Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Barack Obama's Political Philosophy

In this month's New Republic (online), Bruce Bartlett writes that Obama is considered by many to be a closet conservative. Since I happen to have a friend who is connected to the Obama campaign and shares that view, I thought I would blog about it. The thesis is twofold. First, Obama professes to believe in very gradual change. As he was criticized for in his health care proposal, he is an incrementalist. The author suggests that, tempermentally, Obama believes rapid political and social changes are not possible. Hold onto that thought. Second, Obama does not share the Lefist/Rousseauian view that the elected leader should express and implement the popular will. Rather, Obama's inclination is to use big(ger) government where necesary to implement specific policy changes to produce specific outcomes.

I do not find the first point to be credible, but I think it's the lynchpin to a deeper insight. Obama surely does believe that major social and political change is possible. His own biography is such that he must believe it. However, I do not think Obama believes he is an agent of radical political and social changes, such as we saw in the mid 20th century (1950s and 1960s). Rather, I think he sees him role as cementing and perfecting those social and political changes. He's not a revolutionary. That, I would agree, is a conservative (small "c") view - but it is absolutely NOT a Burkean view, as Bartlett suggests.

This observation about Obama's non-radical agenda is echoed by pundits who ask on television, given all the excitement surrounding Obama, particularly from young people, what exactly does Obama promise them? What do they think he offers? Notably, it's not the liberalism of the 1960s, with its radical change and almost unattainable aspirations (be the change you want to see in the world...). Nor is it putting the Great Society agenda back on track, the populism and progressivism of the 1930s-1960s revisited, a philosophy that is Marxian in inspiration inasmuch as it is both materialist and classist.

I think young people in particular are drawn to Obama because he paints an image of a post-racial, post-conflict America that is at peace with itself and the world. It is the Quaker image of Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom.



This is not a Burkean or Hobbesian view because it is radically affirming of the goodness of human nature. It is more Lockean and Madisonian (sorry to use these name shorthands) in the clear belief that factionalism and unchecked power are the primary obstacles to progressing to the good society that Obama believes is possible. It is not Marxian, to be sure, beause Obama does not see class enemies as the obstacles to be overcome - indeed, his preferred policy position is always to put all stakeholders at the table.

Now this view can have a tinge of Messianism to it, and it is open (as was Edwards Hicks' painting) to the charges of naivete and over-simplicity. But it is, I think, profoundly resonant with the yearning for normalcy in a post-9/11 world. This philosophy is also not communitarian; it is compatible with a libertarian worldview. Indeed, there is an interesting affinity between Obama's worldview and libertarian visions of the good world without government. It's not a synonymy, but a resonance. By contrast, McCain is the one playing the role of Burke -- who says that progress and change are not possible, or, if possible, not desirable. McCain views war as a necessary evil; Obama views war as something we can learn to do without. McCain believes the philosophy that Bush acts out (but does not understand). This is, I believe, a profoundly philosophical election.

Any thoughts?

12 comments:

Dr. Strangelove said...

It is hard for me to put my finger on what Obama offers, so please bear with me as I was philosophical.

As I see it, Americans are starved for truth. Our leaders feed us a diet of spin and lies. The media babbles with such sound and fury that we cannot even hear ourselves. We are starved for someone who can give voice to the truth--for someone who can and will say publicly what everybody knows but we never seem to hear.

Young people especially hunger for this voice. The blogosphere is a creative upwelling, an attempt to build a substitute for this voice, but in many ways it remains scattered and listens only to itself. Talk radio promises to be the voice of the people, but provides only angry punditry. Sometimes it seems Jon Stewart is the only voice of reason left.

Obama seeks to be this voice we all are yearning to hear. He speaks firmly but without anger, in plain speech but without oversimplifying. For once, we have someone who does not speak with the familiar cadences of prevarication--the empty hair-splitting that is all we ever hear from official spokespeople and press secretaries.

What Obama offers in terms of change is not style over substance, though to some it may appear so: rather the style is very much part of the substance. He offers calm and inspirational rhetoric. He believes that words can change the world as much as actions, and his own candidacy is living proof of it.

I think the core of his message may be this: The system is not hopelessly corrupt--it is the people who run it who are corrupt. Yes, there is some rot that must be dealt with and some improvements we can make... But we don't have to tear it down and start all over again. The architecture of our economy and government is fundamentally sound. We just have to start making it work for us.

Raised By Republicans said...

Some thoughts:

"The author suggests that, tempermentally, Obama believes rapid political and social changes are not possible."

If by this one suggests that Obama doesn't think that radical policy changes are possible then Obama would be correct to believe that under most circumstances. However, if what happens in November is what I think will happen, the next two to four years could be one of those rare periods where pro-change forces control both houses of Congress and the Presidency to such an extent that even a filibuster is unlikely to succeed.

"It is not Marxian, to be sure, beause Obama does not see class enemies as the obstacles to be overcome - indeed, his preferred policy position is always to put all stakeholders at the table."

A famous (among political scientists) scholar named Arend Lijphart would describe this as "consociationalism." This is the term, Lijphart used to describe the way politics works in deeply divided societies that somehow remain stable. The typical countries for consociationalism are Belgium and Switzerland. In these countries, ethnic and ideological divisions make for a very fractured political landscape. The way things happen in these countries is by a kind of broad consensus. For example, in Belgium you would have representatives of French Socialists, Flemish Socialists, French Liberals, Flemish Liberals and/or French and Flemish Christian Demcorats all sit down and hash out what the new policies are going to be. It usually works although they've recently had a rather nasty fight over ethnic identity that only just recently calmed down.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Northern Ireland peace accord is based on consociational principles.

I believe that in some of his works, Lijphart has suggested that the seperation of powers in the US represents a variation of the consociationalist ideal.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Consociationalism, as I understand it, is predicated on the sort of deep division (ethnic, religious, etc.) that Obama would *not* posit as being a fundamental obstacle to the American political system. So I'm not sure it's the right label.

I agree, RBR, that an Obama presidency and a very Democratic Congress will enact serious policy changes. But there is little prospect of the sort of sweeping social and political changes of the mid-20th century, such as the establishment of modern liberal democracy, i.e., a system with minority rights and equal rights for women. There will be no radical change in the class organization of the country, although reforms in education and other areas can lead - gradually - to such changes in the future.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. I think you've summed up Obama rather nicely there. I've thought for a long time that the criticism that he doesn't offer any substance has been off the mark. He offers as many details on key policies as are common among his rivals and that are reasonable to offer given that the Presidency is a not a subtle instrument.

LTG. I think there are several deep divisions in our society right now. First there is a deep and politicized urban vs rural divide. Just look at any county by county map of the 2000 or 2004 elections to see what I mean. http://www.princeton.edu/~rvdb/JAVA/election2004/

Second, there is a growing generational divide that has significant economic consequences. The Baby Boomers are about turn into the "Gimme" Generation. They outnumber "Generation X" two to one. The Boomers' children the so called "Boomer Echo" or "Melenials" also outnumber "Generation X" two to one. US West has talked about how the Obama win represents in large part a generational change in leadership in the Democratic Party. And I think how we deal with things like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid will be driven in part by this generational fight over government resources and who pays the taxes to support them.

Finally, there is a growing division between religious reactionaries and bigotry and people - even some religous people - who want to keep a separation of Church and State. The whole Gay Marriage thing is a manifestation of this division. So is abortion and "intelligent design."

USWest said...

I think we are fragmented and fractured as a society. But I think that we have one huge thing going for us: We all feel frustrated because we all want to do something to make it better and we don't have an great organizer to help us direct our efforts. Having a former community organizer who knows how to motivate people, who normally wouldn't get along, to work together for the greater good is perfect.

When Obama says, "This is the time" he is making a deeply profound statement. He knows that we can't just "go shopping" and pretend that this will make it all better. He is inviting us to take back our government.

Huge changes are headed our way. They are already here. $4 gas is just the breeze before the category 5 hurricane that is coming. Policy makers of the future will not be agents of change but managers of change.

Obama will have to manage the power hand off from one generation to the next, global warming, economic interdependency, the rebuilding, our damaged military, and the reintegration of our damaged veterans; he will have to manage a potentially hyper Democratically controlled government eager to over-correct and undo the damage of the last 8 years. And that is just what we have to manage at home. Imagine what happens if Iran starts waving nukes around or if China decides to cash in its foreign reserves!

Obama will have to be ready to meet these changes and to manage them. To be frank, I think his charm, steady hand, and inspiration are going to be exactly what the doctor ordered during this time. More than anything, we will need leadership.

So this is the task at hand. And I think our little generation who has been the victim of so many broken promises, is ready and raring to go. I know I am. Let me at it. Call me to serve. Tell what needs to be done, and I am ready.

Bob said...

Very interesting insights here, from many quarters.

Regarding the "consociationalism" (horrible word) debate -- I know nothing about this other than what you just told me, but LTG's claim that Obama's not a consociationalist because he doesn't see deep social divisions as fundamental obstacles to American politics and RBR's claim that there are deep social divisions are ships passing in the night, not affecting each other at all.

However, I glom onto this piece of LTG's thesis: Obama sees factionalism as one of the primary obstacles to progress. So the problem is not the cultural division per se, but allowing the division to define us politically. This fits very nicely with his "We have gay friends in the red states, and we worship a mighty god in the blue states" message.

This seems like a somewhat more optimistic view, sort of a notion that our divisions are only as deep as we choose to let them be. But nevertheless it is at least a close relative of the consociationalist view (I swear, I'm never writing that word again), if I'm more or less right in thinking that that view is that some deep social rifts are unbridgable, but certain approaches allow government to function by accommodating these rifts.

Bob said...

I offer this claim: "young people are skeptical of the traditional political ideologies, and even more skeptical of ideological claims and arguments." Not only do I believe it, I believe it ties together many of the insights offered here, which I will shamelessly plagiarize forthwith.

Obama's not a radical, and therefore pundits seem confused as to what the young people see in him. But "young people" aren't hippies or beatniks or yuppies or neocons anymore -- they've seen (or heard about) those "isms" and have no desire to be the victim of still more broken promises. Most recently, they've seen huge deficits, violations of civil liberties, and an unprovoked war passed off as "conservative" and they ain't buyin' whatever the next snake oil guy is sellin'. (Or as Dr. S put it, they [and we] are starved for the truth.)

But Obama's not offering suspect promises -- he's offering "a voice for the truth." Young people (maybe us too?) want to get off the fruitless swinging pendulum and do indeed yearn for normalcy. The pundits have not realized (and some may not be able to) that this is the new radicalism.

Of course, there's a hidden ideology in what you think "normal" is. And in this sense Obama's vision (as articulated by LTG) of a "post-racial, post-conflict America at peace" is indeed pretty radical, and I think precisely in line with what "the young people" think of as the ideal "normal".

But it's not a particularly political ideology -- there isn't some broad ideal scheme for how we should get from here to there. Instead, there are plenty of "obvious" incremental steps toward that particular utopia. Elect a black president. Base diplomacy on something more than macho posturing. Get the heck out of Iraq. Stop torturing people.

It is perhaps sad that we have sunk so low that there's a long list of obvious problems (maybe a presidential term's worth) that can be fixed before you run out of low-hanging fruit and actually have to consult an overarching political perspective to guide your next move. But it does give us the rare opportunity to try the radical experiment of "rationality" for a while.

Or, alternatively, we could elect McCain.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I just don't see Belgium or Northern Ireland as reasonable models of issues in American politics. None of the divisions RBR points to are anywhere near as deep, fundamental, or intractable. So that's why I would reject a consociationalismistical thesis.

I'm glad we are all agreed that Obama is not a lefty radical in the 1960s sense. That's an important observation, because that straw man is exactly the target of GOP campaigns.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dude. I wasn't proposing the consociational approach. Lijphart did that. I was just pointing out that there are some obvious similarities between Obama's "everyone gets a seat at the table" approach and what Lijphart observed in Belgium.

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