Here’s a Little Molly Ivins to Perk You Up

I’m pretty confident that no matter when or how Donald Trump leaves the White House, he will one day be considered the worst president in American history. With that being said, I always find a bit of comfort in this quote from the late great Molly Ivins.

Things are not getting worse; things have always been this bad. Nothing is more consoling than the long perspective of history. It will perk you up no end to go back and read the works of progressives past. You will learn therein that things back then were also terrible, and what’s more, they were always getting worse. This is most inspiriting.

We don’t often put politics these days in the context of history. But I’d like to give you an example that demonstrates Molly’s point. Back in the late 1940s, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a book titled, The Vital Center. If it were published today, the title would lead people to assume it had been written by someone associated with the Third Way. But Schlesinger is the guy who vigorously worked on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, and Robert Kennedy. Here’s an overview of the book:

The Vital Center is an eloquent and incisive defense of liberal democracy against its rivals to the left and to the right, communism and fascism. Originally published in 1949, it shows how the failures of free society led to the disenchantment of the masses with democracy, and sharpened the appeal of totalitarian solutions. The book calls for a radical reconstruction of the democratic polity based on a realistic understanding of human limitations and frailties.

The “disenchantment of the masses with democracy” sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can clearly see the source of the fascist threat today. But the communist threat, as it appeared back in the late 1940s, is pretty much gone. A lot of people, like Sheri Berman, are suggesting, however, that “Democratic socialists are conquering the left.” Gallup weighed into that discussion, pointing to their poll suggesting that Democrats are more positive about socialism than capitalism.

Based on that kind of reporting, you might think that the whole frame being touted in the media recently about the tug of war going on between the Democratic Party and its left flank was something new. But it was obviously alive and well during the late 1940s. Schlesinger describes the leftists of his days as “doughfaces,” proving that previous generations of political discourse don’t tend to fit our mythical belief about a more civil past.

The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.

Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.

But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald’s phrase, to accomplish “in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality.” Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.

…The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts. Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.

Clearly, the differences among Democrats these days are nothing new. But no one on either side has called their opponents “Doughfaces”… at least not yet. That should, as Molly Ivins would say, “perk you up to no end.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.