Thursday, December 16, 2010

Obama, Progressivism and Democracy

Peter Berkowitz has a stunningly clear and insightful article on "Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism" in which he analyzes Obama not as a classical liberal (which he clearly is not) and not as a socialist (which he clearly is not, though there are important similarities between his progressivism and socialism) but as a progressive (which he definitely is). This article is not all about Obama; after the opening section Berkowitz takes us back into the history of progressivism and explains its roots.

I am going to devote a series of posts to this article because of it crucial importance in understanding (1) Obama, (2) the rise of the Tea Party, (3) the Evangelical Left, and (4) the intra-party war in the Democratic Party. All that explained in one article, you ask skeptically? Well, at least it is the case that Berkowitz sheds crucial light on each of these topics, none of which can be understood properly without an understanding of what progressivism is and what key ideas animate it.

In this post, we will examine how understanding progressivism illuminates Obama the man and the politician.

Berkowitz begins by noting that Obama's transformational, big-spending vision was decisively repudiated in the November 2010 election even though he had been elected just two years earlier. Why did the voters change their collective mind so decisively? His answer is Obama's determination to press ahead with a big spending agenda in the middle of a recession despite wide-spread, public opposition and a united Republican opposition.
But it was Obama's decision - against the advice of several of his closest advisers - to seek comprehensive health care reform in the face of an historic economic crisis and to resolutely pursue it month after month despite vocal majority opposition instead of concentrating on reviving the economy and creating jobs that sent a loud and clear message that the president placed progressive political transformation ahead of the will of the people.
But Obama was being consistent with his campaign promise to "fundamentally transform America" even though he was obviously violating his campaign promise to be a moderate, pragmatic centrist. Berkowitz says:
It has been frequently remarked that he put forward two quite different faces on the campaign trail. He was the progressive candidate of hope and change. But he was also the pragmatic and post-partisan candidate. He ran a relentlessly anti-Bush and anti-Republican campaign. But he also proclaimed his determination to heal wounds and bring the country, red and blue, together. He repeatedly declared himself dedicated to a new kind of politics, and he repeatedly styled himself a new kind of politician. But his inside men - David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, David Plouffe - were old school, rough and tough, bare-knuckles Chicago-style political operatives. Nearly two years in office have gone a long way toward showing that Obama's vaunted moderation, pragmatism, and post-partisanship were, if not elements of a pose to conceal the hardball-playing partisan progressive, then qualities that stood for something other than the devotion to balance, accommodation, and conciliation that the terms in their ordinary, everyday sense suggest. . . .

. . . The appearance of moderation masked partisan intentions. For example, candidate Obama decried the $440 billion Bush deficit as indefensible and unsustainable. Yet a month after taking office, he presented a budget that would more than quadruple the Bush deficit. And not as a temporary, stop-gap measure to deal with an historic economic crisis. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Obama's budget, which involved huge new spending on long-term social and economic programs - cap and trade, health care, and education - set the country on course for a decade of deficits substantially greater than the Bush budget deficit candidate Obama harshly condemned.

. . . candidate Obama promised to bring a new tone to Washington. But since taking up residence in the White House he and his administration have vilified Rush Limbaugh, sought to delegitimize Fox News, dismissed opponents of his health care reform legislation as mean-spirited and obstructionist, darkly insinuated that the Tea Party movement promulgates hate and is funded by sinister forces, demonized House Minority Leader (and the next Speaker of the House) John Boehner, groundlessly cast aspersions on the legality of funds collected by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, charged those intending to vote against him in the midterm elections with turning their backs on reason, and exhorted Latino voters to punish their common enemies.

The discrepancy between candidate Obama's rhetoric and President Obama's words and deeds is not explainable only in terms of the inevitable exaggerations and omissions that characterize electoral politics and the concessions compelled by the harsh realities of governing. Candidate Obama did not merely obscure the policy implications of his principles. He obscured his principles as well. [my bolding]

This conclusion in the last paragraph is important. Berkowitz is saying not only that Obama deliberately cultivated ambiguity on the campaign trail but also that this kind of ambiguity (to put it kindly) is necessary for progressivism because if voters understood clearly the candidate's intentions they would reject the candidate.

This raises the question of the relationship of progressivism to democracy. Like Marxist theorists, progressives basically believe that ordinary people simply do not understand what is in their best interests. They are stupid and need guidance from above. Berkowitz writes:

Like Obama's new progressivism, the old or original progressivism championed a vision of democracy that sometimes conflicted with ordinary people's opinions and preferences. The old progressives often realized it and said as much, clearly and with a clear conscience. One of the distinguishing marks of the new progressivism at whose head Obama stands is the determination to conceal the gap between what majorities want and what progressive leaders want to enact in their name while insisting proudly on the purity of their democratic credentials.
Progressives believe passionately in justice - as defined by an academic and bureaucratic elite. Berkowitz writes:

One of the virtues of the old progressivism was its clarity. Indeed, New Republic founder Herbert Croly could hardly have been more forthright. In 1914, in The Promise of American Life, a major statement of the progressive creed, Croly declared his faith that democracy was properly realized on the national level:

The American democracy can, consequently, safely trust its genuine interests to the keeping of those who represent the national interest. It both can do so, and it must do so. Only by faith in an efficient national organization, and by an exclusive and aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good.

But who determined American democracy's genuine interests, and who represented the national interest?

At least for the time being, according to Croly, the federal government. "

Berkowitz further quotes Croly as saying:

To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy. The national advance will always be impeded by these misleading and erroneous ideas, and, what is more, it always should be impeded by them, because at bottom ideas of this kind are merely an expression of the fact that the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.
One could describe Progressivism as agreeing with Christianity that man is fallen and in need of salvation, but as rejecting the essence of sin as the libido dominandi and replacing it with ignorance. Thus, salvation (deliverance from sin) comes through education and, specifically, at least for the time being, from an educated elite class of bureaucrats and politicians.

For Progressives democracy means "doing what is best for the people as a whole" rather than "doing what the people want."

The professors' solution to the paradox of progressivism - how to reconcile a professed commitment to greater democracy with a powerful conviction, in conflict with the preferences of the people, that justice requires more centralized government and more elite rule - built on Rawls. Its intellectual roots can be traced to Rousseau's doctrine of the general will. And the intellectual sleight of hand on which it is based and its dangers to freedom were brilliantly exposed by Isaiah Berlin in his 1950s-era Cold War classic, "Two Concepts of Liberty."

. . . It's not merely that deliberative democrats believe that their theories give expression to something better and loftier than what the majority of the electorate chooses. It's that the choices people would make - were it not for their poor education, combined with passions and prejudices corrupted by the imperfections of social life and the inequities of the market economy - are what deserve the designation democratic.

The professors' conceit was to suppose that their own education was adequate and that their theory yielded rational truths unsullied by rationalizations of their own passions and prejudices. Pleased with their analytic competence and persuaded of the purity of their moral intentions, deliberative democrats rarely considered the illiberal and antidemocratic implications of their approach to politics. But systematically disdaining the expressed preferences of majorities of your fellow citizens is disrespectful. Implicitly appointing yourself guardian of the fair and the just - who else besides professors can understand and apply the complicated theories that professors develop to determine just public policy? - promotes arrogance. And equating this self-aggrandizing arrogation of power with greater democracy encourages self-deception while making deception of the people integral to progressive politics.

Many commentators have remarked on Obama's arrogance and rightly so, but his personal arrogance is not simply a character flaw in him as an individual. It is actually a characteristic of Progressivism as a political philosophy and central and essential to that philosophy. This arrogance is based on a flawed conception of human nature; ignoring the fact that all humans are fallen and sinful - influenced by out-of-control passions - they assume that they are not subject to the limitations of most people because of their superior educational background.

Ironically, the kind of elite education they have received is itself class-based and rooted in bad metaphysics, bad epistemology and bad ethics. Its very narrowness serves to reinforce the illusion of objectivity and its shallowness protects its graduates from direct encounters with the thought of the devestating critics of Progressivism. This is what makes Progressivism so dangerous - not only to democracy - but to the health and well-being of society as a whole.


Unknown said...

This is a great post. I look forward to the series, thank you for sharing!

Unknown said...

Hi Dr. Carter,

Everything you say can be stretched across the lines of all the academic world. Wall street operates the same way. So do many in the Western academic mainline denominations who classify themselves as the theologically literate over against illerate and beligerent conservatives and fundamentalists.