubt believed that the stimulus would hold down unemployment, that people would come to love his health care policies, and that he’d be cruising to reelection on the crest of these measures, instead of hoping that people forget all about them and changing the subject to anything else. Ours is a system that does not reward failure. It has tools known as the “midterm elections” and the “two-party system” built in as brakes on unpopular programs, not to mention long-term and multi-year plans for creative destruction, which may work out in the minds of deranged academics but never take hold in a working democracy.
Sabotage fantasies may be seductive at moments, but sometimes the simplest answers are really the best ones, and things really are as they seem. Obama pushes big government policies because he believes they are good for the country, and Republicans fight him because they think otherwise. That, in a nutshell, is all there is to it. Finish of story. The end.
But this is seldom the end for numerous people who have the will and the need to believe the worst of their opponents. Some think their beliefs are so true and self-evident that principled and/or informed opposition to them is simply impossible, and that their opponents must be fools and/or villains. They also feel themselves under permanent siege, from the press, from the establishment, and most of all from the centrists in their parties, who work day and night to frustrate their efforts and keep them from the positions of permanent power they would be sure to have otherwise, and know and believe they deserve.
The result is a sense they are surrounded by enemies, whose guile and strength knows no bounds. “On both the left and the right, there’s a tendency to assume that the other side—particularly when it is running the government—is both really evil and really competent,” as Jonah Goldberg has said. Conservatives know Democrats are running the government, and liberals thought Republicans were running it even when they were outnumbered in both houses of Congress, making it easy for each to exaggerate the other’s capacities for evil. And liberals these days have an added incentive to fantasize: Not only are their theories enlightened and correct, but their president is the most intelligent man ever to serve in that office. Michael Beschloss has said so. Chris Matthews says Obama’s IQ is 160. If this president fails, the fault must lie elsewhere, and the blame must be anything but his.
It is better, however, not to plunge down this slope. As early as March 9, 2009, Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an article claiming that if “some hypothetical enemy state spent years preparing a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ to destroy the U.S. economy once elected,” this imagined Manchurian Candidate would do just what Obama had done. Point by point he went through the steps taken by the new president, explaining the adverse effects they were going to have on the economy. Yet he refused to say this was part of any devious plan. “It’s clear that President Obama wants the best for our country,” he wrote.
Two years later, he stands by his statement. “Though the recent acts of the National Labor Relations Board [in trying to stop Boeing from building a factory in South Carolina] do make me wonder,” he said.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.