Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it. In other words, perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.
This article, which was widely quoted online, represented a
dangerous, even fanciful shift in discussions of Obama and ideology. No longer was it adequate to critique Obama from the left because his policy proposals, advisors or campaign rhetoric were anti-progressive. From this point forward, all such critiques could be rebutted by claiming that whenever Obama's policy proposals, campaign rhetoric, or advisors moved in an anti-progressive direction, such seemingly anti-progressive moves were actually part of a larger ruse to install more progressivism, not less.
All anti-progressivism became secret progressivism. Such theories abound to this day, with both Marc Ambinder and Robert Kuttner mentioning them in weekend articles. First, here is Ambinder:
But there's been no evidence that his views are torn between the left and the right; he is clearly putting forth a progressive, or liberal, agenda. So, rather than a Democrat bringing in a bunch of Republicans to govern by splitting the baby between the two sides, it appears that we have a case of a Democrat bringing in Republicans to put a bipartisan face on progressive policy, shades of, say, George Bush bringing in Ted Kennedy to put a bipartisan face on "compassionate conservatism."
Paul discussed this article yesterday, and did a good job debunking it. I bring it up again to use it as an example of the "secret progressivism" theory. According to Ambinder, hiring centrists and Republicans for top positions in the Obama administration actually means that Obama intends to govern in a clearly progressive direction. For Ambinder, Obama is hiring centrist and conservative advisors not to give their policy advice any credence whatsoever, but instead so that they provide public and political cover for a strongly progressive agenda which those advisors would personally oppose. It is another instance of the "secret progressive" theories, where doing something anti-progressive, like hiring all centrists and Republicans for top cabinet positions, is interpreted as actually pro-progressive.
In a recent Huffington Post article, Robert Kuttner articulates another secret progressive theory, though in a less approving tone:
As progressives, we can view President-Elect Obama's emerging economic team in one of two ways. Either he has disappointed us by picking a group of Clinton retreads--the very people who brought us the deregulation that produced the financial collapse; the fiscal conservatives who in the 1990s put budget balance ahead of rebuilding public institutions. Or we can conclude that he has very shrewdly named a team of technically competent centrists so that he can govern as a progressive in pragmatist's clothing--as he moves the political center to the left.
There is a substantive difference between these two viewpoints: one relies on the widely accepted view that financial de-regulation was heavily responsible for the current economic crisis, while the other relies on Obama deceiving the public. The second theory argues that Obama has hired a bunch of centrists not to take their advice seriously in any way, but instead to make them institute a progressive agenda which he has already decided upon, will not waver upon, and with which these advisors will disagree. By forcing a bunch of centrists and Republicans to either unwittingly or unwillingly carry out a progressive agenda, Obama will move the country to the left.
It is depressing that this second theory, which is paranoid and conspiratorial, is still considered respectable enough that it is being prominently echoed in outlets with as much visibility as the two I quoted above. Clearly, theories about Obama's secret progressivism are alive and well. These theories strikes a serious blow to the notion that progressives occupy the "reality based community." Many progressives are seriously arguing that Obama's centrist campaign rhetoric and centrist advisors are part of a larger, secret, and fundamentally deceitful plan to institute a progressive agenda and provide it political cover.
One wonders what will become of the "Obmaa is a secret progressive" theories if and when Obama begins to implement center-right policy. Some of these conspiracy theorists will probably switch camps and start agitating for Obama to become more progressive. However, given the surprising staying power of these theories over the last year, it is also a safe bet that some progressives will argue that center-right administration and legislation are also part of a larger, secret plan to promote progressivism.
Then again, I could turn out to be wrong, and Obama will somehow use his center-right advisors to govern in a leftist manner. After all, the Bush administration started nationalizing entire industries a couple months ago. Many people, even those far to Obama's right, are being forced to unwillingly govern as socialists these days.
Update: I should not have called such theories "dangerous." That was wrong. I apologize.