"Obama The Sociologist" vs. Mike Lux, The Historian

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Feb 08, 2009 at 20:07


During the primaries, Mark Schmitt wrote a piece in the American Prospect,  "The 'Theory of Change' Primary", in which he argued:

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.

A good way of understanding that method, Schmitt argued, was in terms of a "theory of change," a term from the philanthropic/non-profit world, which will be explained on the flip.  What's most noteworthy about this argument is that it represents a sophisticated way of interpreting Obama's seemingly centrist tendencies as covertly progressive.  Thus, an important question naturally arose: was it simply a way for progressives to deceive themselves--a sophisticated form of wishful thinking?

This week saw the appearance of another installment along the same lines, an article by Andrew Levison at The Democratic Strategist, "Obama the Sociologist".  I want to stress that both pieces are thoughtful, and have some useful insights.  But I believe that both are deeply colored by wishful thinking, and contain some very flawed analysis as well.

Above all, what I think that both of them miss--as described in yesterday's diary, "Obama The Conservative"-- is a very straight-forward sense in which Obama acts and thinks like a procedural conservative, an orientation that's sometimes compatible with progressive aims, but always vulnerable to the veto power of established, substantively conservative interests--and never moreso than during a time of crisis, such as that we are now experiencing, a time in which confrontation is far more likely to succeed in producing both minimally necessary and maximally achievable change.

My analysis shares in common with these authors the sense that there's a more progressive side to Obama that his procedural conservatism masks.  But by fully acknowledging a degree of conservatism--not just centrism--in his procedural approach to politics, it helps explain elements of substantive conservatism as well, which progressives generally have been reluctant to fully acknowledge, and have therefore been ineffective in responding to.

Paul Rosenberg :: "Obama The Sociologist" vs. Mike Lux, The Historian
Intermezzo

In "The 'Theory of Change' Primary" Schmitt went on to explain:

The phrase "theory of change" is a bit of jargon that I first encountered in the philanthropic and non-profit world, where it refers to a fairly new way of evaluating the effectiveness of projects by drawing out the underlying assumptions about how they lead to social change. It's a useful innovation, because often differences that seem to be about ideology or effectiveness are really just different ideas about the process that will lead to change, though unspoken and unquestioned.

While I appreciated Schmitt's thoughtfulness, and would have liked to believe his argument, it just didn't add comport with the history of political struggle as I understand it, which is much more along the polarized confrontational lines that Mike describes in his book.  And so I wrote a critique, "Obama: Does A 'Theory of Change' Explanation Make Sense?"

Now that Schmitt's argument is back, with some variation, in Andrew Levison's article, "Obama the Sociologist", it's time for another critique.

Introduction

First, I should say a few words about where I'm coming from, and where I'm going.  I do not necessarily believe that the argument in "Obama the Sociologist" accurately reflects Obama's thinking.  My sense is that it probably does on some level, but there's more going on at other levels, either in parallel, at odd angles, or cross-purposes or some combination thereof.  I think that the interpretation in "Obama the Conservative" is more central, but there's no reason both sorts of thought processes can't cohabit. But I also think that this interpretation is worth responding to and critiquing regardless of whether it accurately maps Obama's own thinking, because I think it is both plausible and ultimately misleading.

What I'd like to do is show the shortcomings of the logic involved, in contrast with Mike's assessment that sooner or later (in line with the history described in his book) Obama is going to have to adopt a more full-throated progressive approach--as hinted at in the video from the Democratic Caucus meeting that David linked on Thursday evening in "Obama Turns It On".  Thus, the quotation marks in the title of this diary are important.  It's not Mike vs. Obama.  It's Mike's take on history, the present moment, and how Obama will respond vs. the argument in "Obama the Sociologist."

This is not, however, an attempt to pick a fight, much less to position Open Left in opposition to The Democratic Strategist.  Indeed, despite some differences with its initial analysis, I completely agree with the main thrust of another recent piece from The Democratic Strategist, by Ed Kilgore, "Defining Obama's Political Strategy: Radical Pragmatism, Grassroots Bipartisanship and the Abandoned Center" [pdf], which is also cited in "Obama The Sociologist."  (Significantly, Kilgore both adopts the "theory of change" perspective at one level and criticizes it at another.)

"You Talking To Me?"--Answer: No

The first thing to note is that this analysis positions itself in opposition to two presumed interpretive traditions--neither of which represents the dominant perspective of the netroots, or of many commentators (such Tom Frank, referenced within) the netroots commonly refer to. These are modern political science and modern political campaign management.  I've bolded the section where they are referred to below:

it can be argued that Obama actually has a more coherent and well thought out approach than either his critics or other interpreters recognize.

To see this, it is necessary to identify a particular blind spot in the perspective of most American political commentators. Modern political science (exemplified in the leading American academic journals) and modern political campaign management (exemplified in "professional" political publications like National Journal, Congressional Quarterly and Campaigns and Elections magazine) actually present a very simplified model of the world, one in which politics is discussed as if it were a separate and isolated realm of life with its own unique rules. In this simplified world, most discussions of politics are based on two seemingly self-evident statements:

    1. American elections are won with 50.1 percent of the vote.

    2. All votes, regardless of their origin, are, in political terms, equal.

On the surface, these two ideas appear to be not only true but almost tautological. In a great deal of American political commentary, however, they are subtly inflated into two much broader premises that are most emphatically not tautological -- and that are, in fact, arguably wrong.

    1. That winning support above 50.1 percent is of relatively small or even negligible marginal benefit or importance. Put differently, it is essentially icing on a cake.

    2. That any particular political coalition that can be assembled to provide an electoral majority of 50.1% is of exactly equal value and utility to any alternative political coalition that can also produce an electoral majority of 50.1%. No particular majority coalition is inherently any "better" than any other.

These assumptions are rarely stated explicitly, but they are implicit in much of the progressive concern about Obama's political strategy - the widely expressed fear that he is essentially "leaving achievable progressive victories on the table" because of his commitment to pragmatism and bipartisanship. Having won 53% of the vote and with 59 Democratic senators, it is often argued that he is clearly in a position to seek more progressive, radical or dramatic changes than those which he is actually seeking. To many liberal and progressive commentators, it seems almost self-evident that Obama could demand and get "more" of a progressive agenda enacted if he behaved in a more aggressively hyper-partisan fashion as George Bush did after the 2004 election. Thomas Frank clearly expressed this liberal-progressive view -- and frustration -- by saying that "Obama should act as if he won."

So, the first problem with this passage is the netroots progressives are not, in general, operating under the influence of these two traditions.  Neither is Tom Frank, whose interest in the sociology of ordinary Americans is exactly the same terrain that Levison claims as Obama's intellectual home ground, and the source of his unique insight that mere mortals cannot grasp.  That's the second problem with this passage.  The third problem is that I don't buy either of the second two ideas, nor does a good share of the netroots.  Indeed, in my observation, those netizens who do tend to accept one or both of the second pair of ideas tend to be less skeptical of Obama's strategy and philosophy.

The point of raising all three of these problems is that Levison is making a very good argument to deploy against arguments that don't really hold sway with the majority of blogosphere critics.  Indeed, I've been arguing since before the 2006 elections that we're in a period of realignment, when the Democrats should be expected to secure majorities well in excess of 50%+1, and it's much more common for people in the blogosphere to argue that majorities need to be coherent in order to be effective.  Chris's argument about a growing pluralistic identity coalition is one of the most succinct and obvious-after-the-fact examples of this.  When these sorts of conditions arise, the opportunity for fundamental, transformative policy change opens up in ways that are quite unlike other periods--particularly the period we've just been living in, one which has been characterized by divided government.

This is quite a different argument than the ones that Levison is prepared to parry on behalf of his notion of what Obama is up to.  In fact, it shares a good deal of the elements that Levison himself uses in making his argument.  But the underlying assumptions are quite different.  As I've argued before, I believe Obama shares the elitist orientation of early-20th Century progressives, whereas I share a more populist orientation--along with all the other frontpagers here at Open Left, past and present.  And it's the presumptions that come with those two different orientations that underlie much of the critique coming from the likes of us.  

The focus on Obama's overall procedural conservatism--which bleeds into substantive conservatism at some points--is a complementary variant on this argument.  This can be understood historically in terms of several different ways in which the Progressives represented a relatively conservative force: (1) The predominance of old-line civic leadership amongst progressive intellectuals, (2) The frequent political opposition between Progressives and Socialists, epitomized by the Progressive promotion of the depoliticized "city manager" model of city government as a counter against the growing electoral power of Socialist voters in municipal elections. (3) Tensions between the Progressive and Populist traditions described by Jack Balkin in his 1995 Yale Law Review article, "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories",, which I've written about before (here, here and here)  (4)  The role of big business in supporting, even initiating preogressive-era regulations to stabilize conditions and reduce competition, as documented by historian Gabriel Kolko's in his book, The Triumph of Conservatism.

The Sociological Imagination?

But there is good evidence (which we shall see below) that Obama's political strategy is actually based on an essentially sociological rather than political science perspective. It rests specifically on one key sociological insight -- that the political strategy required to enact significant progressive social reforms is substantially more complex and difficult than is the strategy required to simply resist social change.

Somehow, I just don't think you need a background in sociology to figure this one out.  Half a brain will do just fine.

When significant social reforms threaten to directly affect major social institutions, enacting such reforms requires two things beyond simply wining an electoral victory:

   1. The opposition of the key social institution or institutions affected which in most cases include either the armed forces, big business or the church must be neutralized or at least very significantly muted.

   2. A certain baseline level of sociological support (or at least relative neutrality) must be obtained among a series of pivotal social groups. Sociologically and demographically speaking these groups - religious voters, military voters or business voters -- are often predominantly working class, red state voters.

As a result, the coalition necessary to achieve major social reforms will require more than a knife-edge 50.1% majority. Translated into national levels of public support or approval, a commanding majority of as much as 60% may actually be necessary.

While I think the general form of (1) and (2) above are beyond dispute, the specific way they are expressed is another matter altogether, and basically amounts to the perennial claim that middle-aged white dudes matter more than other voters.  But let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that's more sophisticated than that--as I'm sure it's intended to be--and respond accordingly.

Okay, for one thing, taking (1) first, in America there is no such thing, politically as "the church".  Our religious institutions are and always have been diverse.  Furthermore, the military has only been a substantial political player since WWII, and even since then has tended to keep out of non-military matters, focused primarily on its own turf.  That leaves big business, and it is indisputable the consolidation of diverse big business interests into a more-or-less unified front has been one of the key characteristics of the period just ending.  Yet, there are objective fissures ripe for exploiting, particularly in the light of the current economic crisis.  Health insurance costs threatening to bankrupt the auto industry are but one example of this.  Domestic companies vs. multinationals who offshore out that wazoo.  There are many fissures to be exploited.

Moving on to (2), the formula presented--identifying "pivotal groups" as "religious voters, military voters or business voters -- [who] are often predominantly working class, red state voters"--is yet another variant on the "center-right country" narrative that has always been misleading at best, and is now wildly out of step with today's electorate.  Indeed, if Tom Frank is wrong about anything it is about thinking that working-class voters are more susceptible to religious/culture-war politics, as opposed to more affluent voters--as Larry Bartells has persuasive argued in "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (pdf)  Moreover, as I've argued many times using GSS data, self-identified conservative voters are far more supportive of social spending than conservative political elites are.  Indeed, they are much closer to liberal political elites.

The result of generally agreeing in principle to the above two points, while taking strong exception to how they are specifically articulated is in no wise trivial.  Nor is what I take to be the cause: a data-friendly, if not data-driven progressive populist perspective that's fundamentally at odds with Obama's elitist progressive ideology--an ideology that is much more prone to cherry-picking its data.

MLK Upside Down

The divide between reasonable principle and misrepresentative example next grows into a chasm as Dr. Martin Luther King is painfully twisted to support the argument.  First the principle:

The idea that opposition from major social institutions must be overcome and that the support or neutrality of specific social groups must be obtained is an unfamiliar notion in conventional American politics, but it is a fundamental axiom of successful movements for social change.

Then the painful twisting:

Martin Luther King's strategy in overcoming Southern segregation (which Obama studied in the 1980's) included both successful negotiations with the municipal power brokers in cities like Montgomery and Birmingham in order to moderate their opposition to integration and also extensive but less successful efforts to build economic alliances with lower income whites and other non-elite groups. King considered that social reforms supported by only a knife-edged majority coalition of the educated and the non-white poor were substantially more likely to produce polarization and backlash rather than steady social advance

There are so many things wrong with this presentation of history one hardly knows where to begin.  King was not entering into a coalition with the white power structure, and even if he had, that would not have constituted "a knife-edged majority coalition."

Quite to the contrary, King was very clear in seeing that power structure as the enemy--not just his enemy, but the enemy of poor whites as well.  And "poor whites" in the South included virtually all of the working class, including his jailers, as is clearly shown in his classic speech, "The Drum Major Instinct":

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking--calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point--that was the second or third day--to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

Now that's a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he's superior because his skin is white--and can't hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out. (Amen)

This was the motive and consciousness behind the "Poor People's Movement," which he was organizing for when he was assassinated, well after the fundamental civil rights battles had been won, though their implementation was still very much in dispute.

In short, the actual story of King's multi-issue, multi-level activism is far more complicated than the schematic formula that Levison seeks to invoke.  Perhaps most significantly, King was driven by moral purpose that demanded of him a course of action that he himself knew to be significantly more difficult than the easier, single-issue path that was repeatedly urged on him by others.  Although a master of strategy and tactics, King was never driven by them, much less swayed.  And that central fact clashes fundamentally with the way in which Levison seeks to appropriate him for this narrative.

Confusion and Lowered Expectations

Skipping down a bit, we come to what I think--quite inadvertently--is the real key to Obama's story:

As John Judis has carefully reconstructed, Obama gained a social reformers' perspective of both the power of major social institutions and the difficulty in overcoming their intransigence in his attempts to negotiate with the steel industry on behalf of laid-off steelworkers in Chicago. Obama also directly observed the political paralysis that was induced by the failure to overcome the backlash of white working class community groups in the ethnic communities within the city.

What I take from this is quite different from what Levison does: I see in it Obama's formative experiences in a condition of extreme power imbalance and disadvantage, a condition that while superficially was much less dire than King's was fundamentally much, much weaker, because there was nothing comparable to the incipient mass movement that King suddenly discovered himself at the apex of.  I believe that Obama is still psychologically, or perhaps more accurately attitudinally held back by that early, formative political experience.

Others have suggested repeatedly that it goes back to his absent father, and while I think that's part of it, I think it's also possible that a more positive encounter with social change potentials in early adulthood could have substantially compensated for that childhood experience, at least in the realm of his political attitude, orientation, and philosophy.  It's the combination of the two that I think we have to reckon with.  Obama has, quite simply, no life model of what it means to really win.  And that is a really big problem if you're the leader of a political party, particularly if you're President.

Finally, the article plunges head-first into a maelstrom of confusion that lies at the heart of Obama's thinking, in which (1) an entire generation is blamed for the fact that our politics is conflictual, (2) a desire to outreach fails to distinguish between conservative elites and masses, (3) moderate disappear from view entirely, and (4) a model of fundmental change with social stability and broad consensus is invoked--a model with no historical precedent whatsoever in our history.  This is not, I would submit, a sociological vision so much as it is a pure political fantasy.  And here I think it may be really proper to look to Obama's childhood, and the fact that his boomer parents abandoned him, and his grandparents raised him.

Here's part of what's said as the article movers towards its conclusion:

The most explicit and direct description of how deeply this sociological insight affected Obama's political strategy appeared in a long article by Matt Bai in the Oct 15th edition of the New York Times Magazine:

First, the article reveals how emphatically Obama expressed his rejection of the 50.1 percent approach.

    [Obama seeks to] get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the "50-plus-1" governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 percent of the country (plus 1 additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers...To a large extent, this reflects Obama's personal conviction about modern politics, which he first laid out in his 2004 convention speech when he talked about worshiping "an awesome God in the blue states" and having "gay friends in the red states."

    He told me, when we talked, that Washington's us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. "If voters are polarized and if they're seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we're not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done," Obama said.

In short, a commanding majority is not optional "icing on the cake". It is indispensible for achieving significant change. In the same fashion, winning significant support from working class and small town religious and culturally conservative voters is also not optional. It is a prerequisite for maintaining social stability while seeking progressive reform.

There are all the elements I described in a nutshell.  And none of them really hang together in the light of actual historical experience, particularly the history of large-scale change that Mike addresses in his book.

But what comes next reveals an even further confusion:

Speaking of his misstep in referring to rural voters "clinging to guns and religion" Obama said:
    "part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,' " he continued. "Because, in fact, if you've grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that's going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you're watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we'd better be paying attention to that...

What we see here is Obama positively wallowing in rightwing narratives.  "Gun control" in America has never been about hunting and hunting rifles.  It has been about handguns, and it's the handgun industry above all that has worked 24/7, year after year to keep that confusion alive.  What Obama is demonstrating here is not a lack of sympathy for rural voters--which is how this incident was spun--so much as it's a lack of understanding of progressive gun control advocates.  It's the progressives he misunderstands much more profoundly than it's the conservatives.

The same can be said about Obama's posturing on religion.  He has in the past echoed the paranoid rhetoric of James Wallis talking about Democrats shaming and suppressing religious people.  Given that Congress contains exactly one out atheist, this seems not simply highly improbable, but downright delusional.  He seems to think that the people he's addressing in San Francisco are, indeed, the fantasy figures of fervid rightwing imaginations, just itching to find some minster's son or daughter to turn onto drugs and seduce.  He certainly seems to have no idea that it was Karl Marx who called the church, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.."  One does not have to be a believer to understand this.

It's passages like these that lend strong credence to the thesis of Obama the Conservative.  This is not just the temperamental outlook he posses, it is also socio-political outlook as well.  Intellectually, he knows that change is needed, but time and time again his reference points emerge as influenced, if not framed and defined by rightwing narratives that he himself quite clearly does not recognize as such.

If I am correct, Obama has a very difficult struggle ahead, not with Republicans in Congress or even with progressives in the netroots, but with himself, and the warring inclinations pulling in him two very different, very contradictory directions, which he himself does not seem to fully realize.

Levison goes on to write:

Soon after Obama's election it became clear that he was, in fact, quite systematically pursuing both of his key objectives - reducing the potential opposition of key social institutions and seeking to broaden his coalition into a commanding majority. The first objective was not immediately recognized as a long-term political strategy because the urgency of the problems Obama inherited made very dramatic overtures to the military and the business community seem inevitable. Liberals and progressives may have disliked a number of Obama's key military and economic policy cabinet choices, but they understood the quite urgent political imperatives that lay behind the selections. What was not necessarily apparent was that those choices were also consistent with a coherent long-term political strategy.

The second objective, on the other hand, seeking to extend his political coalition into a commanding majority, provoked substantial progressive annoyance -- particularly in the case of the selection of Rick Warren to participate in the inauguration and Obama's unreciprocated attempts to win Republican support for his stimulus package. In both these cases many liberal and progressive observers criticized Obama's efforts as seeming to reflect an excessively naïve and timid attitude toward the exercise of power.

This is not, however, outreach to sociological groups.  It is outreach to elites.  And the outreach to Washington insiders is particularly disassociated from any particular group of conservative populist rural voters or whoever it is that Obama things he needs for whatever it is he is eventually planning to do.  Indeed, if it's sociology you want, then Obama should know this: the leadership of the GOP is far more conservative and far more ideological than their voters are.  If he wants to reach those voters, then the way to do it is not to go through the GOP leadership, but to go around it.  This fundamental fact is extremely well known--particularly to that very same benighted enclave of political scientists that Levison referred to early on.  Even more well known--to Obama himself, especially, is that Obama is uniquely gifted as an orator for the task of going around these oppositional elites.  And thus his chosen path of engaging and trying to win over elites directly simply makes no sense in terms of the "sociological" theory that Levison advances.  If anything, it directly contradicts that thesis.  Obama appears to be intentionally choosing the path of greatest possible resistance.

Conclusion

It seems clear to me that, from a realist perspective, Obama's strategy cannot work for a whole host of reasons.  It seems equally clear, however, that Obama is not driven by realism.  This is the only way I can see to make sense of the multiple contradictions  indicated--though certainly not fully explored--above.  Thus, I agree with Mike Lux's contention that Obama will eventually have to move left and in a more partisan direction in order to accomplish anything significant.  However, the contradictions I've highlighted lead me to question if Obama will actually do what is needed for his own political success.  Democrats certainly have a long history in recent decades of acting in deeply self-defeating ways, and it remains to be seen if Obama is capable of doing something truly unique and breaking out of that mode.

At this point, our national situation is so dire that we must all hope for a swift and positive resolution of that questions--a resolution that, if history be any guide, must necessarily follow the path that Mike lays out.


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really good paul (4.00 / 9)
need some time to digest it and respond,  but i wanted to give you plaudits for presenting such a careful and thoughtful piece.

Thanks (4.00 / 4)
I almost didn't post it now, because it took so long and it's now so late in the day.  But I just had to get it out, if for no other reason than to make it possible for others to give me feedback.

I look forward to hearing from you.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
You did right (4.00 / 4)
Like the good doctor just said, this is really good. In fact, it's fookin brilliant is what it is -- a splendid antidote for the reams and reams of sophistry being pumped into our public discourse these days by the minions of the status quo, not to mention by our beloved friends and allies.

All I can say is, may God give them to see the right while it -- and we -- still have some chance of carrying the day.


[ Parent ]
Eyes on the prize (4.00 / 7)
As someone who was around when Martin Luther King was alive, and who listened to him intently, I've been absolutely horrified at the revisionism which has turned him into a plaster saint on the one hand, and a garden variety wheeler-dealer who just got lucky on the other.

It just isn't so. MLK was the genuine article, precisely because he never stopped learning, and he never stopped explaining what he'd learned to the rest of us -- a man of genuine vision, and as I can testify from personal experience, a beacon to white as well as black.

I also refuse to believe that political success always begins with a correct analysis of the balance of forces arrayed for and against us. In fact, I would insist that it never begins with that analysis, or with any other analysis, for that matter. It begins with need, and goes on from there, come hell or high water, until that need is both recognized and met. Tactics and strategy are necessary, but they're never sufficient. If you focus on them to the detriment of your cause, you'll fail every time.

As for what it feels like to win, I haven't a whole lot of experience, but I do remember that when I attended my first anti-war march in 1965, I couldn't in my wildest dreams have imagined that just three years later, I'd be part of an overwhelming national majority opposed to the war. It was just inconceivable.

Of course, as everyone hastens to point out when they hear us talk about how we won the intellectual argument, it's true that we didn't win the policy argument at all. On the contrary, we ushered in 40 years of political mendacity masquerading as the people's consensus, and finished putting the nails in the coffin of the New Deal while we were at it.

Well, I plead guilty as charged, but in the interest of mitigation, I'd also point out that I've served my time, and I'm still standing. Perhaps more to the point, the argument is still going on, and when all is said and done, sociology, no matter how insightful, isn't going to win it for us.



I Think It's Really Important To Pay Attention To History (4.00 / 5)
As I pointed out in my series "Three Waves and a Wall," there's this wave that Kevin Phillips writes about, where military defeat at the peak of imperial power leads to a multi-generational period of reactionary politics.  It happened before with Spain, then Holland, then England.

So what were the chances were could avoid it ourselves?  Slim to none, I'd say.  So you have to take that into account.  And you also have to remember the rest of the story, that a rebalancing eventually comes.  And for us, that time is now.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Yeah, I know, I know.... (4.00 / 2)
Time compression is the signature of modernity, I suppose. When I'd counsel people to be patient, to remember that if our analysis of the defects in what was being paraded as a national consensus, the New American Century, etc., proved correct, events would ultimately give us a hand, I never expected those events to come so soon, or so violently as they have.

I can't say I wasn't ready for them, but I'd feel more capable of responding to them if I were, say, twenty to thirty years younger. That's what the next generation is for, I guess. To be honest, once around the carousel was probably enough, and it's not that I'm not glad I lived long enough to see the cycle start up again.


[ Parent ]
the single most destructive trait of the Bush administration (4.00 / 8)
was its absolute adherence to ideology over reality. Whenever reality conflicted with their received ideas, they chose to persist in the course dictated by those ideas. And of course, their actions led to failure because they did not take the actual facts into account.

It's this total unmooring from facts and evidence that really distinguishes the Bush years from any previous presidency.

I am by no means sanguine that this has changed very much in the Obama administration. Obama's ideology (a nebulous, mushy belief that we can get good policies if everyone gets along) is much less pernicious than the right-wing ideology of the Bush administration.

But the results will be just as bad if he persists in placing his ideology above reality whenever the two conflict. Which, unfortunately, appears to be the case so far.

If the economic situation becomes much worse, it may shock him into taking more vigorous action. But many of those around him will try to insulate him from the reality of what's happening "on the ground." Though there are some rational voices in his administration (such as Chu and Solis), they may not be the ones he listens to.

In a situation where the leader himself has no particular direction or vision, the voices that are most listened to are usually those belonging to the most skilled intriguers--people like Summers and Emanuel. And that's bad news for us, because they're precisely the kind of people who prize their own ideology above reality, and will try to impose it on Obama.


I'm Afraid You're Right (4.00 / 6)
It's the exact opposite of what some were arguing.  Those appointments were anything but irrelevant.  They were, at least potentially, incredibly determinative.  Not if he wakes up and does a 180, of course.  But the sheer mass of insider intriguers brought in makes that prospect seem quite remote, at least as of now.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
From the moment the first person ... (4.00 / 4)
...said, in response to a criticism of one of Obama's Cabinet choices, that he would be setting policy and that these appointments were, in effect, mere cogs for the new decider in the White House, I knew we - that is, what you call populists and I call left-progressives, were in trouble. As if Bob McNamara or Henry Kissinger or even, to offer a more positive example, Frances Perkins, had no impact on the policies of their respective Presidents.


[ Parent ]
Thanks for presenting this explanation (4.00 / 3)
Your work, and others on Open Left, does so much to help me understand what is taking place at breakneck speed.  

Great post (4.00 / 8)
I have a few thoughts that came to me while reading this.  They don't directly relate to you central point, but they are in the neighborhood.

Punctuated Evolution

Darwin believed that evolution was gradual and species changed very slowing from generation to generation.  However, the fossil record hasn't really held up to this idea.  Instead, it seems the vast majority of change happens in very short periods of time.  Typically, this events happen after some major catastrophe such as meteor hits, climate changes or separated continents rejoining.

History also seems to work that way.  Though I haven't read Mike's book, it appears to be his point as well.

On one level, we know Obama gets this.  His entire rationale for running at the time he did, despite his age and experience, was due to his realization we were entering a period of major change.  And he continually talks about doing very big things.

But on another level, it seems this isn't his first impulse.  He lets the current elites define the boundaries of what is big and dramatic.

Populism versus Elites

The populism versus elites division you draw uses corporate business interests as the poster children of the elites.  And yes, that is very true.  But the division also represents mass opinion versus expertise.  Given how few Americans really know the Earth revolves around the sun (or believe in evolution) I certainly sympathize with those who choose to side with the elites.

The problem, of course, is which elites you side with.  The disconnect between the Villagers and real people is overwhelming.

[Personally, I seem to be a populist at this moment in time, but look forward to when I no longer need to be, if that makes any sense.]

Evolving Obama

Obama will adapt to the conditions he finds himself in.  Already, such as with the Dachelle appointment, he's found himself boxed in from his own rhetoric.  Obama promised big change, including fixing our health care and full energy independence.  He's going to have to adapt to get these things through, and I think he will.  (Though not as much as you would like.)

The interesting thing is Obama seems to be starting out a similar place as the Villagers and much of America.  This may mean that as Obama adapts the country will adapt with him.  We shall see.


Time (4.00 / 6)

The interesting thing is Obama seems to be starting out a similar place as the Villagers and much of America.  This may mean that as Obama adapts the country will adapt with him.  We shall see.

That's a very interesting observation, in light of all the conservatives who endorsed him in the election.  Opinion polls show that Americans have incredibly unrealistic expectations, that he will bring us back to the 90s by the end of his first term.

Sadly, neither Obama nor the country has much time.  My interpretation is that right now he is confused.  But as he stumbles along blinkered by his Villager orthodoxies, the hole we are all in is getting deeper and deeper.  Take a look at Japan, where the economy can only be said to be disintegrating.

I am truly scared about what will follow if Obama's presidency fails.


[ Parent ]
I Hope You're Right (4.00 / 3)
I think the analogy to PE is a good one.  And this next week could tell us an awful lot on the issue of evolving.  Such as what was last Thursday all about?  A giant headfake for progressives?  Or something more?

Sandwiched in between, my thoughts on the matter of elites are informed by a variety of examples, but here's one that I particularly like:  the approach to writing software that's user-driven.  As a programmer you could say I was a member of the elite.  And I'd have owners or managers tell me what they wanted the software to do.  But I always insisted on talking to the users first, to how their existing system worked (even if it wasn't computerized) and what there thoughts were about how it could be better.

The reason's obvious, of course.  They're the ones who know it best, and what seems like a good idea to manager can be a real pain when you actually have to use it for hours on end.  I always thought in terms of a well-designed system as being written for the hands-on users, it was only paid for by the owner or manager.  Of course, some owners or managers were totally in synch with that, and got the logic of it very easily.  Others, not so much.  But either way, it's how I tried to operate.  If it works for the "little people" then it will work for everyone.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Whatever your diagnosis of the underlying dynamics and causes (4.00 / 8)
Obama completely lost control of the politics and content of the stimulus bill over the last two weeks.

Compared to an LBJ, for example, and LBJ's pro-active relationships with Congress over important legislation, Obama and his team look like rank amateurs for failing to create any visible political momentum or pressure behind a workable stimulus bill.

All his talk about bipartisanship came to naught and he simply looked weak and vascillating when he should have been spearheading an all fronts campaign to negotiate the contents of the bill and obtain the votes he needed to get the best possible outcome.

This does not bode well for the future.


LBJ, Polk, and Obama (4.00 / 9)
LBJ was a powerful hands-on Senate majority Leader.  His strength was that he knew the individual dynamics of 100 individual Senators and how to move many of them to vote for his bills.  Rather than deriding Hubert Humphrey in 1949 when the freshman was arguably the most outspokenly liberal Senator, LBJ cultivated a relation with him (culminating in Humphrey's selction as Johnson's Vice President). Polk back in the 1840s came to the Presidency with experience as Speaker of the House and a list of priorities he wanted to implement.  Each was highly successful in getting things done.

Obama was a four-year back bencher who was mostly interested in achieving national political power rather than power in the Senate.  He never had either the time or the inclination to develop the personal relationships that might be able to transcend party or ideology.  Johnson, for example, attended the funeral of Bobby Byrd's beloved grandson in terrible weather and surprisingly picked up the key vote of the former KKKer for the Civil Rights Act.  There was no similar dynamic to move a Grassley or a Murkowski or a Coburn.  Nor was there much recognition that the personal could breach the ideological.

Personal connections seem more important than theoretical bipartisanship which appeals to some voters and many of the elite national columnists and reporters.  It is worth noting that the most famous statement of bipartisanship (Vandenberg's alliance with Truman and Marshall) would have excluded something like the stimulus act, "Partisanship stops at the water's edge."

The Senate may well have changed for the worse over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years but the sort of precisely calibrated ideological maneuver to the exact center is a poor basis for Senate success.  Build relationships and drive a hard bargain that gives nothing away at the start.  That is a more promising basis to get something done.


[ Parent ]
This Is Far Too Sensible, And Historically Knowledgeable (4.00 / 3)
Must be a DFH.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Paul, (4.00 / 6)
This is a really top notch post.  It crystallizes and provides a compelling narrative for the confusion that many progressives have felt regarding Obama.  He seems to have a progressive identity, but also alarms progressives with his easy embrace of political elites who seek to maintain the status quo.

While you do point out that much of Obama's mindset drives him towards an untenable position in these days of plummeting economic decline, you also argue that there is a part of him that is actually a true liberal, a true progressive, who understands the need for sweeping change.  There are times when I doubt this, that his great progressive rhetoric is simply a part of his past that he finds to be politically useful, but which he really no longer believes.  

But if you are indeed right, that a significant part of him still truly believes in these progressive ideals and that this is his one chance to make them happen, than I find your conclusion somewhat more hopeful than you yourself perhaps do.  The reason why is that Obama has, over the last two years, shown a tremendous ability to adjust and adapt to the challenges that he faces.  Certainly he has not been perfect.  

But I think he will realize certain things very quickly.  Already I think he is realizing the absurdity of placing bipartisanship on the same value scale as the need for getting good legislation passed.  

The more difficult task, if he does come to a more openly progressive approach in his presidency, will be to deal with the overpowering establishment giants that he has surrounded himself with.  That, in my opinion, is the real challenge.


I Agree That Obama Is Highly Adaptable (4.00 / 5)
But this is a two-edged sword.  One who can adapt so fluidly on a tactical level may be slow to realize the need for strategic adaptation.  And one who excels at strategic adaption may be slow to see the need for a philosophical reorientation. So this is the danger I see there. This is why I think it's important to really confront the more pessimistic possibilities and bring them to light.  I'm always hoping that by doing so, it will help avoid them.

So, it's good that you feel more optimistic.  I'm not out to make folks so depressed that they don't do anything at all.  Your response is pretty much optimal from my POV.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Another way to frame this (4.00 / 2)
which maybe is already in your post--but I'm so buried that I can't give it the time it deserves--is:

between political progressives and philosophical progressives?

This quote--which encapsulates what you've been saying all along is right on the mark I think,

"If I am correct, Obama has a very difficult struggle ahead, not with Republicans in Congress or even with progressives in the netroots, but with himself, and the warring inclinations pulling in him two very different, very contradictory directions, which he himself does not seem to fully realize."

Making this up as I go along, there seem to be the philosophical progressives who were steeped in a belief in the fantasy of a "win-win" world (I tried to write a post on this recently but it didn't come together that well) and the political progressives who are in for a fight.  The philosophical progressives are inherently elitists (they're philosophers, after all).  There is some overlap between the political progressives and populists understood in a broad sense.  But the political progressives are still somewhat elitist in their intellectual bent--they know the answers.    

As you've said, Obama desperately seems to want to believe in the world constructed in abstraction by the philosophical progressives.  But he's running into the world experienced by the political progressives.  Can he give up on the utopian vision?  Does he have to?  How flexible is the philosophical vision of a "Great Community" all working together for a common goal?  We may need to learn, whether we like it or not.

Oddly enough, there really aren't that many philosophical progressives left in the public world, today.  It's weirdly like a fellow traveler with John Dewey was elected president a half-century after his death.  We are in this strange time-travel world where a progressive partly out of our past (ala the sleeper in Looking Backward) ended up in power in a world where few people even understand where he's coming from anymore.  

Just some scattered thoughts.

--Aaron Schutz (Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing)


Well You Scatted Some Good Ones (4.00 / 2)
I'm actually a philosophical progressive myself.  (What else could you call a "Star Trek Socialist"?)

But I know the canon.  First you have to have the Bell Riots.

I've always been like that. Half Utopian, half rabble-rouser.  Can't have one without the other, it always seemed to me, even though it made folks look at me funny.  Isn't that what troubadours from Billy Blake to Billy Bragg have always been about?


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Great post (4.00 / 2)
It's almost 4AM here, so I'm not even going to try to make a coherent comment until I've had some sleep, but I think that's a great synthesis.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

He's gotta name names (4.00 / 2)
Unfortunately, many of the names we'd probably agree he should be naming as causes of the problem, he's already identified as being part of the solution. It's probably already too late for him to change his mind about supporting the likes of Collins et al and "House Republicans acting in good faith." I just read billmon's diary from the inauguration:

"If our new president really aspires to fix a broken economy, provide national health care, find alternative energy sources, restore the rule of law, withdraw from Iraq, win in Afghanistan (we could argue about that last one, but these are his priorities, not mine) and otherwise remake America -- or at least get a start on the process during his first term -- at some point soon he'll need to become a lot more explicit about what he is willing to do to his fellow politicians, as well as with them, to make it happen."

Maybe he'll start telling us this week he's going to do to those that are responsible for screwing up the opening scene of his presidency. My fear is he's not going to do it to politicians who didn't vote for his plan, he's going to do it to those of us who voted for him.


Well, That's What He's BEEN Doing (4.00 / 4)
My fear is he's not going to do it to politicians who didn't vote for his plan, he's going to do it to those of us who voted for him.

And it hasn't worked out so well, so far, now has it?

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Thanks, Paul. I'll need to read ... (4.00 / 3)
...this a second time to fully digest. But I appreciate your willingness to go so far in depth and to do such a fair and respectful job of "arguing" with those who disagree with you. Always a pleasure, always a mind-stretcher.

Excellent analysis, Paul. (4.00 / 2)
You do consistently excellent work.

I read Kolko as a history undergrad in the 80s.  Very interesting critique.  "Competition is killing us."

Re Obama.  It may be wishfull thinking on my parrt, but I also think tow things will force him left: (1) a depression (the stimulus won't be enough) and (2) Republican intransigence.

He will face a moment of truth in which he must chose which side he is on.  I hope he does not choose the elites.  It could go either way.


Paul, I love reading your stuff (4.00 / 3)
Your writing makes me think.  I tend to be less cerebal than some on the blogs and my emotions can get the best of me.  I think that goes back to my years in the classroom, in education, in poorer schools, fighting for funding, for kids, going against the tunnel visioned folks who seem to think if kids succeed it's the parents' doing, if kids fail, it's the teacher/the system of public education's fault.  In reality, I know, we all know that human beings, including children, are complex.  There are no formulas. Ruby Payne is a woman that has written much on the poor in relationship to education for teachers.  One of her tenets is this: (not a direct quote but the essence) in rich communities, connections are valued; in the middle class, achievement is valued; in poor communities, relationships are valued.  Her point was for teachers that in order to succeed with students, one must develop deep and trusted relationships with the community (kids, parents, grandparents, neighbors).  In my experience, it is quite true. I think that it works with the masses.....I think what carried Bill Clinton through his impeachment with still high numbers is that he, compared with his counterparts, was able to relate to/with the common man.  Despite the press' description of Bush as the kind of guy you could have a beer with, I believe most saw him as the rich frat boy who you could party with one night and the next day he would act as if he did not know you (if you did not have the right DNA).

Loved how you used King's words.  The complexity of the goal was seen by Dr. King. I also think it was seen by Malcom X.  Reading his autobiography, along with reading anything and everything about MLK, back in the late 60s, early 70s profoundly influenced me.  

Also I think both learned a profound lesson over their lifetimes.....one must adjust one's thinking, one's MO all through life. And one must connect with the people.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this:

Indeed, if it's sociology you want, then Obama should know this: the leadership of the GOP is far more conservative and far more ideological than their voters are.  If he wants to reach those voters, then the way to do it is not to go through the GOP leadership, but to go around it.

I think the successful politicians do connect with the people and Obama has that ability.  But he has to use it more, and not just rely on the oratory or work to convince the political elites.  MLK inspired with oratory to be sure, but watching him, as a kid, walking with people, arm in arm, one had the sense he was indeed one of them. I do not see or feel that yet with Obama.........but I believe it is there.
He needs to take it to the people, which is what I hope tonight is about.

Anyway, I probably went off on too much of a tangent (my bad habit) but thanks for this interesting, thought provoking piece.


Thanks For A Very Thoughtful Comment (4.00 / 2)
Not a tangent at all.  In fact, you've honed in on a very important part of the story that I was afraid I had buried because I had so much ground to cover.  I was primarily focused on analyzing this theory, and how it fails to come to grips with what's missing in Obama's performance so far.  But implicit throughout is the recognition that Obama has enormous potential, and you've done a very good job of tapping into that vein. I do believe that Obama knows the things you're talking about, that he recognizes the primacy of relationships, that he retains the lessons he learned as an organizer, and that he understands King much better than most.

But all that is pretty much latent now.  It's been put on the back burner, and it needs to be brought right out front.  I was primarily concerned with what's blocking that from happening.  Your comment throws more light on what's being blocked.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Good, glad my (4.00 / 3)
often random thinking process hit the right places.  

I do believe that Obama has the natural talents and instincts to win these battles, and the people behind him.  Perhaps too many advisers are telling him what he SHOULD be saying/doing....instead of him trusting himself.

I think that is what happened to Hillary in the primary.  She allowed "experts" over overrule her instincts.  Perhaps it is part of the overwhelming reality of being such a historical first.
My theory is that Hillary succumbed to that pressure first (because of expectations) and thus starting doubting her own instincts.  She put her natural abilities to relate on hold because of being told she needed to look more hawkish because her gender made that an issue.
Obama, on the other hand, was freed up to be more in touch with his natural instincts......to connect, to be more natural in his oration because it was reflecting his deepest conviction. But now, the pressure is on him....perhaps his overwhelming pressure of history (as well as the future of others, minority/females....because he will be the role model, positive or negative) is causing some self doubt and disconnecting him from his core.

Perhaps, tonight, he will not be blocked.


[ Parent ]
Now what? (4.00 / 2)
Paul, I love this piece.  

But what to do with it?   I wrote a day or so ago, that I am skeptical..what's the point anymore of trying to figure out what's at the core of Obama's thinking or the various theories of his great end game?  This speculation has been a feature of the Obama phenomenon since the beginning.  

I'm repeating myself, but as the country sinks deeper into the pit by the day, who Obama surrounds himself with and his actions are all that matter.   While I think you've succeeded better than any other in explaining why he is doing what he's doing and where it all comes from the upshot is the same: he is failing in his response to the emergency before him and us and in recognizing the forces and opportunities that have aligned in this moment.  

Are you really suggesting that at this point, all there is for us to do is lie back and hope that the course of these truly frightening events pull him left sooner rather than later?  That can't be.  Not from you.

Perhaps your real goal here is to force liberals/progressives/populists(whatever we choose to call o ourselves) to understand our work...what we must do given the unprecedented demands given our failing institutions and the rebalancing (as you call it...I like it) ahead.  The first step must be to shake ourselves free of the false comfort of seeing what we want to see in the man we helped place in the White House, rather than the man who is really there now.  (Or the man we HOPE he eventually becomes.)  

I'm sorry to ask such a question.  But with things collapsing, what I most crave at this point is clarity.   Is this it?  



Lincoln Said "We Must Disenthrall Ourselves, And Then We Shall Save Our Country" (4.00 / 2)
This is it exactly:

Perhaps your real goal here is to force liberals/progressives/populists(whatever we choose to call o ourselves) to understand our work...what we must do given the unprecedented demands given our failing institutions and the rebalancing (as you call it...I like it) ahead.  The first step must be to shake ourselves free of the false comfort of seeing what we want to see in the man we helped place in the White House, rather than the man who is really there now.  (Or the man we HOPE he eventually becomes.)  

We, progressives, have to first disenthrall ourselves from our images, hopes and expectations of Obama.  We must see him clearly for what he is, warts and all.  My emphasis here has been in tearing down illusions.

But beyond those illusions, I really think there's a very important truth, as well.  It's just that it's very complicated, and not at all simple and straightforward.  Dealing with that complicated reality requires seeing through the illusion.  It requires us to disenthrall ourselves.  And if we can do that, it we can disenthrall ourselves and act clear-eyed and level-headed (not cynical), then we can help disenthrall Obama as well.  And then we shall save our country.

This will be a process that takes some time.  It won't happen all at once.  But it will go on in parallel with more immediate political action that will become increasingly effective as it becomes increasingly guided by a disenthralled understanding of what is going on.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
I meant to squeeze this in last night. Better late than never, I figure.... (4.00 / 3)
Looking for love in all the wrong places kept running through my mind as I read the last half of this piece. And why would a smart guy like Obama look anywhere in the world of politics for anything resembling love? Could it be that, like Clinton he sees love as the path to power?

Last July, Ryan Lizza wrote a very detailed and useful overview of Obama's experiences in Chicago politics for the New Yorker:

Making It, by Ryan Lizza

In the midst of a fascinating read, this was the passage that leapt out at me:

Gradually, Chicago caught up with the rest of the country and media-driven politics eclipsed machine-driven politics. "It became increasingly difficult to get into homes and apartments to talk about candidates," Rose said. "High-rises were tough if not impossible to crack, and other parts of the city had become too dangerous to walk around in for hours at a time. And people didn't want to answer their doors. Thus the increasing dependence on TV, radio, direct mail, phone-banking, robocalls, et cetera-all things that cost a hell of a lot more money than patronage workers, who were themselves in decline, anyway, because of anti-patronage court rulings." Instead of a large army of ward heelers dragging people to the polls, candidates needed a small army of donors to pay for commercials. Money replaced bodies as the currency of Chicago politics. This new system became known as "pinstripe patronage," because the key to winning was not rewarding voters with jobs but rewarding donors with government contracts.

E. J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post, wrote about this transition in a 1999 column after Daley was reëlected. Dionne wrote about a young Barack Obama, who artfully explained how the new pinstripe patronage worked: a politician rewards the law firms, developers, and brokerage houses with contracts, and in return they pay for the new ad campaigns necessary for reëlection. "They do well, and you get a $5 million to $10 million war chest," Obama told Dionne. It was a classic Obamaism: superficially critical of some unseemly aspect of the political process without necessarily forswearing the practice itself. Obama was learning that one of the greatest skills a politician can possess is candor about the dirty work it takes to get and stay elected.

This is the devil's bargain which has snared every politician in America since the rise of television and the suburbs. The purely political analysis is correct; to become President, you have to color inside these lines. The problem, of course, is that it shackles you to irreconcilable opposites, something which the New Left tried to come to terms with, to little avail, more than forty years ago. That is why, all else being equal, Presidents don't make social change. Period.

In times of crisis, either more or less naturally occurring ones, like our present economic collapse, or assisted ones, like the Civil Rights Movement, all else is not equal, and a moment comes when, if he has the guts and the vision, a President can step outside his circle of donors and materially assist social change with a force simply not available to anyone else, except perhaps to a 15th century condottiero. Lincoln, FDR, LBJ -- we all know the list of Presidents who've been equal to the task.

Will Obama be such a President? Will he be able to identify and make beneficial use of what old Marxists used to call pre-revolutionary conditions, or will his nerve fail at the critical moment. That depends, I think, on what's inside him, why he wanted to be President in the first place. Which, of course, we can't really know until we see it. Certainly all the elements which should be visible in a person with that potential are visible in Obama. Are they an accurate guide to what comes next?

As many have said, on OpenLeft threads and elsewhere, only time will tell.


That Lizza bit certainly goes to the heart of what's so (4.00 / 2)
psychologically fascinating about Obama- he reads as an entirely incomparable mix of idealism and cynicism.
      I have to take it as good sign that he's turned back towards a campaign mode of direct interaction. Yes, it's  political move, but it's a move that reveals an important conception of what it is to be political. The Beltway media is failing him, and he knows it, and he's turning aggressively to the other cards in his hands. The lessons he's learned here may be precisely what we needed him most to learn.
   

[ Parent ]
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