Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prisoner of Conventional Wisdom

This is one of a set of posts I plan on writing up over the next who knows how long. Like my set of posts identifying the Truman-Stevenson split in the Democratic Party, this will be a partly historical, partly analytical, partly irascible look at the question of how the hell the Democrats in particular and the Left more generally have ended up in such a shitty place, politically speaking. It’s going to be a bit dense.

A word of caution before I get going. I will be using Obama as an example quite a bit because he is an exemplar of a certain political type. Aside from his use as an example, I’m not interested in the person himself because, well, he’s the exemplar of a political type I don’t have much patience with. Claims about his “real” political agenda, or his secret scheme to hand the country over to Wall Street, or his true political alliances, or his cynical selling out of the country, etc., aren’t very interesting to me, though others disagree. I’m writing political theory here, not a political agenda, and my target is not Obama – he’s the person he is and nothing I say is going to change that – but a political culture that doesn’t comprehend its own fault lines and blind spots.

As I alluded to in the post Hostage Situation, I think Krugman has the wrong diagnosis of why Obama is running such a fumbling, impotent administration. He thinks it is timidity. I would say, rather that it is something more fundamental – possessing the wrong kind of political temperament for the time. I'm only a little snarky when I say the biggest reason why Obama is not some crypto-Republican or political conservative is because he can't summon the level of engagement it would take to pursue a vigorous political course in any direction. Rather, I characterize him as a right-wing Progressive, in the same box as Herbert Hoover or Calvin Coolidge. This is different than saying he is a Republican, and while it is a conservative stance, it is not in the mode of current Movement Conservatism. Where a modern political conservative wishes to use the power of government to punish enemies and loot the treasury (it's good to be clear on your goals), this peculiar patrician progressivism is a throwback to the era of Hoover, the landscape into which FDR landed like a cannonball. Obama is practicing the modern version of that ever-so-polite political stance.

He firmly believes in clean government, transparent process, and public rectitude, all those nasty status quo things movement purists deride. It is mixed up with Post-war adoption of a fetishized technocratic stance that overlays the traditional progressive, sharing with it a disdain for and distrust of emotional appeals. What he doesn't believe in is using the power of the government to do good. It's all about clearing away government, reducing government, getting rid of barriers and bureaucracy, and all delivered with a great deal of moralism but very little analysis of why things are the way they are. He has completely internalized the credo that the problem is the government.

I’ll have more to say another time about how an allegedly ultra-liberal makes a very solid right-wing Progressive without any internal contradictions, but for now I want to look at why that political position has rendered the administration unable to act. Remember, Obama is the exemplar, not the isolated case, of this stance.

The prison Obama has gladly entered is the one of conventional wisdom, the enemy of invention and opposition. He was, from the start, the candidate of the Versailles establishment, and remains their pampered favorite son. While the post-midterm news is bad, the media is not, on the whole, hostile and, aside from shrill economists, are very happy to give The Precious a pass. This is not a public figure who ever had an inclination to piss off the Very Serious People. While some deride Obama for the way in which he rose through the social order, there is nothing exceptional about his path – he was smart enough to keep pace and agreeable enough to gain friends. This is the path followed (with less celebrity status and a lot less money, obviously) by literally millions of people in the US. I count myself among that group. Most of the people I work with on a daily basis are in that class of educated, politely raised, moderately affluent professionals. It’s easy to go along in that milieu and never think that it is, well, weird. A lot of people find reassurance in listening to the Very Serious People.

But what you’re taught and who you choose to associate with matter. On the celebrity side, Obama liked to hang out with the faux-radicals of the intellectual hothouse of Hyde Park, Ayers and Wright. (Yeah, remember them?) As I said in “Radical Chic”:
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 … 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.
The Chicago radical stance was a performance specific to that setting and pretty obviously did not make any lasting impression on Obama. More telling is who he had on the philosophical side. Here, he stuck with self-described Libertarian Paternalists and they obviously have had a long lasting effect on his political sensibilities. These are people who compare the Clean Air act to Soviet-style five-year plans, and will not condone the government doing more than “nudging” people towards collective social and economic goals. This crucially matters because it categorically rules out most classically liberal political modes of governance. After reading an analysis of this thought, I commented:
The aspect of Obama's economic approach that had always bothered me was a curious absence of any philosophy of the state as a constructive force, coupled with a stance that focused on "choice" for the isolated and abstract individual of classic economic theory. In short, there is no theory of power. …

[Discussion of 401(k) choice structuring] This "choice" ignores the environment in which retirement savings occur. The concentration on the individual does not offer an opportunity to interrogate the conditions of retirement now, the effect of longer life spans on the need for economic support, the evisceration of traditional pension plans, the assaults on Social Security, the way in which "right to work" laws discourage unionization, living wages, and having enough money *to* save, the gendered face of poverty and how women are disproportionately harmed by poor benefits, lousy pay, and having to work the "second shift" at home, etc. Demanding that people deposit money in a savings account is avoidance of taking on these difficult tangled issues, not a solution to them.

Choice requires context, and it is the context that is wrong in Obama's economic proposals. As in health care, he appears more concerned with maintaining the illusion of choice than addressing the environment in which acceptable choices about insurance can occur. Cassidy asks a question I have asked myself in several ways: "But for what policy purposes are the masses to be mobilized?" Just what is the vision for the society and the nation that Obama intends to put into practice? There isn't one; it is fractured into small buckets of choices here and there, with neither a philosophy of governance nor a coherent plan for transforming the steaming pile left behind by the Republicans into a strong, liberal government.
Comfort with conventionality and a lack of any constructive view of power in a transactional political system results in a person who is temperamentally unsuited to ordinary politics and catastrophically unsuited in a time of severe crisis.

When looking at Obama’s actions after taking power, the chief aspect that strikes me is that he seems affronted that there is a crisis interfering with what he wanted to do, which was be the Awesomeness in Chief. While I can be outraged at the single-minded looting of the treasury and trashing of the economy by Geithner & Co., I think it is a stretch to view Obama as some kind of evil mastermind or merely as a front for the kleptocracy. Invoking Occam’s Razor, you don’t need to multiply the entities to explain the phenomenon. It is enough to say that Obama trusts other elites like himself to do things in keeping with what the Very Serious People recommend and that he has no philosophical inclination to go beyond what the Very Serious People at University of Chicago told him about proper limits on government action. We screamed, of course, but Versailles cheered and that was enough.

What is missing from the mix, what would doom this administration even if it was not so conventional, is the unwillingness to embrace the crisis as the transformational (dare I say transcendent?) moment that it was and remains. Even W, as vile and loathsome as he is, knew how to make the most of political opportunity. When crisis struck, he quickly turned it to maximum political advantage, spinning momentary and accidental national unity into a “mandate” for him to conduct his imperialist wars, subvert the rule of law in the US, and doing his best to destroy democratic institutions. In contrast, Obama was granted unprecedented powers with true majority support to address the economic crisis and has done worse than nothing in response. At every turn, his administration has sought to tone down and minimize the catastrophic results of Republican rule. His opponent was the previous Democratic president, if you listened to the rhetoric, the one pushing for too much liberalism (If only), not the line of Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II/Cheney, those who led the charge against a fair society.

As I said at the start, this is not some peculiar quirk of Obama’s, though he is such a pure form of this kind of figure in the political elite and intelligentsia of the left that he brings its failings into sharp focus. It is a way of doing politics – with its roots in early Progressivism and then combined with technocratic Stevensonian interests – that has a fundamental disdain for grubby politics performed on behalf of grubby people for dirty, mundane ends. You know, like health insurance. Wilentz’s piece on the movement politics adherents describes a group of people not so much opposed to Obama's way of doing politics as they are the most elemental expression of this approach – we know better so just believe with us and start living your life the right way. No bargains, just do the right thing.

What the crisis invited was someone with a Rooseveltian temperament to step up and wring every political opportunity out of it, inviting hatred and savoring every moment of political contestation. For all that the Stevensonian wing on the left likes to talk about the New Deal and keeping it going, they don’t seem to have a clue as to what combination of talents and temperaments made it possible.

And so we are left watching Obama hold himself and the nation hostage to conventional wisdom about the prudent, expected course of action in the midst of economic disaster, blaming the public for not going along with the vision thing instead of doing something audacious.



Anonymous said...

This series of posts should be required reading for anyone who considers themselves a liberal or progressive.

I especially like the way you avoid wonky jargon and what my grandma called "ten-dollar words."

Koshem Bos said...

The ingenious contribution of this post, and one that makes additional commentary on Obama redundant, is crystallizing the Obama phenomenon as: he follows the Very Serious People.

In other words, he is hopeless and so are we.

Palomino said...

Yes, Obama = Hoover.

And -- sad and shocking to say, but you've demonstrated this as well -- the loathesome G. W. Bush is smarter than Obama.

Anglachel said...

Hi Palomino,

I wouldn't say W is smarter as much as I would say W has better political instincts. He knows when to go all in, he is prepared to fight, and he know that his enemies are enemies. If he wasn't such an effective political actor, we wouldn't be in the utter mess we're in now.


StephenAG said...

From where I sit, it isn't about intelligence. This is still about political temperament and instincts. Name calling hasn't helped things either.

When I was in the eighth grade, I ran for student body president. We made our presentations to the entire student body and we also had the option to make presentations to the various classes. Because of divisions in the school virtually none of my contemporaries would spend time with the lower grades, calling them dumb little kids. I made sure that I visited every class (this was a small catholic school), but I paid particular attention to the first and second grades - they had the larger class sizes. I also took the time to listen to their needs. I found out that they wanted access to the "big kids yard" from time to time. Guess who won on election day? Yours truly! And, after I got elected I worked with the school administration and was able to broker a deal allowing the little kids to play on our big kids yard, thus enabling me to keep a campaign promise. To this day I can't figure out why my competition felt free to ignore a voting block that was fifty percent of our student body back then. When the "dumb little kids" went to vote, they were smart enough to remember my name and face.

Sometimes, running with the kewl kidz (conventional wisdom) will end up getting you beat.