And this is only the liberal mood during Democratic presidencies.
For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace. (Except for Johnson, who was a bloodthirsty warmonger.)
Is it really likely that all these presidents have suffered from the same character flaws? Suppose you’re trying to find dates online, and everybody you meet turns out to be too ugly. Might it be possible that the problem isn’t the attractiveness of the single people in your town but rather your standards?
Of course, the mere fact that the same people make the same complaints all the time does not render all those complaints false. All presidents screw up at least some of the time, and some of them, like Carter, screw things up almost all the time. What’s more, constructive criticism serves a vital role in democracy, and even unreasonable criticism can helpfully push the boundaries of the possible. Yet none of this justifies or explains liberals’ constant depression.
Conservatives are an interesting counterexample. While they are certainly capable of expressing frustration with Republican presidents, conservative disappointment is neither as incessant nor as pervasively depressed as the liberal variety. Conservatives are at least as absolutist as liberals in the ideological demands they make upon their leaders, as evidenced by the willingness of large chunks of the base to commit electoral suicide by nominating the series of clowns and half-wits who have taken turns leading the polls alongside or even above Mitt Romney. At the same time, they are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man. Conservatives did turn against George H.W. Bush after he raised taxes. But they stuck loyally with his son well through his midterm election. They remained consistently loyal to Nixon and Reagan. They’ll circle the wagons around Romney, too—trust me.
Why? Because conservatives are not like liberals. They think differently.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian has a classic bit depicting the followers of “Brian,” a thinly disguised satire of Jesus, as left-wing activists. The movement contains bitterly feuding splinter groups with such names as the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee, and the Popular Front of Judea—the last consisting of one man—all of which hate each other more than the Romans.
The joke was that left-wing politics has always taken the same form: that lefties in Palestine 2,000 years ago would act pretty much like their counterparts in seventies Britain. Political psychologists have found for decades that the joke is pretty much true. Conservatives, compared with liberals, have higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority and prefer order over chaos and continuity over change. They are more likely than liberals to agree with statements like “It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself.” (Interestingly, libertarians tend to resemble liberals on these measures, which may explain why libertarian politics also so frequently resemble a Life of Brian–esque farce.)
The 1968 Democratic convention—“which consisted of spokespersons for about 253 major ideological factions giving each other the finger through clouds of tear gas,” as Dave Barry put it—is the sort of scene that could not occur within the Republican Party. Or consider the contrast in style between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. These two movements, allegedly mirror images of each other, perfectly display the differences between the right and the left. The Occupy activists abhor anything that would force any member to subsume his or her individual autonomy to the greater good. Did the drum circles drive everybody else to distraction? Too bad—you can’t tell the drummers what to do, man. There are no leaders, no organized speakers, no attempts at organizing anything except addressing the protesters’ elemental need for food and shelter. The tea party was mostly able to suppress the racist signs that popped up in the early stages of the movement. Occupy Wall Street has been unable to silence a handful of anti-Semites because it can’t silence anybody.
Democratic Party politics, obviously, do not have the anarchist style on display at Zuccotti Park for almost two months. But liberals’ chronic discontent with their leaders is a fainter version of the same impulses. It is not just that conservatives are more prone than liberals to band together behind a leader in the face of external threat. Liberal politics has a concern with process that is largely absent from conservative politics. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor, defines the contrasting moral styles of right and left like so: Conservatives excel at competition between groups—your team, your nation, your tribe—while liberals care more about fairness within a group.