Friday, July 11, 2008

I'm not wrong, just not as insightful as I'd often like to be

Short Schrift has posted a response to my Obama post which is well-considered, well-organized, and cogent in a way that my original post is not. He and I have also discussed the post between ourselves, and between the two responses I have become well aware of the interpretations I invited by my own lack of a strong thesis, but somehow I still don't think I'm wrong. Mounting a defense, however, requires a clear statement of ideas, which is something I did not do (or even consider terribly important) in my original post.

One of the big problems with my question "is Obama a lefty?" is the ambiguity between the terms "leftist," "liberal," and "progressive," which I use interchangably in the post, and while I'm not ready to provide more than a working definition, I don't really think that they mean the same thing. A leftist is a politician informed by or sympathetic to socialism. A progressive, in terms of the current campaign, would be more closely related to the term populist—someone concerned with something akin to social justice, with the implication of changing the operations of Federal government from its current system of interests to something different (whatever that may be). A liberal is a term opposed to "conservative," and largely meaningful only in that opposition, perhaps most specifically someone who believes that it is the proper function of government to serve the interest of individuals directly.

On the one hand, I stand by my assertion that only Fox News and sympathetic parties can make a straight-faced argument that Obama is a leftist. Likewise, while I would say that Obama is clearly far more progressive than Bush or McCain, Mike Huckabee's campaign has made the progressive label far more complex and less a domain of one specific political party than it has been since I can remember. At the same time, by any meaningful definition, Obama is indeed a liberal, although I stand behind my skepticism as to whether Obama is meaningfully more or less liberal than Clinton.

In fact, I don't see Obama as being that different from Clinton. As a leftist, I see Obama and Clinton as similarly compromised (in the sense of my own leftist standards), but from different angles. I see Clinton as someone who has had to move rightward for political survival, and has had no qualms about doing so. In perfect equilibrium, I might largely be in agreement with her, but no politician exists in a world without external forces, and the only views of Clinton's that I care about are the ones she expresses on the floor of the Senate. I actually believe that Obama has had to compromise his default principle less at this point, and that his rhetoric has been more honest than Clinton's. If Obama is willing to do the things that Clinton has only talked about, or tried and failed to do, then he will have a better claim to being a liberal than she, but his call for telecom immunity and expressions of support for faith-based initiatives have been, shall we say, less than encouraging to me, and I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one. The point of my post was not that I think Obama a secret conservative or a liar, but that I find a certain resonance in Koppelman's description of members of the "progressive net roots" who are dissatisfied with a number of Obama's positions. The point that Koppelman seems to find most cogent is not that Obama should be opposed, but that

Obama isn't ours, he never was, and we shouldn't pretend he is or else we are throwing away the opportunity to have real progressive policies enacted sometime over the next few years.

Once you absorb this state of affairs, it's a fairly optimistic path forward. All of the work going into getting Obama elected is helping to build the progressive movement and teaching millions of people to get involved, give money, run for office, etc. These people have progressive sympathies and are attaching themselves to important political networks. Some of them paid attention to FISA who were not paying attention in 2006, which is good. The network is just bigger and stronger.

Obama, in this light, can still be an agent of change, but it is a reminder that no politician ever belongs to a movement, even their own. Whatever one's agenda is, it should never be entrusted to a politician, especially one that agrees with you.

No comments: