Monday, February 21, 2011

The side effects of progress

Several months back I wrote an overview of progressivism and its influence on President Obama. It was never published until now. With the current budget battles currently taking place all across the nation, as well as a new blog reaching a new audience, the below book review/essay is worth revisiting.

Politics and Progress: the emergence of American political science by Dennis Mahoney explains how our current political science was founded by the German/progressive thinkers and then given an American twist. The first two-thirds especially show where American political science—the academic background that Obama operates under—came from. It’s a combination of German political science, American pragmatism, and progressivism, and it is fundamentally different from the political thought of the founders. The last third of the book gets rather dry, but the chapter on administration is interesting, and the conclusion very nicely sums up the book.

What is especially interesting is the mechanical/organic dichotomy question Mahoney describes—the question of whether the state should be described as a machine (checks and balances) or an organism (developing and growing). The former is a Newtonian understanding while the latter is Darwinian. And while the founders used mechanical terms for government process, they largely weren’t so rationalistic as to try to mechanize people the way the French Revolution did. Edmund Burke, for example, criticized the French for not recognizing the organic nature of society but rather treating it all as a machine to be tinkered with, but he was no progressive.

This evolutionary way of viewing politics means that the state ought to be always developing and growing. The idea of a limited government, then, is repugnant—for organisms naturally grow unless they are sick. Change, a familiar campaign slogan, must be always good. (Mahoney notes that one phenomenon that progressivism can’t comprehend is change for the worse—which is why progressive academia didn’t know how to respond to either Communism in Russia or Fascism in Germany). On this scale, the more developed nations are the ones with the states that have grown more, and thus we see an upholding of European politics. Taking over healthcare, for example, is something that states do as they move along this progression (as demonstrated by Europe), therefore, we need a national healthcare system. However, progressivism holds that such growth and advancement, while organic, is not inevitable; it needs to be guided and steered. Experts are best qualified for this. Obama’s academic background here is insightful—he spent his entire career steeped in this type of thinking, hence, the continual references to his brilliance. (Woodrow Wilson likewise was very influential in higher education before becoming president.)

Progressivism also sees a divide between the political and the administrative, and relegates political decisions to the electorate (hence a focus on popular elections, referendums, and recalls—ways for the people to express their political will). The purpose of the statesman is merely to implement what the people want (shades of Rousseau’s “general will” are showing through here). Principled debates, therefore, will not take place in Washington, because in a clever way of passing the buck, all decisions have already been made by the people. To return again to healthcare—the people spoke (in electing Obama & co.), and it is now up to Obama & co. to put in place what they interpret the mandate. It just so happens that this is coinciding with what more developed nations do, which helps their resolve. The entire question is therefore viewed as one of administration (not politics) and the entire debate is about technique (not principle). To use religious terms (and most political ideologies at some point or another morph into the religious), Obama can view himself as the priest or mediator between the people and Congress (or whoever they need mediating against). Which is to say, he advocates for what he wants, and tries to act as if the force of the people are behind him. Those who get in the way are thus holding us back and impeding this progress.

What is unique about Obama is that he is progressive in a way that we haven’t seen for a while, and certainly in a way the Clintons weren’t. He’s about more than just politics, he has an ideology that he’s pursuing. After the end of what is commonly known as the progressive era, progressivism took a back burner in American politics (although it still dominates academia). Obama is reversing this—he campaigned on going somewhere and wants to bring the American people with him. And the people haven’t seen someone like that since Reagan (Bush had more vision than say, Gore or Kerry, but while he had vision, he did get bogged down in details). The problem is that it was largely unexamined as to where Obama wanted to go.

Fortunately, highly progressive office holders tend to burn out and become ineffective. Their ideological inflexibility makes them lots of enemies, and eventually they become obscure. An inability to compromise alienates Congress, as Woodrow Wilson did in his quest for a League of Nations (he had more than enough votes had he been willing to compromise with those who liked the idea but not all his details). Teddy Roosevelt, for all his popularity, lost his own party and ended his political career running as a third-party candidate for the presidency. The hard-core progressives (or ideologues of any stripe) tend to not be good politicians.

Finally, the progressives’ continually trying to reform the method of government has a history of backfiring. The referendum and recall are both progressive era implementations, but in California they were used to replace a liberal with a less-liberal and in Michigan were used multiple times to override the veto of a partial birth abortion ban, and across the nation have been used in the marriage battles. Similarly, tinkering with election rules led to Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts. The electorate, it seems, isn't quite as progressive as progressivism assumes.
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