A dime’s worth of difference, 2012 edition

If you follow writers associated with what I’ll broadly call the “disaffected Left,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are few if any substantive differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both, we’re told, are content with the corporate plutocracy, support a hawkish foreign policy and an ever-expanding surveillance state, are open to making cuts to entitlement programs, and generally do not present significantly different choices for the future of American society.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll get into a common litany of betrayals that Obama has perpetrated: the expansion of drone warfare, continuation of Bush-era civil liberties abuses, a timid and incremental approach to health-care reform, and excessive obsequiousness to Wall Street being among the most often cited.

And there’s truth to virtually all of this! Obama hasn’t governed as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal nor has he transcended partisan animosity to usher in a new era of beyond-red-and-blue politics. He’s done stuff that anyone on the “Left,” broadly defined, should oppose. I personally have been most disappointed in his record on civil liberties and foreign affairs, but I also agree with much of the left-wing criticism of his domestic and economic policies.

All that said, however, there remain significant differences between Obama and Romney that will have major effects on people’s lives, depending on who’s elected. Here’s Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” blog to summarize:

Okay, I get it. But even if you think Obama has been a disastrous failure, or has betrayed the progressive coalition that supported him in 2008, the fact remains that if Mitt Romney is elected president and (as will probably happen if he wins) Republicans maintain control of the House and secure control of the Senate, the Ryan budget will almost certainly be enacted and implemented during 2013. If Obama wins, it won’t. If Romney wins, the odds of a constitutional right to abortion surviving the next four years go down to something like single digits; If Obama wins, it’s a very different proposition. If Romney wins, a war with Iran becomes something like a 50-50 proposition; not so much if Obama wins.

Perhaps none of these things matter as much as Obama’s failure to reverse many Bush-era civil liberties policies, his failure to pursue single-payer health reform; his failure to nationalize the banks or pursue criminal penalties against corporate malefactors; his failure to convince the country that Keynes was right after all. But they actually do matter to a lot of people who will be affected by little things like the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society social net, and the potential unravelling of the constitutional structure that has made anything approaching progressive policies possible over the last several decades.

Now Kilgore is a longtime Democratic strategist, but even allowing for some partisan cheerleading, this seems about right to me. Although he wants to tinker with it in a (possibly misguided) attempt to make it more fiscally sustainable, Obama accepts and even defends the basic post-New Deal social compact. The Romney-Ryan G.O.P., however, is a different story. In fact, opposition to the New Deal–and its principle that the government should ensure a basic level of economic security–is arguably the animating impulse of the modern conservative movement.

Similarly with foreign policy. Do I wish Obama was more dovish? Why, yes I do. But there are still important differences between his brand of liberal internationalism and the vision of unilateral hegemony favored by conservatives. And these are literally differences of life and death, possibly for many thousands of people.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that anyone is morally obliged to vote for Obama. But there are real differences between the candidates, even if not as many–or as significant–as we might like.

Silly season

I haven’t been following the Republican primaries all that closely–partly because it’s too depressing, but also in part because I’ve been convinced virtually from the get-go that Mitt Romney will ultimately be the nominee. Nevertheless, what’s apparent even to the casual observer is that the G.O.P. intends to rerun the playbook they used in the 2008 election by attempting to brand Barack Obama as fundamentally un-American.

Romney thinks Obama wants to turn America into a “European-style welfare state”; Newt Gingrich is convinced (or wants to convince us) that the president is a “Saul Alinsky radical.” Obama, we’re told, intends to preside over the United States’ “decline” into a second-tier power, relinquishing our status as the global hegemon.

If this was unconvincing as an attack on candidate Obama in 2008–and the voters seemed to agree that it was–how much less convincing is it against President Obama in 2012? After all, the Obama Administration’s first term has, if anything, confirmed the hopes (or suspicions) of those of us who always saw Obama as essentially a center-left pragmatist, if an unusually charismatic and eloquent one. From the economics of “austerity-lite” to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the escalation of the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Obama has rarely strayed from the centrist playbook, for better or worse (and in my view it’s been a little bit of both).

I guess what I find so dispiriting about this is that it’s virtually impossible to have a good-faith debate about the problems facing the country when one party is attacking what amounts to a fantasy version of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Moreover, when the president is perpetually under the burden to prove that he’s not a “radical” or “socialist,” genuinely liberal or progressive ideas become that much more marginalized. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the point.

What would it mean for progressives to “support” Ron Paul?

There’s been a bit of back and forth recently in the left/progressive blogosphere about whether people who meet that particular description should “support” libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul’s candidacy for president. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have expressed varying degrees of support for Paul’s candidacy, noting that his stances on civil liberties and foreign intervention and war-making are arguably to the “left” of President Obama’s.

Others have countered that Paul is a social reactionary who lent his name to (and profited handsomely from) a series of newsletters in the 90s that trafficked in racist and other inflammatory language as part of a “redneck outreach” strategy among self-described “paleo” libertarians and conservatives. Paul is furthermore a libertarian of a peculiar sort: one who would devolve much of the power of the federal government to the states, a move whose likely effect on individual liberty is debatable at best.

I’m neither a libertarian nor do I have much street cred as a “progressive.” But what I wonder is: what’s at stake in these arguments? What sort of “support” do Greenwald, et al. have in mind? Are they proposing that progressives, who one assumes are mostly registered Democrats, re-register en masse to vote in the Republican primary? Or that they should vote for Paul in the general election were he to get the GOP nomination?

What I think needs to be kept in mind here is that Ron Paul is very, very unlikely to win the nomination and why this is the case. It’s because, among other things, his stances on issues where he is appealing to the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald, are precisely where he is most at variance with the modern Republican party and the conservative movement. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, recall, are largely a fusion of economic, social, and national-defense conservatives. And I agree with the longstanding thesis of Jim Henley that, contrary to popular belief, these factions are not really “in tension” with one another to any great degree. These three varieties of conservatives are, if not identical, largely in sympathy with one another. Among conservatives of whatever stripe, free-marketeerism, cultural conservatism, and military hawkishness are seen as mutually reinforcing. Paul’s eccentric blend of isolationism, decentralization, Austrian economics, and social conservatism are out of sync with what remains the overwhelming conservative consensus.

So it remains unclear what sort of support a progressive or liberal is supposed to offer Paul’s candidacy. Is it that they (we?) should commend Paul for promoting certain perspectives (e.g., a critique of American interventionism) that fall largely outside of the bipartisan mainstream? Liberals can certainly do that without voting for him. But beyond this, what else is “supporting” Paul supposed to mean apart from wishing (and working?) for the success of his candidacy? Are liberals supposed to support (e.g., give money to or vote for) a candidate who opposes every facet of the regulatory and welfare state going back to the 19th century on the minuscule chance that he’ll win the presidency and dismantle the American empire? This seems like an odd allocation of resources for liberals to make. A better use of those resources would seem to be to try to move the Democratic Party–which after all already has a large progressive constituency–in a more progressive direction.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum makes a similar argument, focusing more on what he calls Paul’s “crackpot” ideology:

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He’s not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul’s views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that’s the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don’t need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He’s never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he’ll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you’ll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There’s a good reason for that.

What you see is what you get

Parts of the Internet are abuzz with some dumb comments made by filmmaker and lefty gadfly Michael Moore about Presdient Obama “governing like a white guy.”

The racist nature of these comments aside, what continues to surprise me is how many people apparently thought they were electing a wild-eyed liberal when they voted for Obama. An entire minin-genre of writing has been dedicated to this “Obama betrayed us” lament. It’s surprising because anyone who paid attention to Obama’s speeches, voting record, books, etc. prior to the election would’ve realized that he’s essentially now what he always has been: a moderate, center-left pragmatist.

To be more specific, Obama appears to share the values or goals of many liberals, but he’s also committed to the path of cautious, incremental reform. Health care reform is a good example: despite overheated conservative rhetoric, the Affordable Care Act was actually an attempt to provide relatively modest, technocratic tweaks to the existing health insurance system. It was emphatically not a wholesale overhaul of the system, much less a “government takeover.”

That’s not to say that the President should be above criticism–far from it! But it’s helpful to keep in mind that Obama is governing pretty much as expected–if you actually see him for who he is, not who liberals wish he was.

UPDATE: It’s probably bad blog form to quote yourself, but to illustrate my point, here are a few things I wrote during the months leading up to the 2008 election and shortly thereafter (some of which, I humbly add, have been borne out by subsequent events):

Jan. 5, 2008 “I have so far been less impressed by Obama than some of my friends; his vaunted oratory which seemed to promise to magically transport us to a post-partisan, post-race, post-conflict happy land always struck me as so much hot air.”

Sept. 12, 2008 “I personally find Obama’s backpedaling on FISA and his disinclination to challenge head-on the Bush/GOP paradigm for foreign policy the most troubling. It’s also clear to me that Obama just doesn’t share my views on, say, the scope of U.S. interventionism.”

Oct. 8, 2008 “If anything, my worry about Obama is that he’ll be too pragmatic, too prone to compromise, and too beholden to the Washington bipartisan consensus on a host of matters.”

Dec. 30, 2008 “Obama has given little indication that he dissents in any radical way from the US consensus on foreign policy.”

Now, if even I could see at the time that Barack Obama was essentially a center-left moderate, how come Michael Moore, et al. persist in this “We voted for a liberal gut-fighter, but he turned out to be a conciliatory, deal-making moderate” line?

Friday Links

–Ludwig von Mises versus Christianity.

–20-plus years of Willie Nelson’s political endorsements.

–The media has stopped covering the unemployement crisis.

–The Stockholm Syndrome theory of long novels.

–An interview with Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City.

–Why universal salvation is an evangelical option.

–A debate over Intelligent Design ensares an academic journal of philosophy.

–Goodbye birtherism, hello “otherism“?

–Chain restaurants try to adapt to the classic-cocktail renaissance.

–Everything you need to know about the apocalypse.

A leaner, meaner liberalism?

I’m not qualified to assess the numbers offered in President Obama’s speech on his plan to reduce the federal debt. There’ll be lots of details to come, and lots of commentary on his plan from people far better equipped to crunch the numbers than I am. Plus, whatever we ultimately end up with will no doubt look pretty different from what the president is proposing.

What’s more interesting to me is that he took this opportunity to defend a distinctive liberal vision of government–something that Obama has previously seemed reluctant to do. He’s often appeared to be more interested in playing the role of the above-the-fray pragmatist who wants “results” instead of “politics.”

And yet, in this speech we have passages like this:

From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.

And this:

Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.

The idea here is that individualism and free markets are certainly good things, but they need to be tempered by a sense of the common good and mutual responsibility. And the solution to our problems isn’t just to get the government out of the way; government has a positive role to play as an instrument of collective purpose.

Most fundamentally, perhaps, the president is calling the bluff of the House Republicans. They say they care about the debt; he says, okay, but let’s address that without breaking the social compact. It’s an implicit call for them to decide whether they care more about reducing the debt or about catering to rich people by cutting their taxes and hobbling the regulatory state. He’s provided a vision of America that contrasts sharply with the one offered by the GOP (one the president accurately describes as pessimistic).

But Obama isn’t advocating a return to the tax-and-spend liberalism of old:

So this is our vision for America -– this is my vision for America — a vision where we live within our means while still investing in our future; where everyone makes sacrifices but no one bears all the burden; where we provide a basic measure of security for our citizens and we provide rising opportunity for our children.


Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works -– by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.

Whether Obama’s specific proposals can actually pull off this vision of a more fiscally austere liberalism is another question. (Paul Krugman, who’s been pretty critical of Obama, is cautious but fairly impressed.) Hard-core liberals will certainly complain about the concessions being made to the deficit hawks, and conservatives are likely to oppose anything Obama does. But I have to think that this is a vision that will appeal to a lot of people. I don’t think most people, deep down, really want Ayn Rand-style libertarianism. They believe in programs like Social Security and Medicare, but are also alarmed by what seems to be out-of-control spending. And this fear is used as leverage by those who are opposed to a positive role for government. We’re constantly being told that we “can’t afford” a robust safety net, or decent jobs with good benefits for everyone, or environmental protection, or whatnot. Obama is challenging that mindset with a version of liberalism that aims to be both tender-hearted and hard-headed. That may be just what we need.

(I still hate “win the future” though.)

Friday links

– Many people have pointed to this omnibus post at Mother Jones that provides background, context, links, and ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt.

– Marvin writes on understanding apostolic poverty.

– At the blog Memoria Dei, a post discussing feminist theologian Mary Daly’s use of women’s experience as an analogue for the divine.

– Palgrave Macmillan and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics have launched a new series of books on the ethical treatment of animals. So far, two titles have been published: An Introduction to Animals and Political Theory by Alasdair Cochrane and An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan E. Schaffner. The series is co-edited by Andrew Linzey and Priscilla Cohn.

– Crystal has a post discussing John Milbank’s and Keith Ward’s differing views on Kant (complete with a video of Ward lecturing on the subject).

– Rodney Clapp on giving yourself (and others) permission not to pray.

– The State of the Union and “semi-Niebuhrianism.”

– Kevin Drum on the virtues of a strong labor movement.

– Oasis and Radiohead: two very different British bands that defined alternative rock in the late ’90s.


Today’s WaPo offers a review of a spate of new political books under the headline “Flame-throwing political books from the Right and the Left.” In judicious Post fashion, it finds the Left and the Right about equally guilty of partisan extremism. “If you believe the liberals,” we’re told “we have Republicans going insane after their White House defeat.” Shrill!

Of course, the conservative books under review pretty much to a one are about how Barack Obama hates America and wants to destroy our constitutional system of government. And they didn’t even mention Andy McCarthy’s new book.

“Spiritual Progressives” converge on DC

I won’t be attending, but I thought I’d flag the conference of the “Network of Spiritual Progressives” taking place this weekend in D.C. since it’s being hosted by my church.

Presenters include Congressmen Keith Ellison and Dennis Kucinich, Brian McLaren, Joan Chittister, Bill McKibben, and Michael Lerner, among many others. The agenda is crafting “an alternative to Tea Party extremism and Corporate Domination of American Politics and Culture.” Looks like it’s an attempt to forge a coalition of religious and secular liberals to exert pressure on the Obama administration from a progressive direction. I probably wouldn’t sign onto everything on their policy wish-list, but given how far to the Right the “center” of our public discourse has moved, anything that might help revivify the genuine Left and further break up the Right’s monopoly on religion-talk is welcome.

Will the real Reinhold Niebuhr please stand up?

There’s been much made of the “Niebuhrian” nature of President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech: its frank recognition that dealing with evil sometimes requires the use of force; its rejection of non-violence; its anti-utopianism with respect to ending violent conflict, etc. And that’s all fair enough.

But there was one key Niebuhrian theme that was conspicuously missing: deep skepticism about our own motives coupled with an appreciation of our virtually bottomless capacity for self-deception. “Realism” in the Niebuhrian sense isn’t just about recognizing intractable evil without, it’s also about being alert to the even more insidious evil within. Nations, Niebuhr argued, are almost necessarily self-interested, an egoism bolstered by the qualified altruism that devotion to the nation calls forth. And this egoism inevitably manifests itself in hypocrisy, particularly when nations present themselves as bearers of universal values (sound familiar?).

Here’s Niebuhr:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised. One can never be quite certain whether the disguise is meant only for the eye of the external observer or whether, as may be usually the case, it deceives the self. Naturally this defect in individuals becomes more apparent in the less moral life of nations. […]

The dishonesty of nations is a necessity of political policy if the nation is to gain the full benefit of its double claim upon the loyalty and devotion of the individual, as his own special and unique community and as a community which embodies universal values and ideals. The two claims, the one touching the individual’s emotions and the other appealing to his mind, are incompatible with each other, and can be resolved only through dishonesty. This is particularly evident in war-time. … In other words, it is just in the moments when the nation is engaged in aggression or defense (and it is always able to interpret the former in terms of the latter) that the reality of the nation’s existence becomes so sharply outlined as to arouse the citizen to the most passionate and uncritical devotion toward it. But at such times the nation’s claim to uniqueness also comes in sharpest conflict with the generally accepted impression that the nation is the incarnation of universal values. This conflict can be resolved only by deception. (R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1960 Scribner’s edition, pp. 95-96)

When the President says, for example, that the U.S. has helped underwrite sixty years of global security without mentioning Vietnam (a war Niebuhr opposed), Cambodia, Central America, or other places where American military power was perhaps not so gratefully received, he’s doing exactly what Niebuhr is describing here: identifying the interests of the U.S. with the universal aspirations of mankind. He may be able to do it in a more subtle and nuanced way than his predecessor, but it’s not a fundamentally different claim. This doesn’t mean that President Obama is wrong when he says that war is sometimes justified, but he is wrong to omit the point that our own motives must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny and skepticism. Particularly, Niebuhr would say, when economic elites exert a disproportionate influence on policy-making. Again: sound familiar?