Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The New Liberalism

A liberal writer's piece in the New Yorker. Aside from the rather usual analysis, with some twists, granted, there are some interesting sentences and ideas.

For the first time since the Johnson Administration, the idea that government should take bold action to create equal opportunity for all citizens doesn’t have to explain itself in a defensive mumble. That idea is ascendant in 2008 because it answers the times. These political circumstances, even more than the election of the first black American to the highest office, make Obama’s victory historic.

That bold government action is an idea for the times, more than Obama being black, is what makes his election historic? I fail to agree with that assessment.

Pray tell, what does the President-elect read? asks Packer.

A Harvard Law professor and former colleague of Obama at Chicago Law School, who has written a book, Nudge, perhaps is one of those titles.

Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and author, was Obama’s colleague for many years at the University of Chicago Law School. Sunstein’s most recent book, “Nudge,” co-written with the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, tries to find a new path between governmental control and the unfettered free market. “Nudge,” Sunstein said, is about “ways of helping people to make better choices without requiring anybody to do anything. It’s a conception of government that is reluctant to impose mandates and bans but is kind of shrewd about enlisting what we know about human behavior in good directions.” Sunstein added that the book is well known in Obama’s circle; Obama’s top economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, also of the University of Chicago, has read it, and Sunstein has discussed its ideas with Obama. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama included a proposal from Sunstein and Thaler that would have employees automatically enrolled in retirement plans, with the option not to participate, because “evidence shows that by changing the default rule, employee participation rates go up dramatically”—a non-coercive “nudge” toward better decisions. “He knows an astonishing amount about cutting-edge economic thinking,” Sunstein said.

It is true, and a good twist: make the default be yes, rather than no.

Sunstein’s Obama is the post-partisan one. He calls Obama a “visionary minimalist,” meaning someone who wants to pursue large goals in a way that offends the deepest values of as few people as possible.

Minimalism is more in tune with the day than is the maximalism of FDR or LBJ. New times call for new ideas and a new paradigm.

Sunstein suggested as the governing philosophy of an Obama Presidency the idea of “deliberative democracy.” The phrase appears in “The Audacity of Hope,” where it denotes a conversation among adults who listen to one another, who attempt to persuade one another by means of argument and evidence, and who remain open to the possibility that they could be wrong.

It calls for informed voters who are virtuous and engaged. Che said that revolution required a new human being, who went beyond the limitations of the old order.

The real problem with partisanship, Obama believes, is that it’s no longer pragmatic.Partisan politics, defined merely as demagoguery or stupidity, is easy to reject—but doing so doesn’t take us very far. It’s like calling on everyone to be decent. At its weakest, post-partisanship amounts to an aversion to fighting, a trait that some people who know Obama see in him.

Nice to think partisanship is bad; it is. But it still works. Or does it? Libby Dole lost, even after calling her opponent Godless; or perhaps she lost because such tactics were seen as desperate and unseemly.

The Clintons, in the end, could not defeat Obama, even if early on, and as late as the Pennsylvania primary, they savaged him. The Republicans tried it, too.

They tried like hell. They called him an élitist, a radical, a socialist, a Marxist, a Muslim, an Arab, an appeaser, a danger to the republic, a threat to small children, a friend of terrorists, an enemy of Israel, a vote thief, a non-citizen, an anti-American, and a celebrity. Obama didn’t defeat the Republicans simply by rising above partisanship, although his dignified manner served as a continual rebuke to his enemies and went a long way toward reassuring skeptical voters who weren’t members of the cult of “Yes We Can.” It turned out that the culture war, in spite of Sarah Palin’s manic gunplay, was largely over. Obama won because he had a vastly superior organization, a steely resilience that became more evident in October than it was in January (for which he owes a debt to Hillary Clinton), and a willingness to fight back on ground on which the majority of Americans—looking to government for solutions—now stand.

That dignified manner is part of his post-partisanship. And he hot back, too, just not with the shrillness of Palin. Or the desperation of McCain.

Obama was able to make a powerful case for a break with conservative economics, in part, because he doesn’t carry the scars of recent history. “He’s not intimidated by the issue frames that have bedevilled Democrats for the last couple of decades,” one of the advisers said. “There’s never been a sense of having to triangulate.” By the end of the campaign, Obama wasn’t just running against broken politics, or even against the Bush Presidency. He had the anti-government philosophy of the entire Age of Reagan in his sights.

Which I think needs to be done decisively: government is not the problem, and can be part of the solution.

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