It turns out, in other words, that liberals aren’t just matter-of-fact or wishy-washy. They are invested in the tail-chasing politics of procedural compromise, vague and terminally uninspiring as it may be. It’s a source of identity for them. The problem isn’t just that no one has offered up anything better; it’s that liberals are really fans of the stuff. For them, the specter of elite compromise is what’s inspiring about politics—and reformist calls for social justice and diminished inequality are dangerous anathema to all that is grown-up, slow-moving, and wonky. They’re proud of their appeals to civility and an imagined time when politicians put aside their differences to really get things (like wars) done.
In this view, liberalism isn’t flawed; it’s honest about what’s possible and therefore at once more human, more trustworthy, and more intrinsically American. At a minimum, this amounts to a fatalistic devotion to policing the outer limits of acceptable principle. Liberal leaders at the national level resemble nothing so much as private school headmasters: a fitting simile, given the party’s hostility to public education and teachers’ strikes—smiting down unruly outbursts in their young charges as a symbolic reaffirmation of their justly won authority.