20 August 2012

Obama and the fatal center

Thomas Frank believes that President Obama will be re-elected this November. In a heavily-edited interview clip posted to the Current TV website, the Harper's "Easy Chair" columnist argues that Obama's likability will lift him over the top. Frank himself doesn't like Obama very much. His latest takedown of the President for the September Harper's closes on an almost conspiratorial note. Having hoped that Obama would find his "inner FDR" to fight Republicans with, Frank now suspects that "a second New Deal is precisely what Obama was here to prevent." He now finds the President a practitioner of "dialectical centrism" dating back to Obama's "salute to consensus" in The Audacity of Hope.

Again and again, the president-to-be tells readers how he originally supposed one conventional thing, but was challenged by some other really important idea, then eventually concluded that his original, trite position was correct, with a few modifications. In other words, his platitudes are hard won from the comfy clash of thesis and antithesis. It's the sort of dialectical centrism that not only confirms the base prejudices of the Chevy Chase set but also makes them feel sophisticated in the bargain.

What bugs Frank about Obama's thinking, it seems, is the exclusion of any sense of priority for the interests of labor. It's a big, sad joke for Frank that such a person is called a galloping Socialist by the Republicans. It's hard to tell, however, whether Frank would be happier if Obama could refute such charges once and for all or if he took a "if you really think we're the devil, then let's send you to hell" attitude. Superficially, Frank echoes objections from such people as Sean Wilentz and Eric Alterman over Obama's failure to fight, politically and rhetorically, for his positions. Frank elaborates on this by hinting that Obama has no real interest in fighting or, worse, that the President has no real sense of what the fight is about.

In effect, Obama's greatest failing in Frank's eyes is that he's not an ideologue. The centrist who hankers for "bipartisanship" tends to see politics more as a clash of interests rather than a clash of values, and tends to presume that interests can always be compromised and reconciled. That Frank thinks differently is implicit in his account of Obama's political instincts.

The president is a man whose every instinct is conciliatory. He is not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it. He simply cannot imagine a dispute in which one antagonist is right and the other is wrong. No, there is always something honorable about both sides, some concession to be made by each. His presidency has been one long quest for a 'grand bargain,' as he has sometimes put it, between red and blue. (emphasis added).

American history, of course, has one grim example of a clash of values that could not be reconciled through a compromise of interests. The true ideologue may be the one who sees every conflict of interests as a clash of values which must have a winner and loser -- who believes that in every meaningful political dispute there is one side that must win. World history has many grim examples of the consequences of that approach, taken to an extreme. We need not label Frank an extremist, however. He may feel that the Republicans must lose, but for now all he wants is a leader who can effectively and forcefully tell the electorate why that's so, while playing to win, not tie, with the enemy. Obama, as far as Frank is concerned, is ill-equipped for that job, though it seems, from the critic's own analysis, that the President will be stuck with the job for some time to come. But if things continue as they have, the real question for the future is whether opinionators like Frank will more frankly address the implications of their own beliefs.


Unknown said...

I don't understand. So everyone who is not a total relativist is an ideologue in your view?

Samuel Wilson said...

No. Only those people who can't distinguish between conflicts of interests and clashes of values and assumes every case of the former to be a case of the latter.

Aaron Christiansen said...

I would add that an idealogue would be someone who insists that ALL interests/values must come as a "set". That, for instance, one cannot support fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, or the idea that a government does NOT exist to make a profit, therefore cannot be "run" as if it were a business.

In fact, I'd dare say an idealogue is someone who feels that the primary reason for the existence of government is to enforce one set of principles/interests/values and eliminate or prohibit all others.