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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama and the Beautiful Day

It's a beautiful mid-autumn day here in Wichita. It's warm out (maybe a little too warm for November, but the wind is blowing, so it isn't too noticeable), the leaves are falling or have fallen from the trees (and are blwoing all around) and the sky is a marvellous blue. It's a good day to be an American, as Rod says, and a good day to vote.

Yesterday was equally nice, but I felt somewhat dark on the inside; my long (too long, as usual) rumination over the frustration--and, yes, the guilt--I feel as a religious believer opposed to abortion who is drawn to cast his ballot for Barack Obama really kind of depressed my mood. But today, at this moment, I don't feel it. I'm focusing on the class as half-full, right now--more than half-full, in fact; maybe even three-quarters. Obama is a good man, and he will make a good president, even if he isn't nearly as sensitive as he ought to be to tragedy of abortion in our midst. As much as I suspect my religious beliefs ought to incline me in such a direction, I just can't find it in myself to make such sensitives the primary measure of a candidate, at least not this candidate, on this wonderful day.

Obama is not a populist, or at least not my kind of populist. I'd like to believe he has elements of that old-school, radical, prairie perspective within him, and at times it has seemed to me he might. But no, his beliefs about our democratic system are those of pragmatic mainstream Democratic politician; he certainly won't be taking even baby steps towards a Jeffersonian or localist or populist conception of social and economic sovereignty.

Obama is not a socialist, and certainly not my kind of socialist. Obama has said--and has associated himself with people both past and present who have said--good things about consumerism, about class, about the social and cultural costs of progress, all of which partake of the original Christian socialist insight about the way a self-interested focus on rights and possessions invariably divides us and sets us against one another. But none of that means that Obama is anything except a capitalist, and one apparently content with the basic operations of today's state-based, globalized, thoroughly liberalized capitalist economic structure. The accusation that Obama's belief in the justice of "spreading the wealth" in an egalitarian makes him into some kind of socialist class warrior is, of course, complete nonsense, and John Holbo humorously and devastatingly explained. In truth, Obama is in some ways may be the ideal "liberaltarian" candidate, a liberal who has learned the libertarian and free trade lessons which the Clinton years presumably taught us all, and who is ready to follow through on what he was taught at the market-friendly University of Chicago in order to pull us out of the economic crisis. Perhaps. But I don't think so, and I have reason to hope for something at least a little more communitarian, a little more Christian, of him.

As so often seems to be the case, my unwillingness to reject modernity (meaning modern life, modern technology, modern ways of dealing with the diversity of people and information) entirely, as much as I recognize the harms it does to the cultural and religious forms of communal life that I think we all, as human beings, invariably need to sustain as a moral and psychological foundation, has the result of robbing me of the ability to hope for any "pure" populism or socialism, assuming there could ever be such a thing (and maybe there can't be). So what's left? Some kind of liberal communitarianism--or, given that Christian social democracy isn't available as a plausible electoral option in the U.S. right now, the compromise of progressivism. Under the banner of progressivism there are, to be sure, a host of possibilites. Mark Schmitt sees in Obama's progressivism a "soft, communtiarian populism," one that is "characterized by few enemies and very little talk of 'rights,'" with a focus instead on sustainable, inclusive policies expressed in a language that "invok[es] a sense of natural order in which all of us live up to our responsibilities, in service of a sense of national purpose." Peter Levine long ago argued that Obama's style of populism is really more of a progressive, egalitarian, civic republicanism, with an emphasis upon "deliberating together as a diverse population." Now, in the face of broad Obama victory, he has hopes for a new progressive era, but also hopes that the hints of a "Midwestern populist pluralist" perspective in Obama--a perspective that, even in the midst of global diversity, won't forget about the importance of having roots in a place, both spiritual and literal--won't be crowded out by the rush of events; "Barack Obama [should] stand on the side of his Midwestern Progressive forebears, people like Jane Addams and Robert LaFollette, as opposed to the technocrats of the Progressive Era." And as readers of this blog likely know, part of what enamours me in particular to progressives like Addams and LaFollette was their Christian sensibility was fundamental to the communitarian and civic improvements and reforms they worked to put into place.

The Democrats have been talking ever since the debacle in 2004, and the many arguments about religious values and American democracy which followed it, about the need to development a liberal language of the community, of civic purposes, of the common good. The ideas are out there, as are the debates over them; what was needed was an opportunity to put them into practice. With Senator Obama, I believe they may. It won't be the mixed-up, left conservative, populist, localist, Christian social democracy that I dream of...but it'll be something good, nonetheless. And it's a good day to vote for all that, yes indeed.


Anonymous said...

"he certainly won't be taking even baby steps towards a Jeffersonian or localist or populist conception of social and economic sovereignty."

Thanks. This brightened my day mightily...

Clark Goble said...

I really hope you're right Russell. I voted Obama - primarily a vote against McCain - but being in Utah it's kind of pointless. McCain will probably win stronger here than anywhere else.

I really hope that Obama has learned the lessons of first Clinton in 94 and Republicans in 2005. He may have but I'm not at all convinced the House and Senate has and they are the ones who pass laws. Will Obama be a centrist? And if so, how will he act towards Congress. Big worries I have.

Anonymous said...

It is a good day, because it represents the possibility of a renewal of public trust. In that way it's just like every election day, but moreso. More Americans say the country is on the wrong track than there have ever been since the beginning of polling. This comes from a number of things, some unrelated to Bush. But this election, even more than other recent ones, will allow many, if not most Americans a bit of relief from: the sense that the standards of competence in the executive branch in America are lower than they are in any other major field of expertise; the knowledge that birth and priviledge can erase a lifetime of mediocrity when it comes to political achievement; the shame that our government has accepted a policy of torture; the embarrassment that in a country that is one-eighth black only one African-American now serves in the Senate; the frustration at the fact that the American dream isn't that American anymore: the U.S. is less socially mobile than it has ever been, and less mobile than several countries in Europe.

There will be real disappointments, some expected, some unexpected. But today is a day for relief.

"McCain will probably win stronger here than anywhere else."

I'll take that bet. I think McCain will win stronger in Idaho, Wyoming, or Oklahoma. McCain is polling significantly worse in Utah that Bush did in 2000 and 2004, and Utahns seems to like Obama about as much as they possibly can like national Democratic figure. There's also the Romney thing. Some Utahns seem to hold it against McCain that he dared run against The (Mormon) One. So I'll say 59-41% McCain.

Jeremiah J.