Reality has a certain Clinton bias.
Anyway, since the party's fate has already been decided (Choice A or Choice B), I'm more interested in looking at the campaign from a political theory perspective. Something I have been noticing in comments and blog posts in a variety of places are claims and curses about the radicals and extremists, the "far left" that allegedly infests the blogosphere, and even more peculiar claims that Obama himself is some kind of far-left extremist. This leaves me scratching my head as there is nothing politically extreme about Obama, or almost any other Democratic candidate this last round. Gravel is kind of a crank and Kucinich gets a little crunchy at times, but even they are firmly inside the bounds of normal liberal democratic politics. I think there is some confusion about what the Stevenson-Truman class split in the party represents (and that will be the subject of another post), wrongly attributing to the Stevensonian stance something it actually opposes, which is deinstitutionalization of power. There is also some confusion about what "far left radical" means, or who would count as one. The Right has a narrative it puts forward which points at one ineffective group on the Left but is really aimed at another, the one that actually scares them. The Left, oddly enough (or maybe it's just par for the course), doesn't seem to have organized its own narrative on this count.
Let's talk about the candidates. It is simply wrong to claim that Obama is some political radical. He is as mainstream as anyone else within the party power elite, which itself is a fairly narrow slice of all possible political stances. While it is popular in the blogosphere to cite this or that organization who has declared the senator to be "the most liberal" (and noting that, for some, this is condemnation, not praise), all of this needs to be put into the context of the rightward shift of politics, and even more so of political discourse, over the last 25 years. Obama is a left-leaning centrist, just like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Bill Richardson and Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and John Kerry and Bill Clinton and yadda yadda keep the list going. The liberal "ratings" on any Congress Critter is pretty much meaningless outside of the survey itself. As with polls, those ratings are dependent upon their criteria, their data samples, their weighing and filtering, etc. The correct statement is the Mostest Cool Liberal Congress Critter survey finds Sen. So-And-So to be the mostest cool liberal critter in the entire Mostest Cool Liberal Congress Critter Survey. Richard Nixon would gain a rather respectably "liberal" score today given some of the things he advocated, which should help us get a better grip on the way in which the term "liberal" has been abused over the years, mostly on the Right.
As Paul Krugman discusses in Conscience of a Liberal, for much of the post-war period the majority of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, could have earned the moniker "liberal" because there was a consensus on the necessity and legitimacy of the New Deal. Nixon's liberality, to the degree that it actually existed and is not revisionist history, was pretty much the last gasp in that consensus. The Movement Conservatives may tar the Democrats as "60s Radicals", but they were gunning for the New Deal long before the hippies showed up (Cultural note - in the Berkeley neighborhood where I lived while my dad finished up his degree from UC, we kids played "Hippies and Pigs", not "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians".) and their true enemy remains that socio-political consensus.
Getting back to the candidates, looking at nothing but policy papers, the Democratic slate presented us a large field of centrists, pretty blatently copying from each other and in general agreement about the issues. For all the fauxgressive eye-rolling and kvetching, the positions were solidly to the left of center. Of course, anyone can write (or copy) anything and the devil is not only in the details, but even moreso in the execution, because that is where words get converted into deeds and are placed under the protection of institutions which preserve otherwise ephemeral acts from the erosion of time and popular opinion. As I've said in earlier theory posts, boundaries sustain and strengthen as well as limit and constrain. To enact policy effectively is to institutionalize it. This is not simple to do, even with legislative majorities, and the ability to do so is difficult to predict as it requires building coalitions and leveraging bureaucratic mechanisms to enforce (or circumvent) legislative actions. FDR's real brilliance lay not just in sheparding the New Deal through but also in entrenching it within institutional safeguards. My point here is that none of the Democratic candidates, whatever the details of their plans, intended to do anything except work within the model created by FDR. Aside from universal health insurance, there wasn't anything groundbreaking, though that was certainly a big bite to take. I agree 100% with Krugman that universal health insurance is a profound challenge to the Right and constitutes a necessary expansion of the New Deal.
Some people have pointed (both approvingly and disapprovingly) to Obama's association with William Ayers, former Weather Underground who is unrepentant for his acts of terrorism against the US, and say this is some kind of marker of Obama's "radicalism". I don't buy it. I look at that and see a few different things.
- Ayers is something of a celebrity within a very small intellectual enclave centered around the University of Chicago. You want to advance in that club? You kiss celebrity butt. I had several former professors who were part of that enclave at one time and they neither thought it unusual that Ayers would be there, nor considered him more than a jerk trading on his "radical chic" cachet.
- Associating with a (now domesticated and irrelevant) "radical" is one way to puff up your own ego about how cool, hip and "dangerous" you are. Given what I have observed of Obama's public persona, he strikes me as the kind of person who would do this. Kind of like people who want the cachet of gangsters by listening to a lot of rap and associating with rap stars. Shrug, not my cup of tea.
- There is absolutely nothing in anything Obama has done as a public figure that indicates he has radical or extremist political beliefs, or that he would knowingly perform an act which carried political danger for him. This is a different thing than hanging out with people who might do such things. This is a person with a careful, cautious, centrist political resume, who doesn't push any legislative or leadership envelopes. And, no, I'm sorry, giving one anti-war speech (that was mostly ignored at the time) at an anti-war rally in one of the safest Democratic districts in the country is not a particularly radical act, however comendable the sentiments expressed.
So, for me, I doubt Ayers is an ideological or legislative influence on Obama, though he may end up being a political liability. The lack of influence is a good thing, as far as I am concerned, as Ayers is simply a domestic terrorist.
On the matter of Wright's effect on Obama, I also do not see any political influence. How much Obama does or does not embrace Wright's outdated and reductionistic social views I don't know and I don't really care. That Obama would join a prominent church to establish a certain kind of credibility with politically connected people in the AA community doesn't make me bat an eye. On the surface of it, it was not a bad move, but it has become a political liability for reasons someone as smart and ambitious as Obama should have understood before it got to this point.
Obama has worked as a community activist, though I have not yet heard what that work specifically accomplished. He served as a legislator in the state senate and is now a US Senator. John Edwards effectively used the courts to right wrongs committed against his clients. He has served as a US senator, and is now dedicated to public service to battle poverty in this country. Hillary organized child care for migrant laborers in Chicago, worked to impeach Nixon in the Watergate hearings, has worked her entire adult life as an advocate for women and children including for the Children's Defense Fund, ran a legal aid clinic for the poor and was appointed by President Carter to the United States Legal Services Corporation, participated in Bill Clinton's various administrations on issues touching on civil rights, trade, health care and other bread and butter issues, traveled the world advocating US interests, gave an historic and very politically daring speech in Beijing on women's rights, and is now in her second term as a US senator. Aside from Hillary's Beijing speech, none of this work by any of the top three candidates (Please feel free in comments to add more examples, espcially of the candidates I omitted) strikes me as particularly radical or extremist. These are all perfectly respectable and commendable public service records, and are well within the bounds of normal political activity. My point is that to call Obama a radical, whether as praise or as criticism, is simply wrong.
It also strikes me that to be talking in these terms about what we should expect from our political candidates is wrong. As criticism, it plays into the hands of the Right who seeks to demonize liberalism by invoking 60s conflict as a whole and subsuming legitimate Democratic political objectives to the reprehensible (and fundamentally anti-political) actions of wack-jobs like Ayers. As praise, it conflates a constructive strand of radical politics, one that pushes the envelope of liberalism but which is intended to expand and strengthen the New Deal, with the violent, shallow, narcissistic and disruptive acts of people like Ayers. It cuts to the core of why Democrats have a difficult time retaining power in the face of the Movement Conservatives, namely the Left's internal class division and the siren call of radical chic.
That will be the topic of my next post.