It’s My Fault, It’s My Success

Why are liberals so unhappy?

In a March 9th oped in the New York Times, David Brooks tries to understand why studies show that liberals are much less happy than conservatives. He has three theories.

First, liberals tend to over-react, to see every bad thing as not just bad, but as the end of the world.

Second, liberal culture demands maximum denunciation of the other side. You are not allowed to see, much less say, anything good about Ron DeSantis, for example. Something like, “he’s not as bad as Donald Trump,” which, while a low bar, is true.

Third, liberals are over-sensitive. “This was the sense many people had that they were constantly being assaulted by offensive and unsafe speech, the concerns that led to safe spaces, trigger warnings, cancellations, etc.,” Brooks writes.

And finally, liberals lack a sense of agency. Brooks goes on: “But, as Jill Filipovic argued recently on her own Substack: “I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are ‘deeply problematic’ or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life” are “vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization.””

It’s this last point that resonates most for me. I started drifting away from the left twenty years ago — almost exactly. I can pretty much pin it down to the day, which was April 15, 2003, the day I took office as Mayor of Madison. The left was unreasonable, whiney, dissatisfied with everything. They just were insufferable people, impossible to work with and, most unforgivably, humorless — and I was one of them! I found that I did not want to be one of them.

My drift picked up speed in 2016. With the election of Donald Trump much of the left went hard-left. They totally freaked out. In contrast I became intensely practical. With American democracy itself now on the line, I became focussed on just winning elections. Any compromise was fine by me if it meant electing more Democrats. And, as a general rule, I believed and continue to believe, that means that Democrats must become more moderate.

Then the left moved even further away from me after the murder of George Floyd. Of course, I think that was horrendous, but I tend to believe that most cops are good people and that Floyd’s killer was an outlier. But the hard-left doubled down on the notion that everything is “systemic.”

I’m not much into the systemic stuff. I think people are mostly responsible for their own lot in life. Sure, we’re all dealt different hands. Nobody starts out even. But it still comes down to how we play the cards we’re dealt. Barack Obama grew up without a father, one of the biggest deficits any young man can have. And yet, he did okay.

But the hard-left mindset is to see all failure as the result of “oppression” and all success as the inevitable outcome of “privilege.” You can’t even enjoy your own accomplishments and you must feel guilty, as if you were personally responsible, for the failures of others. What an awful way to live.

Having a sense that you can do something to improve your existence is invigorating in itself, even if your efforts are less than successful. And, as for failure, I’ve had my share of that too, but I find it to be more healthy to focus on my own role in that, to think through what I did wrong, and to resolve not to repeat the mistakes.

From the outside, it appears to be a miserable existence being a hard-left liberal. Apparently, it really is miserable and it’s pretty clear why that is. Liberals have only themselves to blame.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “It’s My Fault, It’s My Success

  1. Well put, Dave. You write so well.

    Even though I headed TNC Wisconsin, I always felt that professional environmentalists also have an equal stake in never-ending revelations of new forms of impending doom.

    Environmental problems can and are being solved.


  2. When people talk about the environmental damage done by humans combined with us not being a “keystone” species, that leaves them wishing that we would stop propagating. Is there a worse recipe for angst?


  3. For once I skipped that Brooks column, but I read the Kristof column where he said that no one in the media ever really gave George W. Bush his due for confronting AIDS in Africa and saving more than 20 million lives.

    The thing I keep going back to is whether we value democracy, which is to say the notion that we have to humbly accept that we don’t truly know what is right but will follow the majority with protections embedded for those who dissent. There are unintended consequences to our best intentions. The importance is to bend and adapt, listen to each other, and let us as a people choose new paths after confronting the truth the best we can through public disclosure of the facts.

    In the 90s, Ralph Nader gained traction claiming that both Democrats and Republicans were basically aligned.

    But suddenly Bush was so bad that I frequently heard among my friends: “Anyone but Bush!”

    So, ok — how about Trump? Now it’s anyone but Trump right? Really, anyone?

    I keep thinking Trump is sort of like Holden Caulfield grown up some feared, but still holding onto all those qualities would sway a person to take a shot at Reagan, but disgust academics and keep editors from anthologizing.

    But come on, there are actually worse people and outcomes for America than Trump being president. We survived Trump. It’s over. Our country elected him president, though. Aren’t we due to respect that? Shouldn’t we listen? Or should we join those who never respected that, like those who never respected we elected President Obama?

    If you back away from the notion that politics is an identity or a religion, it’s not that hard to see what people are looking for and work for common solutions instead of some kind of stadium war.

    I tell my kids: you can vote, you can get involved in politics, but people throughout history have had to look at their lives and do what’s right, sometimes with grave danger and sacrifice. We are so lucky in America that so far no matter who was president or in control of congress, we could pretty much determine our destiny in a way where our government is not the most significant thing.

    Yeah, only if you’re a white cisgender male! you say. But I actually I didn’t see my transgendered friends endangered by federal law recently — more so by people on Twitter, I’d say, or people on their phones through one channel or another.

    Anyway, whatever, I’m cross faded. Tell me I’m full of crap. I won’t despair.

    If you’re a liberal, or a conservative, you might be part of the problem, maybe part of the solution, but I’d try to be kind first.


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