As always, my thanks to the commenters who take my ideas in new and fascinating directions.
I realized that I had not made two points in yesterday's post, one about the strengths and weaknesses of the Truman strand as I had for the Stevensonians, and another about the needs of truly radical Democratic politics.
At its best, the Truman tradition respects the lives and choices of the common man, it measures a person's worth by the good that they do, values the common good and common sense, and insists that the proper role of government to enable her citizens to flourish without regard to station. At its worst, it is parochial and suspicious of outsiders, takes pride in ignorance of the world or the life of the mind, substitutes tradition for law, and uses the government to skim wealth and punish enemies.
The Stevensonian focus is on the structures and institutions that treat all men equally, regardless of origin. The Truman focus is on the texture of individual lives and the particularity that distinguishes us, sometimes to the detriment of the universality of law.
Truly radical Democratic politics requires both of these political modes to succeed, using each in measure to rein in the less commendable qualities of the other and to enable the power of both approaches to be marshalled for the benefit of the nation and the citizens. The men and women who provide the hands-on activism cannot make their victories persist without powerful institutions and entrenched, rational, defensible rules to resist anti-Democratic efforts to overturn these advances. This is another reason why the stereotypical image if "Lefty radical" does the Left disservice because is seeks disruption without alternatives and destruction without substance to go in its place. You can't just declare a people "free". You must also be willing to replace the previous oppression with something that will prevent its return. The easiest thing in the world to do is destroy. Just look at George W Bush, Ayers on a monumental scale, acting out his oedipal frustrations with Poppy on the entire world.
The reason why the Truman strand is the more fruitful for strengthening Democratic goals is not because it has some corner on morality or public virtue. Hardly. The quality that makes it fertile ground for something like the New Deal is because you can't keep anyone out who is willing to lend a hand. Will Roger's joke about not belonging to an organized political party, but to the Democrats, lovingly pokes fun at the dynamic chaos powering the operation, something that can sweep up just about anyone and put them to work - just like the WPA. When that power is channeled to do what is both legally defensible and politically right, it is a juggernaut. It has no interest in being exclusive. The antithesis of democrat is snob.
To riff on themes and claims from earlier comments, while Libertarianism is corrosive, it is not radical. There is little radical in yelling "Mine! Mine! Mine!" It has more in common with fantasies about survival of the fittest, but it can only occur in well regulated societies where complex institutions allow the deluded practitioner to believe he is some Ayn Randian hero as he drives down the right side of the public road, tunes in to public airwaves, drinks clean water from the municipal water system, turns on his stereo built in another country and made available due to complex trade treaties, massive investments in transportation and markets, and purchased using a common currancy, all powered by electric current off the utilities grid. It is parasitic and vanishes the moment there is real turmoil. It is, however, a convenient ideology for people in the upper income brackets to claim to try to avoid public obligations.
Radical is the Movement Conservatives who seek to reestablish blatent class rule, using the nation to serve the interests of a small oligarchic class. Liberatarians are too lazy to be that organized. My deep concern about Obama is not that he is some kind of stealth conservative or libertarian, but that he does not possess a sense of or dedication to true Democratic radicalism. I never get the impression that this politician is there to bring about anything substantive. In contrast, Hillary and Bill both insist that you must make the world a better place, you must have improved the lives of the people you serve.
For all of his elbow rubbing with people of questionable political beliefs, there is no evidence that Obama has been moved to a political (as opposed to a personal) cause. When Garry Wills had the temerity to compare Obama's speech about his pastor to Lincoln's address on slavery at the Cooper Union, I rolled my eyes and said, "So where's the beef?" Lincoln dedicated his entire political career to first containing and then eradicating slavery. It was his obsession, his driving passion, the goal for which he literally gave his life. What is it, exactly, that Sen. Obama would do with the power of the Presidency? I dare anyone to identify anything he will pursue that will transform the face of the nation.
The claim I am making is different than "he's just in it for the ego", and of greater import to the party and the country. Someone can have a towering ego, my dear old Big Dog heading the list, and yet have a purpose that makes something of that drive. Can anyone doubt that FDR was one self-centered bastard? But he had the political bug, that fascination with making the system work, of bringing about the impossible because you have been charged with enacting the public good and it is to that you will dedicate your soul and fortunes. Even evil old Tricky Dick was able to drag himself out his sewer of resentment and paranoia every so often and do things that were jaw droppingly audacious, like going to China.
One of Obama's speeches is revealing on this count. At a commemoration of the Selma March (I think, I'm not 100% on the specific event), he gave a speech on the Joshua Generation, of which he counted himself. It was a good speech and the only one I know of where he actually presented his view of Democratic politics as such. The parallel was between the era of MLK and Civil Rights (Moses) and our own times (Joshua), and how there remained some tasks for us, but that the great struggles and drama, the trials and dreadful passage, these were done and past and we merely inherited a fundamentally complete legacy. To us is left the role of epigone, the reduced follower of greater forbearers. The idea that the struggles of the mid-century were precursors of a longer fight, or that we had not so much a leagacy as a foundation on which to build, or perhaps that the works of giants like MLK and LBJ should stand as challenge to us, as they had been challenged by the works of FDR, to attempt even greater acts of Democratic radicalism, was not in evidence.
And this ties back to some of my original claims in Radical Chic. Obama obviously enjoys the cachet of hanging out with the "bad guys" and seeming tougher, angrier, cooler, more edgy than he really is. While I had originally described him as a left-centrist, I'm not sure there is enough presence of a political spark to earn him even that much credit as having made a deliberate political choice. I am struck by him as an accidental Democrat, one for whom it is convenient and comfortable to cruise along with the others in the pack, someone who at a policy meeting would say "Oh, and me too," to whatever the chief wonk had devised. The details don't matter because that's just not what makes him tick. You get the sense with Hillary that she really does read dense policy papers for the intrinsic fascination of this or that topic, swiftly followed by the question, "And how does this affect my country?"
Along with the porous, inclusive nature of theTruman mind-set, there is also another facet that makes radical Democrats what they are - the sense that a wrong must be righted, a failing must be corrected, an obligation must be met. This, I think, comes as strongly from the Stevensonian side, with its long roots back through progressivism into the bedrock of American political thought and motivation, the drive of those damn Yankees dumping tea in the harbor, as from the Jacksonian demands of honor brought in through the Truman faction. It is imperative that the Democrats do right by the public.
There is no imperative to Obama's politics.