Monday, February 11, 2008

The Intellectual Roots of Obamian Post-Partisanship

Barack Obama has been driving Paul Krugman and others crazy with his call for a warm, fuzzy hands-across-America style of politics. Where does this come from? Here’s one answer....

Cass Sunstein. Sunstein has been cited as an advisor to Obama, and he has written extensively on the dangers of a world in which people only communicate with those they already agree with. If the right listens only to Limbaugh and Hannity, and the left logs on only to Huffington and Kos, each side will shift further away from the other, until there is no middle ground left. All will be blinkered extremism. For details, consult his book or his continuing stream of papers like this one. (Question: how does he write this stuff faster than I can read it?)

I have mixed feelings about this view of our political condition. On the one hand, as a partial follower of John Dewey, and as someone who teaches at an institution that embraces “learning across significant differences”, I know how important it is to listen with an open mind to those whose point of view challenges your own. You do yourself and the quality of your thinking no favor when you live and converse in an echo chamber.

But there are two problems with the let’s-all-get-along school. First, there is the issue of power. There are wealthy, well-entrenched interests that don’t want an open-minded, cooperative approach to political questions. They are in charge and want to keep it that way. Opposing views will be censored, defunded, misrepresented and, if they arise in distant oil-bearing regions, incarcerated and waterboarded. It is necessary to struggle against these interests if we want to create a world in which thoughtfulness and generosity rule.

Second, what counts as moderation in America is often hopelessly skewed to the right, even by the standards of other capitalist countries. I generally distrust corner solutions—all this or all that—and look for blending and balancing, but if John Edwards is too far to the left to be taken seriously, I’m a speck on the thin edge of the political distribution, several sigmas out. In this respect, the Sunstein/Obama analysis is correct, but radically incomplete. We need to really extend the conversation to the vast regions beyond the pale of approved discourse. The resulting zone of consensus will be moderate by the standards of intelligent human thought but extreme with respect the political constraints we live under today.


Shane Taylor said...

As a registered independent who isn't voting in the primaries, I couldn't agree more. Someone once said taking "bipartisan" as an absolute virtue and "partisan" as an inexcusable vice is a plea for our formal two party state to function as a one party state. The anti-democratic aspects of bipartisanship for its own sake were mentioned over at Crooked Timber.

Anonymous said...

I, too, couldn't agree more, but I'm hoping against hope that Obama is secretly another Putney Swope.

Anonymous said...

There is a specious aspect to the argument that one should seek a bipartisan perspective in proposing solutions to economic and social issues. Bipartisanship assumes a balanced bi-polar political continuum. That seems far fetched when applied to what is often described as left-wing and right-wing perspectives. Look at the examples cited. Are Huffington and Kos really as left oriented as Limbaugh and Hannity are to the right of political issues? Even describing centrists such as Huffington and Kos as left blogs is a far stretch of the imagination.
The debate is not balanced and, therefore, can not actually come to some reasonable conclusion. Reason requires a liberal,i.e. open, minded view of the other side's perspective.

John Edwards is another good example of the rights' straw man
approach to debate. Edwards is to the left of no reasonable political orientation. Again, a genuine centrist who expresses concern regarding the excesses of our economic system and thereby is described as left wing. Maybe Ghengis Khan is the icon that the left is compared with. The progressives can share in the blame for this bias of extremism. Too many echo the ludicrous labeling which the punditocracy and the MSM are fond of doing. There is no wide spread liberal media. That's another part of the mythology of the left/right polarity of our political system. Nor is there really any significant evidence of the existence of a left, at all. said...

It would really help if more Americans saw the fuller array of views in the rest of the world. I have this good friend who is a hardline, if moderate, Republican. When he starts ranting about how leftwing the NY Times and WaPo are, I have trouble controlling myself.


Anonymous said...

"I’m a speck on the thin edge of the political distribution, several sigmas out"

that's a lovely formulation. I like it.

Ken Houghton said...

I'll end up linking to this out of a deep desire to have some trackback to this blog seem positive, but I do note one thing (well, two, but it's one flow):

(1) The Olin Center paper looks suspiciously similar to the Glaeser/Sunstein NBER paper but

(2) while (both?) papers make clear that the divide goes both ways, Sunstein raised a lot of ruckus after they were published talking only about how "the Left" was warped.

So the optimistic version may be Putney Swope, but the realistic is closer to...well, I'd be accused of racism for citing the stereotype.

Cass Sunstein, David Cutler—by their advisors ye shall know then, and those two aren't exactly mainstream, let alone progressive, Democrats.

Anonymous said...

"bipartisan" is just the latest orwellian jingle for the poor confiding voter.

Kevin Carson said...

I'll worry about transcending partisan and class differences when the bad guys have been stomped.

Maybe when the bleeding heads of every billionaire and Fortune 500 CEO in America are mounted on pikes along Wall Street, I'll be in a more conciliatory mood.

Anonymous said...

Can I interest you in a charter membership in the Jacobin Society(USA)? While I share your over all perspective regarding what most ails our economy and, more generally, our society there is a need for greater organization in order to develop a collective basis for change in our government. The occasional commentary on the blogs is just not cutting it.

Bruce Webb said...

I am baffled. I came of real political age at a time (late seventies) in a place (UC Berkeley) where my fundamental beliefs about the possibilities for governmentally led progressgput me locally in the category of hopeless tool of the patriarchy but nationally right in the center left. I never really changed my fundamental policy views but somehow find myself rhetorically washed up on a beach with the Sparts.

I am a vet, I have a little American flag on my door (and in accordance with US Flag Law it is sheltered from the elements and lit 24 hours a day) yet somehow taking a position as supporter of the New Deal simultaneously draws accusations of ' Communist' 'Traitor' and 'Liberal Fascist' all at the same time. How mainline liberalism got relegated to the category of left splinter group just spins my brain. I know what rad-lib and points left looks like, and my position doesn't or didn't resemble that. Now rhetorically at least it does.