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There Has to Be Room for Dissent Among Obama Supporters

There’s a true story in my husband’s family passed along to teach everyone a valuable lesson. His grandfather was an eccentric man who loved to gamble, his game of choice being poker. One day, he placed an outlandish bet. He put up his house.  As it happens, his bluff was called, and he lost his house. But it didn’t really matter if he had won. He put something on the table that didn’t belong in the game. It’s not like a partial cut to Social Security proposed by the President is the equivalent to giving up your entire home. However, the moral of the story is that like the house, even if you’re holding an excellent hand, some things don’t belong in the game, because the stakes are too high. Everyone has their sacred cows, and for many who have watched Republicans throughout their entire lives try to find some foothold into dismantling Social Security, creating a precedent where this program could be cut was one of them.

We have yet to see what will happen in the fiscal negotiations, but in the meantime, there are strained relationships among liberals outside the beltway. Some have seen fit to name call, label, and denigrate anyone who disagrees with the President. In a strong democracy, reasonable criticisms of the President or other elected officials have to be considered healthy and necessary, without stigma and condemnation raining down on those who make them.

There are at least two ways to criticize a President. One way I will call bagging based on the language that’s already been popularized. Bagging can be defined as relentless criticism of elected officials with a simultaneous inability to recognize any of their positive contributions. Teabaggers, right wing radicals, do it when they endlessly rag on the President for things he’s never done and will never do, like institute socialism or take away everyone’s guns. Firebaggers, left wing extremists, do it when they fail to give the President credit for any of his accomplishments while criticizing his every move. Neither of these groups has to use any critical thinking when they consider the President’s positions or his track record. There’s nothing he can do to please them.

But there is another way to critique the President, and yes, even hold him accountable, and that is to selectively call him out on particular issues of concern and disagreement. Many liberals agree, by and large, with the bulk of the President’s agenda, or at least support his stance on many issues. They approve of his excellent leadership on gay rights. They like who he has selected for the Supreme Court. They see the Affordable Care Act as the first monumental step toward one day having true universal healthcare, and appreciate dozens of the provisions within it. They are thrilled he saved the auto industry. They are eager to see his new fuel efficiency standards go into effect. The list goes on and on.

These people are quite capable of holding a positive, supportive opinion of their President, while also recognizing that they do not agree with him on several other issues. For example, the President’s decision to go after medical marijuana dispensaries more aggressively than even George Bush did. His decision to appoint Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, when Mr. Duncan is a known supporter of dubiously successful, union-busting charter schools. And yes, his decision to put Social Security on the table in the fiscal talks. This doesn’t make these (numerous) individuals into baggers and it doesn’t mean they are just bagging. They are a necessary part of the American Left, defending social programs that are already meager in comparison to all other Western democracies.

However, supporters of the President’s proposal to cut Social Security by $150 billion over the next 10 years became relentless in their attacks on people who disagree with him on this issue. There were snide and condescending remarks about a failure to really understand the President or his genius. You had to support the idea of chained-CPI or you were betraying the President. There was never even any consideration given that maybe the President wanted the public to cry out over the prospect of cuts to Social Security so he could go back to the Republicans and say, “See, 62%, a wide majority, of the People don’t want this.”

Like some kind of club which had retracted its membership, critics of the proposal were no longer considered supporters of the President if they disagreed with him on this issue, but instead became mentally challenged EmoProgs, the Professional Left, or Firebaggers. Humorously, this group apparently included a coalition so diverse even the Veterans of Foreign Wars became EmoProgs. The disparaging names flew across the Internet from Twitter to Facebook to liberal blogs. Inevitably, it drew equally reproachful responses.

What is interesting is that this behavior of creating an out-group and attacking it is actually associated most often with some of the characteristics of authoritarian followers. Many people believe that authoritarian tendencies can only be seen in the right wing, but numerous scholars have demonstrated that authoritarianism in the left wing occurs. Altemeyer has studied and written about authoritarian followers and found that they have several characteristics which can be seen displayed in the efforts to squelch the dissenters on Social Security cuts (.pdf). First, they follow their leader or authority without question. What became clear over the last few weeks was that absolutely no criticisms whatsoever of this President were allowed. You simply couldn’t be a supporter and disagree with him on anything, or you risked the out-group labeling and ostracizing. Second, they are highly self-righteous. They are the only true supporters, and everyone else is a fair weather fan. Finally, they exercise double standards. At one point in time, you are told that bipartisanship and moderation is ideal, necessary, and anti-dogmatic. So, if you point out that the supporters of their viewpoint are actually well-known, dogmatic conservatives such as Erskine Bowles or Ed Rendell of the corporate-laden Fix the Debt ilk, who are anything but moderate, they attack. If you then point to critiques of the Social Security plan by a well-known moderate, Robert Reich, who has by turns supported the President most of the time, and been critical only occasionally, he is a Third Way Democrat. We can’t listen to Third Way Democrats because they’re too moderate? Too conservative? Too bipartisan? Huh?

It is never pleasant to disagree with a leader from your side of the political aisle. You want to feel like they represent you, and definitely as though they are keeping promises. It is equally unpleasant to do battle with other liberals who believe the only democracy is a partisan democracy. Because as much as they are lecturing, chiding, and belittling the nonconformists about how they should be compromising and bipartisan, what they are actually saying is that there should be no dissent, you should follow the party line, and nothing but 100% agreement with the party’s leader is tolerated. There are even times when less vocal dissent of the President is appropriate like leading up to an election, but when there isn’t one in sight?  How about next time something divisive comes up, liberals accept that there are differences of opinions among Obama supporters, and not resort to infantilizing, dismissive and ostracizing tactics?

Deborah Foster

Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.

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