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March 6, 2008

what the campaign is about

I have my own preference in the Democratic primary, which is probably clear enough to regular readers. But this is a non-partisan, politically nonaligned blog that's a vehicle for my work for various independent, nonprofit, civic organizations. In that spirit, here's what I think the current Democratic primary debate is about.

It can't be about "change" versus "experience" (vacuous categories drawn from exit polls), nor about nominating the first woman versus the first person of color. Those choices are beneath our dignity as a people. And the campaign cannot be about policy differences, because any differences between the position papers of Clinton and Obama are so subtle as to be completely lost in the legislative process. So I think the campaign is, or ought to be, a choice between two views of America and our future.

One view says that what's wrong with America is the Bush Administration and its allies among Republicans and conservative groups. They really messed up the country through some unprecedented combination of malice and incompetence. To solve that problem, they need to be defeated, and it has to be clear that the voters have rejected them. (That way, they won't just bounce back for another round). The ideal Democratic candidate is someone who represents a restoration of the situation before 2000, and none better than the wife of the last Democratic president. Further, Senator Clinton is thought to be especially tough and skillful in the face of the politics of personal destruction, which (according to this viewpoint) is the specialty of today's Republicans.

This view is reinforced by: examples of Republican malfeasance, polls showing George Bush's unpopularity, and evidence of Senator Clinton's tactical/managerial skills. This view is undermined by: examples of social problems and bad government under Democrats, surveys showing a public desire for reconciliation, and doubts about Senator Clinton's public appeal or political skills.

The alternate view says that what's wrong with America started well before 2000 and implicates the whole class of political leaders, Democrats and Republicans (although not necessarily to the same degree). This whole class has lost the confidence and support of Americans because of unproductive conflict in Washington and because leaders haven't called on--or even permitted--Americans to participate in solving our problems. The best president to bring about reconciliation would be a newcomer to the national scene, someone with experience in the nonprofit world, a progressive with the ability to understand and respect conservative views and a message of empowerment. Senator Obama fits the bill.

This second view is reinforced by: new voters entering politics to support Obama, the resonance of his message, and evidence that we could address important social problems through popular participation and broad, cross-partisan dialog. This view is undermined by: doubts that Senator Obama's appeal is broad, evidence of unbridgeable gaps within the public, or arguments that Obama is only popular because of his personal charisma, which may prove evanescent.

That's my best effort at a reasonably neutral summary. It seems an appropriate choice to put before the public. We should reason together and decide.

March 6, 2008 9:06 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


I find this post a little puzzling. You reject "change" vs "experience" but then proceed to outline what is meant to be captured by those terms. "Change" is indeed rejecting politics as usual as practiced by D's and R's over the last 20 years. "Experience" is about retaining that system, but perhaps switching parties.

I also take issue with the notion that it isn't about policy differences. On the democratic side, they may appear to be trying to adopt similar rhetoric ("universal healthcare") but they would actually do very different things. Hillary wants to tax young people to preserve or expand health benefits for old people; Obama wants to control costs (which almost certainly means reducing benefits to old people). Experience means protecting the status quo; change means upsetting the status quo. Those are very different things.

I haven't developed the idea very far yet, but I plan to post something about this soon.

March 8, 2008 3:30 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Michael Weiksner

From Harry Boyte, via email:

Civic Agency

There is a third framework to what is going on, what I would call a "civic agency" perspective. This is different than simply the choice between the argument that bad Republicans are to blame for the nation's problems on the one hand or that a faulty political class is the problem, on the other. The first leads to the solution that we need to get Republicans out of office. The second suggests that a now distant and a corrupt political class needs to be transformed, so that it does a better job of consulting with and involving citizens in problem solving.

The civic agency framework holds that the problem is much deeper and wider, and will require sustained civic revitalizing work, not simply new methods. In this view, the structure and culture of the whole society generates widespread powerlessness, the feeling that most people are shut out of decisions and productive public action on public problems in a range of settings. The civic agency frame acknowledges many factors are at work – the scale of problems and institutions, the consumerist culture. But it especially highlights technocracy, the pattern of domination by experts who see themselves outside a common civic culture, in a range of institutions not simply government. Technocracy has ravaged the "mediating institutions" grounded in everyday life such as local schools, businesses, congregations, government agencies which once functioned to create everyday experiences of "civic muscle." It has turned citizens into needy clients and demanding customers, devaluing the talents and capacities of people across the whole society. Technocracy is a complex and subtle "enemy," a pattern of power cloaked in the best of liberal good intentions of professionals to help and do good. It is often sustained by egalitarian and democratic aspirations. And it can only be overcome through long term work, a civic restoration process in a myriad of settings and institutions.

But for all the difficulties, there is, now, an enormous hunger for a sense of agency, making a real difference, not simply helping around the edges, that the Obama campaign especially has tapped. People want to be participants in shaping a better world. And they want to feel valued and significant. The popular desire for agency is also fed by a widespread intuition that the talents and energies – what Jane Addams once called "the powers" -- of multiple actors and institutions must be brought to bear if we are begin to address adequately the complex problems we face.

All of this can be best expressed in electoral language by a sharp and clear focus on civic agency that is fleshed out by stories and illustrative policies, not simply invoked or named in speeches Obama has been eloquent in his speeches, but thin in his detail, and when he does give policy flesh to citizen's public work it takes the form of service -- complicated and ambiguous from an agency perspective. Hope for “we are the ones” is especially a fragile thing in an environment of fear. Agency also needs to be illustrated across many every settings, from education to jobs, from the crisis of global warming to health. This could be developed in each of the three campaigns in various ways. See, for instance, the blog post on "By the people."

March 8, 2008 7:45 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Peter Levine

I share Harry Boyte's views, but I didn't offer a position like his as a third option here because I don't believe that either candidate is expressing it. I had set myself the task of summarizing the messages of Obama and Clinton.

I think Mike Weiksner is right that I fleshed out what "change" and "experience" mean. But they are vacuous words without some explanation. After all, both candidates will change the country and both have experience.

Mike gives the strongest and most persuasive argument I have seen anywhere that the Obama and Clinton health care plans are different. I nevertheless suspect that Obama and Clinton would sign more or less the same health care legislation by the time Congress finished its work. In that sense, they wouldn't "do" anything different.

March 8, 2008 7:51 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Peter Levine

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