« notes on "genre fiction" | Main | "both sides now" »

December 31, 2007

the Obama "theory of change"

Mark Schmitt’s essay on Senator Obama has been very widely cited (and should be applied to politicians other than Obama himself). Schmitt argues that, as president, Obama might win legislative victories by treating conservatism as a legitimate philosophy and presuming that his opponents honor the same basic values that he does--e.g., health care for all. This assumption would put Republicans in a difficult position if the evidence favored progressive proposals. Obama’s conciliatory and deliberative style might win over a few Republican senators, Schmitt says, and that is essential if Democrats want to pass legislation.

I actually thought these points were obvious all along, but I’m grateful to Schmitt for using his authority to spell them out for progressive readers. The opposite of Schmitt’s position is being argued by "Kos" in Newsweek and by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. They recommend blaming anti-government conservatism for our major problems, tying all Republican candidates to that ideology, and trying to create a large pro-government majority. Their best argument is that conservative ideas are now fairly unpopular, according to surveys. However, they overlook the following points:

First, Americans do not think ideologically. For instance, few Americans have been interested in the ideological differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, even though the two men were diametrical opposites. Often, less than half of respondents to the National Election Studies are willing or able to place the Republicans to the right of the Democrats on an ideological spectrum. In discussions of local issues, according to Nina Eliasoph's research, Americans avoid ideological interpretations. And our own focus groups of college students found deep resistance to all ideologies. Therefore, it would be very hard to blame recent failures on conservatism, rather than George W. Bush personally.

Second, adopting a civil and deliberative style is a good strategy for winning elections. Liberal bloggers have been arguing that only elites, especially The Washington Post editorial board and David Broder, admire bipartisanship and civility, whereas ordinary Americans don’t care about it. These bloggers have been hanging around with angry Democrats and have not been talking to average Americans or reading the scholarly literature on political opinion. Americans are hostile to partisanship and ideological disagreement--excessively hostile, in my opinion. Their aversion to sharp disagreement hampers our politics, in some respects. But they really don't like ideological conflict.

Third, even if Americans are saying that they support somewhat more active government, there is a deep vein of public suspicion about Washington and the federal government. That suspicion is fed by the idea that Washington elites are angry, divided, uncivil, and prone to exaggerate their differences for tactical advantage. Why should you entrust thousands of your dollars to Washington to cover your health insurance if the people who run the place seem to be constantly squabbling, and each half of Congress says that the other half is wicked and foolish? Progressive policy requires public trust in government, and we won't have trust in government until leaders adopt a civil and dignified tone.

Fourth, I do not accept the diagnosis that all our major problems arise from anti-government conservatism. Kos, for example, blames the Katrina disaster on FEMA director Mike Brown, and explains Bush's choice of Brown as a symptom of the administration's "government-busting ideology." There is some truth to this, but I think the Katrina tragedy exemplifies other truths as well. The Army Corps of Engineers did damage over many decades, not because of anti-government ideology but because of managerial and technical arrogance (and old-fashioned earmarking and logrolling)--which are the dark side of the New Deal. Meanwhile, local public institutions, such as the New Orleans schools, were in calamitous condition, partly because of low budgets but partly because of extremely poor management. Yet the leaders of New Orleans were Democrats. If not all our problems are due to "government-busting ideology," then it will be hard to convince people that they are.

Fifth, a close look at the Republican Party reveals a loose coalition, not a tightly organized national machine. It's easier than Kos thinks to pick up Republican votes, and harder than he thinks to tie the whole party to a single ex-president. The best way to make Republicans feel solidarity is to try to lump them together as enemies of decent government.

I pass over a sixth reason--our ethical obligation to presume that our fellow citizens have decent motives until shown otherwise--for fear that that will make me look naive.

December 31, 2007 10:05 AM | category: Barack Obama , revitalizing the left | Comments


Site Meter