Summing Up the Left-Liberal Case Against Obama (and Pointing to the Localist-Communitarian One Along the Way)
Peter Levine has long been one of my favorite writers on the internet. He's a guy who is on the left, certainly, when it comes to matters of social equality and economic justice and so forth--but his real focus has always been civic matters. The health of our democracy, our concern for one another as members of a shared community, the operations of our elections and the level of our participation: these have been his primary concerns. So it isn't surprising that he was deeply impressed (as I was as well) with the maturity with which Obama, as a presidential candidate, sounded populist, communitarian, and civic republican. And since that time, Peter--though by no means an unthinking Obama fan--has routinely defended the president's participatory and (small-d) democratic rhetoric, frequently against opponents on the liberal left. And there has been no fiercer opponent than Paul Krugman.
Levine sees Krugman's latest NYT column as really a summation of his whole complaint with the way Obama has, in his view, compromised and temporized away the progressive advantage which voters handed him in 2008. Krugman writes:
[T]he roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America’s problem as one of process, not substance — we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions. This promise of transcendence may have been good general election politics....But the real question was whether Mr. Obama could change his tune when he ran into the partisan firestorm everyone who remembered the 1990s knew was coming. He could do uplift--but could he fight? So far the answer has been no.
This isn't an usual criticism; as Peter notes, you see it from Sean Wilentz and many other prominent liberals as well. Obama is too much an intellectual, too concerned with social movements and common goods and democracy, too focused on the process, to be able to do what's necessary: namely, the hard, implacable, sometimes vindictive work of calling down ones enemies and fighting back. Some of his critics go so far as to shake their heads: didn't Barack learn anything in Chicago?
For Peter, Obama did learn something: he learned that, fundamentally, "debate wouldn't solve anything," and that "we need to build new relationships--relationships of trust between citizens and the government and among diverse citizens." That, of course, is exactly the sort of pie-in-the-sky, idealistic, civic-republican/communitarian talk which many liberals love to dismiss, so as to better portray themselves as "realists" in the LBJ mode, leaders who will get stuff done. But Peter isn't just throwing this stuff out there as feel-good sop; he's quite intelligently articulating all of the good reasons why there is a distrust which opposing interests and anti-egalitarians of various stripes can feed upon. He lists seven reasons, in fact:
One reason is a natural and healthy distrust of a large and distant federal government. No other diverse, continental-sized country has a central government that has addressed national problems and won broad popular support. The European democracies are far smaller; Russia, India, and China have worse governance problems than we do. Governing from Washington is a tough task.
A second reason is poor results. We devote large amounts of our income to taxes, but because of military spending, wasteful health spending, and misconceived programs like the Farm Bill and the mortgage income deduction, we don't get very good value for our money.
A third reason is distaste for political leaders who appear to squabble and score points rather than cooperate to solve our problems. Krugman wants Democrats to pin the blame for bad policy and obstructionism on Republicans. But Americans hear the counter-charges as well as the charges and decide that they don't want to entrust large amounts of their money to any of these people.
A fourth reason is exclusion from public life. For a generation, we have been replacing democratic participation in public institutions (like schools) with technocratic governance: with efficiency measures, accountability systems, and other tools that ordinary people cannot control.
A fifth reason is "the Big Sort"--our mass migration to enclaves (whether neighborhoods, news sources, or organizations and associations) where we only encounter others who agree with us. The Big Sort lowers trust in government because individuals believe that most other people agree with them, yet the government acts contrary to their values. They underestimate the degree to which we actually disagree with one other. Our opponents, meanwhile, become shadowy enemies motivated by terrible values, instead of flesh-and-blood neighbors with different life experiences.
A sixth reason is the collapse of powerful intermediary organizations, associations with grassroots chapters and national lobbies that once connected people to the policy process. Those associations included fraternal and ethnic clubs, unions, and churches (of which only the evangelical conservative ones remain strong). They gave people a feeling of ownership by multiplying their power.
And a final reason is a terrible process. As long as elections are privately funded, districts are gerrymandered, and legislative procedures are rigged, it doesn't matter who makes what argument or what the people believe who govern us. Policy will be determined by power.
That's the condition of the American democratic polity today: generally speaking, it is 1) too big; 2) debilitated by wasteful, interest-group-driven-and-defended, poorly administrated economic policies; 3) run by politicians who, thanks to our sound-bite media environment and our winner-take-all election systems, communicate in crude and partisan terms; 4) administered mostly by experts and institutions closed to effective popular inputs; 5) balkanized into mutually distrustful (and, for purposes of marketing and scandal-mongering, media-enabled) class- and ideology-based cohorts; 6) suffering from a lack of strong intermediate associations, churches, unions, and other forums that both offered participatory opportunities and routes towards mutually respectful civic identifications; and 7) handicapped by a "democratic" process that is, by and large, lacking in both responsiveness and accountability to the American people.
Now I suppose if your view of democratic politics is of an elitist/pluralist variety--in which you assume that, by and large, the people are not to be trusted with political decisions and/or are not likely to care or know much about politics anyway, and hence giving them occasional choices between well-defined party groups is all "democracy" truly requires--then presumably you likely find much of the foregoing list irrelevant to the "real" questions of governance. But then, if that were the case, then you probably supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party primaries back in 2007 and 2008, assuming you voted Democratic at all. For better or worse (and I, unsurprisingly, think it's mostly the former), Obama presented himself and seems fairly committed to a more republican, communitarian, and participatory form of democracy, at that means trying to transform or repair some of those problems listed above...at least, ideally. In practice, even Peter admits that the Obama administration "has tried to negotiate its way to satisfactory policies and explain their merits to the American people, instead of changing the system itself....We need the kind of transformational presidency that Barack Obama promised and that Paul Krugman considered a mistake."
What would that transformation involve, if not a huge, much-needed-though-philosophically-flawed piece of social justice legislation--namely, the Affordable Care Act? Well, I have my own list of nominees: returning more real economic and cultural power to the states, adopting more clearly parliamentarian democratic structures, focusing on what would be necessary to create equal conditions of political participation in localities across the country, making corporations more subject to populist and democratic control...in other words, a grab-bag of social democratic and localist reforms. Many of them may not be workable; many more of them may create all sorts of unforeseen complications, which would mandate continuing compromises, of the sort which Progressive movement, for all it's faults, exemplified. The Progressives have lately emerged as big-state bogeymen, but what they were really about is trying to find a way to deal with the massive, undemocratic power of turn-of-the-century corporations, and return power to the people. They were, in short, the civic reformers of our time. Civic reformers today necessarily will have to take some other shape. Obama and his supporters have, I think, through their legislative efforts, provided part of one possible answer--a communitarian, social welfare one. But the localist component needs to be part of the equation as well. And here we come around to a different vision of democracy, and a level of trust in the people which Krugman doesn't share. Because one thing he'd never be caught dead saying is that the Tea Party might actually have something to contribute to America's civic health. And the truth is, they might. I'm pretty doubtful myself, but stranger things have happened. The civic forest is a much larger, and much more complicated place, than Krugman's smart but limited ferocious left-liberalism allows.