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Bittersoft Liberalism

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Life is, undoubtedly, bittersweet. But not America. According to President Obama, America is bittersoft.

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In April 2008, candidate Obama told donors in San Francisco that small town Midwesterners “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Last Thursday, President Obama said in a TV interview, “The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades.”

So, according to Obama, Americans are both bitter and soft. We’re a bittersoft nation.

Obama’s analysis is, in a way, commendably bipartisan. Liberal commentators like to ascribe Middle America’s turn away from liberalism, and its embrace of conservatism, to bitterness over the frustrations of modernity. It’s conservatives, on the other hand, who have tended to worry that—what with mass democracy, the triumph of the therapeutic, the nanny state, and much else!—we’re going soft. So, in making these twin suggestions in 2008 and 2011, Obama the psycho-sociologist is transcending old ideological divisions.

Obama is right in this respect: Bitterness and softness, though seemingly at odds, can go together. Who hasn’t noticed that the soft are sometimes bitter—bitter perhaps at their own softness? And who hasn’t observed cases where the bitter are soft—too soft to act to remedy their ills, so they’re left only with a feeling of bitterness?

There are surely dissertations waiting to be written on the relationship of bitterness to softness in modern democratic capitalism. But the fact is, our political and civic life is surprisingly un-bitter and un-soft. We’ve had a massive failure of our financial and governmental elites in the last few years. We’re mired in a rough recession. Many of our big institutions—big government, big education, and big media—are manifestly decayed. All of this could have given rise to an overwhelming sense of bitterness. It hasn’t.

And God knows our politicians (Bill Clinton: “I feel your pain”; George W. Bush: compassionate conservatism) have tried to stroke the kinder and gentler sides of our natures. This could have given rise to a debilitating softness. It hasn’t.

The spirit of today’s conservatism in particular is forward-looking and hard-headed. The national debt is unsustainable, our government is broken, our elites are out of touch and self-interested, we’re afflicted with crony capitalism and myriad welfare state pathologies—but the dominant conservative reaction is that we need to get to work as self-governing citizens, in order to put ourselves back on the path to solvency, liberty, and greatness.

It’s liberalism that’s become, unfortunately, bitter and soft. It’s bitter about the American people’s resistance to doing what their liberal betters tell them to do. It’s soft in its understanding of the exigencies and limitations of the real world. Obama is wrong: It’s not America that’s bittersoft. It’s liberalism.

Conservatism teaches us to take the bitter with the sweet. Perhaps the bitter is even a precondition for the sweet. The experience of the Obama administration could prove, in the fullness of time, to have been a necessary step in the liberation of America from the grip, at once bitter and soft, of contemporary liberalism.

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