Continuing a theme of my diary earlier today, "IQ Measures Modernization, Not Intelligence", here's a further elaboration on the thesis that part of what we need to do is "take account of how people are automatically slicing up the world, if we want to talk to them about slicing it up a bit differently."
I want to talk about slicing things up on several different levels: how we slice up the world when we use the word "progressive," how populists and progressives slice up the world differently, and how liberals and movement conservatives slice up the populist/progressive dualism differently.
What got me thinking about this was the recent return of questions about Obama's progressive bona fides following his attack on Paul Krugman. One analysis I've been particularly sympathetic over time has come from Chris Bowers, who finds Obama's positions to be generally progressive-though not earthshaking-but finds his manner, his way of conducting himself as a political actor to be lacking. This came to an extreme head earlier this week in his post "What Really Bothers Me About Obama", which both accentuates the praise, specifically for Obama's new media strategy, as well as the criticism. What's particularly appealing about this analysis is that I think that a lot of Obama supporters would actually agree with the overall analysis (if not this particular post), but would interpret it differently on two counts-first, by decrying the focus on maner as superficial, even arbitrary and hiding a "hidden agenda" on Chris's part (so well hidden that they can't even say what it is), and second, by turning what Chris sees as minuses into plusses ("how to get things done").
In this diary, I want to try to provide some historical and cultural depth to frame this analysis, and in doing so address these two interpretative differences. As a bonus, possibly, just possibly, I might bring about some small degree of agreement.
My thesis is simply stated: Obama really is a progressive, in the classic, early-20th Century sense, and this is where some of the problems with him come from. "Progressive" in this sense has some continuity with more recent usages, but some significant differences as well. That's because the term "progressive" was revived in the late 60s and early 70s in a somewhat different sense-it was used as a counter-identification by those coming out of the anti-war, civil rights/black power and women's liberation movements, to distinguish themselves from Cold War/corporate liberals who had basically captured the term "liberal" for themselves.
I plan to return to this genesis in a future diary. But for now, Obama's early vocal opposition linked with his intentional distancing from the anti-war movement clearly marks a divide in his own thinking that makes no sense in terms of 1960s vintage progressivism, but makes a lot more sense in terms of early 20th-Century progressivism.
To be a "progressive" in this late-20th Century sense was actually more insurgent and populist than it was historically connected with the original sense of "progressive," even though their were legitimate continuities as well, which were clearly visible, for example in the pages of The Progressive magazine, as well as in Naderite wing of the progressive movement as it gained strength in the 1970s. These new progressives represented a reconfiguring politics that did not fit neatly into what had gone before-but that's rather typical of the way that American politics has always developed, reweaving threads from different skeins together. Furthermore, they had much more in common with others-such a left-leaning labor activists-who had stronger, unbroken lineages, than was widely recognized at the time.
While the new progressives self-identified as such as far back as the late 60s, the term was not widely picked up on in the broader political press, which made it ripe for appropriation by their exact opposites-conservative pro-business Democrats who were increasingly worried by the influence of progressives on mainstream establishment liberalism from the later 70s onward. Thus it was that when the DLC was finally formally established, following a series of earlier, more ad-hoc incarnations, it created as its think tank "The Progressive Policy Institute," which had virtually nothing progressive about it, save for some of the least appealing aspects of early 20th Century "progressivism." While Barack Obama is nowhere near as regressive as the DLC, this bifrucated usage of the term "progressive" is key to understanding much of the confusion that surrounds claims and counter-claims about his status as a progressive.
|Purpose of This Diary
This diary is not intended to provide a detailed critique of Obama, but rather to clarify what I see as a background matrix of concerns and tensions which many on both sides may only be peripherally aware of. In turn, the background that it discusses has broader implications for our politics that go well beyond Obama and presidential politics more generally, which I will explore further in a follow-up diary. Thus, while occassioned by recent criticisms, it is more concerned with trying to situate them in a larger framework, the underlying logic of which is far more central to this diary than Obama himself. Obama's importance is (1) his importance and (2) his intriguing fidelity to the earlier progressive model. In short, yes, he's a hot topic, but he really does help focus attention on something much more general, that touches on many other subjects.
Prelude: Recapitulating Bowers' Critique
As I said above, "What Really Bothers Me About Obama", is congruent with the overall thrust that Chris Bowers has had in evaluating Obama over the past year or more, but accentuating both polarities, while narrowing his focus:
Barack Obama is simultaneously the best and worst Democratic candidate for new progressive media and new progressive institutions. Where his campaign is good, it is very good in this area, especially around media policy and earning support from users of new media. However, where his campaign is bad in this area, it is very bad, including in engaging direct attacks against multiple progressive and new media figures....
This is a campaign that appears willing to go negative against a wide range of progressive media figures should those figures step out of line and criticize Obama campaign decisions....
It isn't just about attacking progressive media figures, either.... Overall, the willingness to attack progressive media figures, the poor blogosphere outreach, the willingness to triangulate against left-wing strawmen, and incessant, beltway-pundit friendly talk about the need to "fix" Social Security, combine to paint a pretty stark picture of the Obama campaign's relationship with progressive media and new progressive institutions. That is to say, he doesn't like those new institutions, and is instead making friends with the more established media infrastructure.
Obama actually seems to be doing a good job in this area, as he receives significantly more positive media than any other Presidential candidate. Certainly, showing a distaste for the dirty hippies and real concern over the need to "fix" Social Security can make you a lot of friends among media figures who have the ability to sway public opinion. Obama's improvement in the polls over the past six or seven weeks must be strongly connected to the media favoring him above all other presidential candidates, Democratic or Republican.
This is the sort of criticism that Obama partisans will claim has very little to do with policy positions, and thus is largely ad hominem (against the man), in the broadest sense-not an example of a fallacious ad hominem attack, but a criticism of Obama that does not square with his policy positions. There is some genuine merit to this claim, as well as some incredible blindness. Politics, after all, is as much about alliances, who your friends and enemies are, as it is about policies. In the real world, one cannot separate the two. And Obama has a decidedly odd habit of repeatedly bashing his supposed friends, often using the exact same rhetoric as their sworn enemies.
My argument here is that this behaviour is decidedly less odd if one conceives of Obama as an early-1900s Progressive, rather than a late 1900s Progressive, and sees those whom he takes pot-shots at as often (though not always) representing Populist tendencies that he finds dangerous. Further, the "not always" cases include instances where Obama-again, similarly to the early-1900s Progressives-situationally adopts specific Populist positions, the way that Progressives adopted and furthered Populists' prohibitionist crusade, for example. Obama's attack on phantom secular leftists suppressing religious self-expression is an example of such situtational Populism on his part.
And so I turn to explicating the background, and the primary text I use comes-appropriately enough, given Obama's background-comes from a discussion of Populism, Progressivism and Constitutional law.
Background: Populism and Progressivism Compared, Jack Balkin Edition
A very good description of the tensions between populist and progressive attitudes can be found in Jack Balkin's Yale Law Review article, "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories". Balkin is the proprieter of one of the oldest (if not the oldest) law-centered blogs, "Balkinization. Digby linked to this article back in 2005 (she saw Kraftwerk the same month, I'm so jealous!), and what she wrote then is still worth taking a look at, but my take is slightly different than hers, and my purpose differs even more. Still, I will reference her below, so it's not a bad idea to read the whole thing. After all, it's Digby.
Balkin sees value as well as shortcomings in both populism and progressivism. Digby highlighted the dark side of populism-and with good reason. But populism also has a strong egalitarian bent, as well as a respect for the autonomy of ordinary people, and progressivism has its flaws as well. Moreover, the historical movements that gave rise to these terms were closely related, as Balkin notes:
By "populism" and "progressivism," I mean to invoke the spirit of two successive reform movements in American history, the first primarily agrarian and the second urban.(26) Despite their differences, progressivism and populism had many similarities, so much so in fact that the two are easily confused. Many of the reforms advocated by populists in the late nineteenth century -- for example, direct election of senators, the eight-hour day, graduated income taxation, and currency reform -- were put in place by progressives in the early twentieth century, albeit for somewhat different reasons.(27) Thus, although I am particularly interested in the ways in which populism and progressivism diverge, the two should not be seen as diametrically opposed. They were and are often uneasy allies, but allies they have been nevertheless. Moreover, when I speak of "populism" and "progressivism" today, I am necessarily extrapolating from events in American history to offer principles that might help us understand trends in contemporary political debates. This is an exercise in the description of ideal types; few people can be said to match the portraits I offer in all respects.(28)
Although populism and progressivism share a desire for reform, they diverge most significantly in their attitudes towards the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of the mass of ordinary citizens. They take different views about ordinary citizens' private activities, their cultural attachments, and the possibility of their participation in mass politics.
To put it succinctly, progressives tend to think that people need fixing before they can be decent citizens. But populists have a sensible counter-argument, Balkin explains:
Yet populism also demands recognition that citizens may have good reasons to neglect politics. This inattention may reflect the comparative urgency of the demands of everyday life, or a belief that government adequately albeit imperfectly serves their interests. However, it may also reflect the growing judgment that government is the seat of corruption, privilege, cronyism, and injustice. At some point, this indignation will surface in popular political action, and when it occurs, it must be given its due. From a populist perspective, an alternation between periods of relative inattention and episodes of popular uprising is not a pathological but a normal feature of democratic life. It symbolizes the people's simultaneous recognition that they ultimately rule and that their government is usually in the hands of people who systematically forget this fact. The model of populist democracy is not prolonged dialogue but periodic revolution.
Of course, progressives disagree:
This alternation between inattention and outrage looks quite different and very disturbing from the perspective of progressivism. Citizen activism is supposed to be continuous and sustained rather than concentrated in brief moments of outrage, just as sustained rational deliberation is to be preferred to sporadic outbursts and expostulations. Some progressives may seek revolutionary changes in society, but in its preference for sustained democratic deliberation, progressivism is decidedly antirevolutionary.
Faced with recurrent political apathy, progressivism has traditionally decried civic sloth and preached the gospel of public participation. Yet precisely at those moments when the citizenry is most eager and engaged, progressives are rarely pleased with the results. An energized populace is, unfortunately, empowered by popular sentiment and popular passion. Progressivism tends to be suspicious of such energy, thinking it usually badly informed and misdirected by clever manipulation.(187) Thus progressivism finds itself continually hoping for an active citizenry, but perpetually in fear that it will get what it wishes for.
We have seen this schizophrenia before. It is the simultaneous trust of the democratic process in the abstract coupled with a distrust of the same process when goaded and controlled by ordinary citizens. Populism's vision of normal politics is progressivism's nightmare -- a citizenry that sporadically takes power into its own hands without adequate preparation and sufficient education in proper values. Yet from populism's standpoint the progressive dream is hardly heavenly -- for it is premised on disdain and disrespect for popular will and civic energy. It is a participation with only idealized participants, a democratic culture without a demos.
Elsewhere, Balkin further fleshes out populists' contrary attitudes, which I believe are good to keep in mind, as progressives tend to devalue or overlook them, since they don't translate well into a progressive issue framework:
Because of its concern about corruption and its insistence that people have control over the structures of power that affect them, populism has historically been suspicious of elites -- whether academic, social, or political -- and their claims to expertise and superior judgment. It has been especially skeptical of factual expertise that parades as moral or political expertise.
The purpose of government has both a public and a private aspect for populists. Government exists to provide individuals and their families and communities with a chance to live their own lives in dignity, and to allow them to form relationships with others free from the hand of powerful public and private forces. Although this description appears to privilege private interest and association, populism has an equally important public side: It demands that ordinary people have a say in the decisions that affect them, that they be able to participate in those structures of power that shape their daily lives. Thus, populism is based on a particular conception of self-rule and self-determination, one in which the active participation of the citizenry -- when they choose to participate -- is encouraged and facilitated. This interrelation between the public and private aspects of populism is crucial to understanding its distinctive character.
People want to be part of governance, but what they want from government is respect for their ways of living. People wish to participate in government, but they do not wish to be manipulated and shaped by some master plan for effective governance. They want the opportunity to have a say in what affects them, but they also wish to be allowed to live their lives, raise their children, and pursue their own vision of happiness -- whether in families, friendships, or communities -- free from the hand of bureaucratic planning or corporate overreaching.
Finally, before moving on from Balkin's article as background, it's worth taking note of one more point he makes;
The distinction between populism and progressivism is orthogonal to the more familiar distinction between "left" and "right." An opposition between progressivism and populism exists wholly within left-liberal discourse, just as one exists within the discourse of conservatives; we might say that the two sets of oppositions form a box of four.(24)
The footnote notes:
24. For example, in the 1896 election the concept of "the progressive society" -- one devoted to rational progress, civic duty, and social order -- was offered by the Republican defenders of the values of the Gilded Age against what was thought to be a dangerous populist insurgency. See LAWRENCE GOODWYN, THE POPULIST MOMENT: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AGRARIAN REVOLT IN AMERICA 272-73 (1978).
We tend to hear a great deal about rightwing populism, which is hardly an accident, since leftwing populism is arguably the most threatening force in American politics, as far as America's political elites are concerned, and rightwing populism is the most effective way to disrupt leftwing populism. But as Balkin argues here, there is a distinctly left-wing populist tradition that cannot be fairly dismissed through guilt-by-association with rightwing populism. Similarly-though it sounds oxymoronic-there is also a rightwing progressive tradition, as well. Indeed, this has been the very essence of the rightwing media-think-tank-industrial complex built up since the 1970s, which has been so central to the advancement of conservative hegemony. There is no real "progress" in any form that readers of Open Left would recognize, but there is the creation of an ever more elaborate elitist rationale underscored by claims about the common good-all of which is quite typical of progressive politics.
In the post where Digby links to Balkin's article, the very beginning is particularly relevant to the argument I'm about to make. It goes something like this:
Via Daniel Munz, who's pinch hitting over at Ezra's place, I see that my old pal "Mudcat" Saunders is offering some more good advice to Democrats:
"Bubba doesn't call them illegal immigrants. He calls them illegal aliens. If the Democrats put illegal aliens in their bait can, we're going to come home with a bunch of white males in the boat."The thing is, he's absolutely right. To put together this great new populist revival everybody's talking about, where we get the boys in the pick-up trucks to start voting their "self-interest," we're probably going to need to get up a new nativist movement to go along with it. That's pretty much how populism has always been played in the past, particularly in the south. Certainly, you can rail against the moneyed elites, but there is little evidence that it will work unless you provide somebody on the bottom that the good ole boys can really stomp. As Jack Balkin wrote in this fascinating piece on populism and progressivism:
History teaches us that populism has recurring pathologies; it is especially important to recognize and counteract them. These dangers are particularly obvious to academics and other intellectual elites: They include fascism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, persecution of unpopular minorities, exaltation of the mediocre, and romantic exaggeration of the wisdom and virtue of the masses. Is it any wonder that the right has been more successful in recently in inflaming the populist impulse in America? They are not squeamish about using just those pathologies --- and only those pathologies -- to gain populist credibility in spite of a blatant lack of populist policy.
Now, I agree with this analysis something like 90-95%. That other 5-10% has a name: John Edwards. And for me, it's absolutely striking how all the Versailles talk about the Democrats' need to reach out to white working class men occurs in an alternate universe where there is no John Edwards, and what little Versailles talk there is about John Edwards occurs in an alternative universe where there is no Mudcat Sanders. In short: the pathologies of populism vastly overshadow the sound aspects in terms of political salience, but there's an enormous amount of political, social and cultural work that's gone into producing this situation-a situation in which this appears to be perfectly normal, when it is actually anything but. This is not to claim that John Edwards is perfect-merely that he is there, despite all of Versailles' deep-seated desire to pretend that he is not.
Progessivism and Populism: The Matrix Crystalized
With this background in place, I'm now ready to extract a maxtrix of ideas that I think can help illuminate what is going on with Barack Obama:
(1) As Balkin notes, populism and progressivism both transcend right and left. This does not mean that right- and left-wing versions are similar or interchangeable, or anything else. It merely means that they exist.
(2) Populism and progressivism share some concerns while differing over others. Areas of difference tend to be deeper than mere disagreement, they tend to differences on conception: where they disagree, populists and progressives tend to talk right past one another.
(3) However, this does not have to be so. Progressives need not be so at odds with populists. Instead of trying to reform the people for an ideal form of citizenship, for example, progressives can look for collaborative approaches toward creating better structures that facilitate both populist and progressive goals.
One potential example would be adoption of the Swiss system of initiatives, which is significantly more sophisticated than the American imitation. The Swiss system uses popular initiatives to put items on the public agenda, but allows the legislature to substitute its own proposals-if validated by the public in subsequent elections. It thus combines a populist respect for broad public participation in demanding that "attention must be paid" with a progressive respect for inclusive, far-sighted deliberative processes.
(4) Populism and progressivism change over time. They are living traditions, with core characteristics that endure over time, but what makes them particularly salient at one point in time can be quite different from what makes them salient at another.
(5) Bringing one or more issues to the fore can have the effect of "branding" populism or progressivism with that issue and related attitudes, and this can have a significant distorting effect on the inherent internal logic, creating a political dynamic that draws from foundations that could, under different circumstances, lead in a very different direction.
In this election cycle, immigration-a relatively low-salience topic-has been continuously used to promote a rightwing populist slant. Failure to challenge this is deeply threatening to the natural demographic base of the future Democratic majority, as Chris has written about many times. In contrast, failure to talk about single-payer health care, instead getting entangled in a morass of technocratic (i.e. "progressive-friendly) plans that fail to fundamentally transform the system, has significantly reduced the populist impact of a very high salience topic.
(6) No one is a pure Progressive or pure Populist. As Balkin notes, he is talking about "ideal types." There are all different manner of admixtures. But, for reasons I've touched on, Obama does seem to be a particularly distinct example of the Progressive ideal type-especially in contrast to more recent usages of the term.
(7) Although many netroots participants are quite knowledgeable, and may even have a full-blown progressive mindset, as opposed to a populist one, the nature of the netroots over-all is populist, reflecting the values described by Balkin above. (One sees this particularly vividly in a number of historically significant blogs-in Eric Alterman's Altercation, with its ongoing discussions of Bruce Springsteen, in Kos's biographical history, and blogs outside of Dkos, dealing with sports, motherhood and faith, in FireDogLake and Huffington Post's deep connections to popular culture, etc.) Thus, there is a distinct cross-wiring between the traditional assumptions that progressive elites are more deeply knoweldgeable than populist masses. When it comes to all manner of Bush Administration scandals, as well as policy alternatives that are simply "unthinkable," the populist netroots are far more knowledgeable than the progressive elites of Versailles, as Glenn Greenwald routinely makes painfully clear.
(8) There is a widespread mis-perception in the netroots that mis-identifies 1960s and later "progressive" movements ("progressive" in the "not Cold War liberal" sense) with relatively isolated, though well-heeled, national organizations that are part of institutional Versailles, and are "progressive" in Balkin's "progressive vs. populist" sense. In fact, these movements were actually much more populist than progressive, propelled from the grassroots up. However, for various reasons they were not coherently institutionalized with an organizational density comparable to the economic populist institutions of the labor movement that was the defining legacy of the 1930s.
Yet, there are still a large number of activists and organizations at the local and statewide level that retain a significant populist flavor around issues of peace, gender, the environment, etc. This includes such ostensibly "non-political" organizations as breat cancer survivor groups, for example, that are directly descended from the women's grassroots healthcare movement epitomized by Our Bodies, Ourselves, by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. As Wikipedia notes:
The booklet was originally intended as the basis for a women's health course, the first to be written for women by women. The health seminar that inspired the booklet was organized in 1969 by Nancy Miriam Hawley at Boston's Emmanuel College. "We weren't encouraged to ask questions, but to depend on the so-called experts," Hawley told Women's eNews. "Not having a say in our own health care frustrated and angered us. We didn't have the information we needed, so we decided to find it on our own."
It just doesn't get much more populist than that.
(9) The netroots mis-perception in #8 is feed by the fact that national blogs tend to highlight confrontations with Versailles progressive elite institutions, while having relatively little occasion to discuss local, grassroots, more populist manifestations that actually involve far more people, if not a comparable degree of political influence.
(10) The progressive elite belief is that educated elites can solve the big problems, but that ignorant, emotionally divided masses get in the way and muck things up. Sometimes this is true. But more often it is merely a rationalization for thwarting or ignoring populist demands. In fact, since the 1970s, political elites have grown significantly more polarized than the population at large has. The long-standing grassroots conservative support for the welfare state that has popped its head out recently via the Huckabee campaign is an example of a broad mass concensus that's quite at odds with elite divisions.
(11) Barack Obama is a typical member of the progressive elite, who engages in a number of populist rhetorical moves to seek product differentiation in electoral marketplace, while generating minimal internal tension within the progressive elite, thereby generating a high level of favorable coverage-at least until the GOP attacks begin in earnest, which is inevitable if he becomes the nominee.
(a) Obama echoes the elite disdain for the netroots. He finds it lacking in interest, despite the fact that online discourse is orders of magnitude more sophisticated and well-informed than offline political discourse. Rather than seek to work with existing netroots structures, he seeks to set up his own.
(b) He echoes rightwing pseudo-populist attacks on left-wing elitist bogey-men, such as "some Democrats" who denigrate religion.
(c) He disdains left-wing populist causes, analyses and instutions. (For example, his deeply disengenuous statement that he's "not one of those people who cynically believes Bush went in only for the oil," which I criticized in detail in my diary just over a year ago, "Obama vs. ISG: Yes Blood For Oil!".)
(d) Rather than blame political polarization on political elites, who are objectively more polarized than those they represent-and, in particular, conservative elites who are
batshit crazy increasingly out of touch with their own base-he seeks to shift blame onto an entire generation.
(12) As result of #11, Obama's positions on the issues look a lot better than he does as a prospective political actor, since the overall consequences are that he disdains, rather than connects with progressive populist sentiments. This is particularly striking, given the fact that his very existence as a viable presidential candidate is entirely dependent on the progressive populist advances of the past 40 years. He does appeal intensely on an individual level, but this "Oprah" style of "pop-star" appeal-now thoroughly concertized in Oprah's endorsement and campaign appearances with him-is actually quite different from issue-based progressive populist appeals. On the one hand, his aspirations are relatively constrained within the limits of the progressive technocratic vision. On the other hand, his belief that cumulatively such changes can add up to far more than the sum of their parts runs into the problem that such synergy does not just happen-especially when deeply entrenched special interests are powerfully opposed.
All the above is only a prelude to a wider political critic I hope to present in some forthcoming diaries, but it serves to surface some very deep divisions that-as Balkin pointed notes-do not map well onto normal left-right divides, but that also do map much more harmoniously onto how conservatives articulate their politics than they map onto how progressives articulate theirs. This post, following Balkin's lead, has been overwhelmingly focused on Populist/Progressive tensions on the left side of the aisle, and the divisions there are significant. Obama is very much an illustrative exempler of them. He is by no means the cause. My next post in this series will try to dig deeper into how the right has done a much better job of harmonizing these tensions, as opposed to the left.
But for now we can say that Obama's politics is significantly less contradictory and confusing if we think in terms of these 100-year-old categories, as opposed to the categories of more recent decades. And perhaps that is a contributing subconscious factor behind Obama's recurrent jabs at Baby Boomers. He simply feels much more at home in the political configurations of the early 1900s than he does in the political configurations of today-a rather surprising thing to say about the first mainstream-annointed black presidential candidate.