Over the last week, pundits and journalists alike have declared that the showdown between Obama and The Left has begun. As the FT's Edward Luce announces: "The liberal backlash against President Barack Obama has begun with many prominent left-leaning economists in the US attacking the administration's plans to bail out the banks." Indeed, Paul Krugman, Arriana Huffington, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Rachel Maddow, and Michael Moore have indeed criticized last week's announcements on the new bank bailout and Afghanistan.
Yet, a crack up of the Democratic coalition or fracturing of the progressive movement it is not. And that's what counts.
American politics is the business of building coalitions. These coalitions bring together money, messaging, expertise and votes in the form of organizations -- be they churches, unions, or lobbies. Individual defectors are only important to the extent that they can bring some organizational capacity with them. David Frum's new blog has not lead to the collapse of the conservative movement. But, if the Heritage foundation endorses gay marriage, regulation and tax-hikes, then they've got a problem.
The crux of the Obama vs. The Left claim are the criticisms by leftist economists of Geithner's budget proposals. Such critiques were inevitable: the leftist intelligentsia has never had the same relationship with governing Democrats as the conservative intellectuals have had with Republicans. There are historical and structural reasons for why this is so.
Historically, conservative intellectuals have been entrepreneurs who were instrumental in building the conservative counter-establishment from its early beginnings in the 1950s to the massive expansion of the New Right in the 1970s. They were deeply entwined with practical concerns of founding organizations, raising money, mobilizing voters for an insurgent Republican Party far beyond their intellectual duties of criticizing the Liberal Establishment and proposing a conservative policy agenda.
In contrast, liberal intellectuals have sat on the sidelines waiting to be asked their opinion, to volunteer a policy opinion or take a cabinet post (which they habitually resigned from soon thereafter). The organizations of the Democratic coalition came from the grassroots, be they blacks or feminists, unionists or environmentalists, who successfully controlled the party from the 1960s through to the early 1990s, only to be partially eclipsed by a resurgent centrist, southern Democrats and corporate lobbies.
They have played these different roles for structural reasons. Conservative intellectuals were initially excluded from academia, the press and even the Republican Party, forcing them to create their organizations with which to publish and promote their ideas. The financial backing of such endeavors has done and continues to come from donors who lend their support on the basis of the implementation of those ideas as government policy. This has tied conservative intellectuals to the practical concerns of governance and the electoral success of the Republican Party.
The discontented liberal intellectuals, on the other hand, reside exclusively in academic institutions with tenured appointments. Their payroll is not tied to Democratic interest groups nor is their status evaluated by the pragmatic implementation of their policies (although they may be very practical policies nevertheless). This gives them a freedom to articulate their discomfort as they please without fear of the retribution their conservatives counterparts encounter for the same offense.
Newsweek's Evan Thomas, description of the "Nobel headache" is more accurate. The liberal intellectuals can make a noise and generally be a pain to Democrats, but they've never been an intrinsic part of their coalitions nor do they command or coordinate important political resources as their conservative counterparts have done.
Major threats to the Democratic coalition lie ahead. Card-check will be the first test of the coalition as it is proposed by its most important partner: labor. The fissures are unlikely to emerge until after the 100 days, the breathing room interest groups have given the administration to get to grips with the economy. After that, patience will be thin and expectations will be high. Then will begin the true test of whether Obama can hold together a coalition that few Democratic presidents have been able to before him.