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TR to Wilson

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Celtic Red (or Green for Gene.)

“I had never met Debs…[but] ever since he came there he is considered a man that is actually a saint or a Jesus Christ because when the night comes and the work is over, he goes into the yard where all the men, the criminals, come around him, and for each one he has a word to tell them. For each he has word to awaken in them a human spirit, the feeling that has been lost for years and years… I am sure it is actually a crime to keep a man of that type behind iron bars.”

Also in recent NBA news and by way of a grad school friend: Larry Bird may be the “Basketball Jesus,” but he wasn’t the first Christ figure from the Hoosier State: Former Celts Bill Walton and Larry Bird visit the Eugene Debs Museum. “Walton and the Birds spent a full hour and a half visiting all three floors of this great museum. This was not a step in, step out visit for them.”

After the Candelabra.

“The setting: downtown New York in 1900, a tumultuous time of massive change and great progress. The series centers around the groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff at Knickerbocker Hospital, who are pushing the bounds of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics.”

Speaking of the Knicks: On the eve of Behind the Candelabra (this Sunday on HBO), Steven Soderbergh — still ostensibly retired from feature filmmaking — is set to direct 10-hours of a period hospital drama, The Knick, for Cinemax, with Clive Owen.

As a hobby, apparently, he’s also gotten into the film cognoscenti hipster t-shirt business. “While designing the shirts, Soderbergh told Reuters, ‘I would test them out by wearing them to the set to see if people knew the movie references.'” Citizen Kane aside, most of them are pretty esoteric. (Second link via The Late Adopter.)

Consigned to the Waves.

“‘Having gone through that disaster she was given extra years and an extra dose of vitality,’ said Haas, who recalled escorting Dean to a Titanic society gala a few years ago.” Millvina Dean, last known survivor of the Titanic, 1912-2009. “Dean’s death fell on May 31, exactly 98 years after the Titanic was launched.

The Ghosts of Ford and Bourne.

As most everyone keeping up on current events these days knows, the people around the president, as well as the president himself, spend a good bit of time emphasizing the pragmatic nature of this administration. One senior administration official recently deemed the president a “devout nonideologue”, and Obama himself has argued several times that he aims to tackle the myriad problems before us with a “ruthless pragmatism.” Now, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Obama’s pragmatic nature is an act. If anything, from installing Sen. Clinton as his Secretary of State to keeping Sec. Gates at Defense, it’s clear that pragmatism, accommodation, and inclusiveness are his temperamental instincts as a politician. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, and the “bold, persistent experimentation” Roosevelt promised in 1932 — and subsequently followed through on over the course of the decade — aren’t entirely undesired by the White House.

Well, I’ve been traveling over the past few days, and thus haven’t been following the news as closely as usual. Still, even given President Obama’s health care announcement on Monday (highly reminiscent of the NRA in that it purports to let the big players in the health care industry help write the codes, so to speak) and the welcome declaration on Wednesday that the administration would soon seek a new regulatory apparatus for derivatives markets, Franklin Roosevelt was not the first president that came to mind as a point of reference for Obama this week.

No, that would be Gerald Ford, who, most historians agree, was an honorable man thrust into a thorny dilemma by the crimes of his predecessor, and who grievously hamstrung his own brief administration by deciding to pardon Richard Nixon. And now, it seems, history gets dangerously close to repeating itself. For, it’s moved beyond obvious that the Dubya administration not only willfully engaged in torture — clearly, bad enough — but did so to compel false confessions of an Iraq-9/11 connection that they knew never existed. And yet, we’ve already witnessed the ungainly sight of President Obama equivocating on the question of prosecutions in the name of some dubious “time for reflection, not retribution.” (Never mind that, as President Obama reminds us on other matters, wounds, like corruption, fester in the dark.)

This week, President Obama has compounded his recent error — twice. In the first of two eleventh-hour reversals, Obama — who has promised us “an unprecedented level of openness in government” many times over — instead chose to side with the publicists of the Pentagon and block the court-ordered release of new photographs detailing detainee abuse: “‘The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,’ Obama said yesterday. ‘In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.‘” (How bad are they? If Sy Hersh is correct, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, they could be very, very bad.)

Then, today, the Obama administration announced they will continue using extra-legal military tribunals, not federal courts or military courts martial, for Gitmo suspects. “‘Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States,’ said Obama in a statement. ‘They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.’” (The key line of the WP story: “In recent weeks, however, the administration appears to have bowed to fears articulated by the Pentagon that bringing some detainees before regular courts presented enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.)”

Obama’s statements aside, the arguments — re: excuses — in favor of blocking the release of these no-doubt-horrifying photos and maintaining extralegal tribunals — now with 33% less illegality! — are the thin gruel you might expect. The WP’s Dan Froomkin already eviscerated the former quite devastatingly, while Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, laudable as usual, has taken point on the idiocy of the latter: “[W]e’ll give due process as long as we’re sure we can win, and if we can’t, we’ll give you something less.” In both cases, the principle animating the advice given to President Obama seems mainly to be the usual self-serving, CYA behavior of Dubya holdovers at the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t absolve President Obama of his failures here. For whatever reason — perhaps he’s trying to smooth things over in these areas so he can focus on the considerable domestic problems on his plate — Obama is increasingly making the exact same mistake as Gerald Ford. As other commentators have pointed out, by shoving the rampant illegalities of the GWoT under the rug — or worse, perpetuating them — Obama is dangerously close to making his administration retroactively complicit in the crimes of the previous administration.

Now, I’d like to move on to fixing the economy and universal health care — not to mention voting, lobbying, and campaign finance reform — as much as the next guy., But sidestepping the tough choices on torture and the imperial presidency, as Paul Krugman (whom I’ve had issues with but am in complete lockstep with here) noted a few weeks ago, is simply not an option, if we are to maintain anything resembling our national soul after this egregious wallowing in torture and illegality.

Speaking of which, a quick comment on the emerging question of what and when Speaker Pelosi knew about torture (which the Republicans have shamelessly latched onto like a life raft — see in particular Karl Rove frantically pointing at her to save his own skin the other day. You can almost smell the desperate flop sweat exuding from his every pore.) Well, let’s look into it. Commissions, investigations, prosecutions — let’s quit screwing around and start getting to the bottom of this fiasco. I can’t believe I have to keep writing this like it’s even a bone of contention, but look: If we can’t get it together enough to collectively agree that torture is both immoral and illegal, and that those who designed and orchestrated these war crimes during the Dubya administration be subject to investigation, prosecution, and punishment, then we might as well call this whole “rule of law” thing off. As ethicist David Luban noted yesterday in congressional testimony, the relevant case law here is not oblique. Either the laws apply to those at the very top, or they don’t — in which case, it’s hard to see why anyone else should feel bound to respect them either.

Which brings me back to pragmatism. Hey, in general, I’m all for it, particularly when you consider all the many imbecilities thrust upon the world by the blind ideological purity of the neocons of late. But, let’s remember, the limits of pragmatism as a guiding national philosophy were exposed before all the world before Obama, or even FDR, ever took office. When, after several years of trying to stay well out of the whole mess, Woodrow Wilson entered America into World War I in 1917, the very fathers of Pragmatism, most notably philosopher of education John Dewey, convinced themselves war was now the correct call and exhorted their fellow progressives, usually in the pages of The New Republic, to get behind it. (Many did, but others — such as Jane Addams and Nation editor Oswald Villard — did not.) War went from being a moral abomination to a great and necessary opportunity for national renewal. Given it was a done deal, the pragmatic thing to do now was to go with the flow.

Aghast at this 180-degree shift in the thinking of people he greatly admired, a young writer named Randolph Bourne called shenanigans on this “pragmatic” turnaround, and excoriated his former mentors for their lapse into war fervor. “It must never be forgotten that in every community it was the least liberal and least democratic elements among whom the preparedness and later the war sentiment was found,” Bourne wrote. “The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy had been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy.

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for the progressives than I. But the fact remains that Bourne, who perished soon thereafter in the 1918 influenza epidemic, was prescient in a way that many of the leading progressive thinkers were not. The emotions unleashed by the Great War and its aftermath (as well as the sight of the accompanying Russian Revolution) soon fractured completely the progressive movement in America, and proved exceedingly fertile soil for the reascendancy of the most reactionary elements around. (Back then “Bolshevik” and “anarchist” were preferred as the favorite epithets of the “One Hundred Percent American” right-wing, although “socialist,” then as now, was also in vogue. At least then they had real socialists around, tho’.) And the pragmatic writers and thinkers of TNR, who thought they could ride the mad tiger through a “war to end all wars,” instead found their hopes and dreams chewed up and mangled beyond recognition. They wanted a “world made safe for democracy” and they ended up with the Red Scare, Warren Harding, and an interstitial peace at Versailles that lasted less than a generation.

The point being: however laudable a virtue in most circumstances, pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake can lead one into serious trouble. And, as a guiding light of national moral principle, it occasionally reeks. As Dewey and his TNR compatriots discovered to their everlasting chagrin, you can talk yourself into pretty much anything and deem it “pragmatic,” when it’s in fact just the path of least resistance. And, when your guiding philosophy of leadership is to always view intense opposing sides as Scylla and Charybdis, and then to steer through them by finding the calm, healthy middle, you can bet dollars-to-donuts that the conservative freaks of the industry will always be pushing that “center” as far right as possible, regardless of the issues involved. And, eventually, without a guiding moral imperative at work — like, I dunno, torture is illegal, immoral, and criminal, or the rule of law applies to everyone — you may discover that that middle channel is no longer in the middle at all, but has diverted strongly to the right. In which case, welcome to Gerald Ford territory.

Nobody wants that, of course. We — on the left, at least — all want to remember the Obama administration not as a well-meaning dupe notable mainly for its unfortunate rubberstamping of Dubya-era atrocities, but as a transformational presidency akin to those of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. To accomplish this goal, it would behoove the White House to remember that Lincoln, pragmatic that he was, came to abolition gradually, but come to abolition he did. Or consider that Franklin Roosevelt, pragmatic that he was, eventually chose his side as well. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match,” FDR said in his renomination speech of 1936. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

I should like to have it said of President Obama’s administration as well. The alternative — Obama’s sad, “pragmatic” capitulation to Dubya-era criminals — is too depressing to contemplate. But the picture below (found here) gives you a pretty good sense of what it’ll mean for America if we don’t get to the bottom of this, and soon.

McCain the (Bull) Moose-Hunter?

“When T.R. spoke of ‘swollen fortunes’ and ‘malefactors of great wealth,’ socialism was a genuine force in American politics, perceived by many to pose a serious threat to the social order. When T.R. first called for a ‘graduated income tax’ in his 1907 State of the Union, he was proposing a measure that the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. Indeed, the federal income tax struck down by the Court wasn’t even ‘graduated,’ or progressive; it was a flat-rate tax.” One from a few days ago that Ted at The Late Adopter just reminded me of: As Slate‘s Tim Noah aptly points out, John McCain can either continue to decry Obama’s purported “socialist” tendencies, or he can continue to claim Teddy Roosevelt is his hero, but he cannot plausibly continue to do both.

At the very least, it would seem McCain, what with his coterie of lobbyist attendants, has either never read — or is flagrantly ignoring — TR’s “New Nationalism” speech: “There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done” (See also one of my favorites: “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.)”

Busted Rivets…

“‘The board was in crisis mode,’ one of the authors, Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who studied the archives, said in an interview. ‘It was constant stress. Every meeting it was, “There’s problems with the rivets and we need to hire more people.”‘‘ Sorry, Jack and Rose (and, of course, the 1517 real casualties): It seems the Titanic may well have foundered due to corporate cut-corners, namely substandard riveting. “Adding to the problem, in buying iron for the Titanic’s rivets, the company ordered No. 3 bar, known as ‘best’ — not No. 4, known as ‘best-best,’ the scientists found. Shipbuilders of the day typically used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains and rivets…The scientists argue that better rivets would have probably kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to arrive before the icy plunge, saving hundreds of lives.

Remembering Rankin.

“Remember, Jeannette Rankin was elected before women could vote. So who says men don’t vote for a woman?” Resorting to a blatant gender pitch once more, Sen. Clinton name-drops Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first female representative. (She also took hold of the recent Kinsley meme: “‘Do you realize how much longer it takes for me to get ready than my opponents?” Clinton said. ‘I think I should get points for what I do, plus having to spend so much time getting ready.'”)

Just to set the record straight, Jeannette Rankin was a committed pacifist who not only led the “Jeannette Rankin Brigade” to protest the Vietnam War late in her life, but voted against American entry into both World Wars (and was the only person to vote against entry into WWII.) So, their common womanhood aside, I think it’s safe to say Rankin would be thoroughly disgusted by Clinton’s record on Iraq and Iran, and might well roundly reject the comparison.

Progressivism, Continued.

So, sorry to regale y’all with another long-winded, bloviating political post only two entries after the last one. But Ted of The Late Adopter asked an important follow-up to my comments on David Greenberg’s Obama piece and public-interest progressivism, namely: “If FDR, Stevenson, the Kennedys all spoke with the rhetoric of citizenship, when did the Democrats stop? With Johnson? Carter? During the 80s while trying to oppose Reagan?” And, while trying to respond in the comment section, I apparently blathered on so long that I broke the site. (“Access Denied with Code 406….severity [EMERGENCY]“) So, I’m posting my response as an entry instead (and there’s precedent for this anyway, as when Scully and I discussed the space program a few years ago.) So, if you find this all ponderous and insufferable, feel free to skip down to the previous entry, where I raved on at equal length about Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (10/10!) And I promise to get back to more concise entries again soon…

“Hmm, good question, Ted. Let me take a crack at it in the long-winded, digression-filled, multiple-answer manner we’ve been trained into. 🙂

First, while I don’t think he’s entirely comfortable with the Sandelian argument I’m making here, our mutual advisor posits one answer to this question in The End of Reform: This all began in earnest during WWII, when two things occurred. [1] The financial and productive power of Big Business became absolutely integral to the success of the war effort (thus there was less of a rationale for opposing corporate power in political life), and [2] Politicians and economists discovered in boom times and Keynesianiam that they could “grow the pie,” economically speaking, rather than be forced to choose a best way to carve it up. So, the civic-minded questions of political economy that dominated the early New Deal fell by the wayside.

Obviously, Adlai and the brothers Kennedy come after WWII, so that in itself is not a complete answer. So I’d add the following trends:

* 1968. Like 1919-1920, when the strike wave, the race riots, the Red Scare, the failure at Versailles, and various other traumatic events — the tail-end of the influenza wave, the death of TR, the Black Sox scandal, the widespread exposure to Freudianism, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and literary/artistic modernism, the recent Bolshevik revolution, and the Great War itself — all conspired to create great anxiety and help overturn the existing order, I would argue that the events of 1968 irrevocably rent the social fabric of the nation.

It became especially hard for anyone after ’68 to talk about a civic project or a common public interest when America was divided so badly between left and right, black and white — rifts that Republicans like Nixon and Reagan would exploit to their advantage with the Southern strategy and veiled rhetoric about “law and order” — particularly when those leaders who did it best were gunned down in their prime. (This “culture war” is one of the same obstacles the progressives face in the ’20s, with the Red Scare, Scopes, Prohibition, the KKK, etc.) It also became problematic to speak in the language of citizenship when it was now well beyond clear that [a] women, African-Americans, and other minorities had been and were being treated in the civic culture as second-class citizens, and [b] the main civic project which the government was then asking its citizens to become engaged in was the war in Vietnam, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

* GENERATIONS. While both the early New Left (see the Port Huron Statement) and the early civil rights movement (see King, in the original entry) have strong civic, and even Emersonian, components, both Sixties protest groups and the general mood of politics eventually swung over into the rhetoric of individualistic, rights-based liberalism. Meanwhile, the New Right, in its opposition to the New Deal and Great Society, also abandoned to a large extent the language of citizenship and virtue and made an appeal based on individual freedom as opposed to a corrupt, socialistic central government. (For an excellent civic-conservative reaction to this shift, see George Will’s 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, the best thing he’s ever written.)

Stevenson and the Kennedys were of the WWII generation, and — while I loathe the term “greatest generation,” unless you find something inherently great about training fire hoses on small children — they were more comfortable with the civic, “we’re all in it together” appeal of an earlier time. The appeal held less water with the much more skeptical Boomer generation, and, as the political culture embraced the individualistic liberalism/liberation of the late sixties and early seventies, with the nation at large. (You could argue Carter tried to make a civic argument on the energy question, and he was basically laughed out of the room.) Boomer politicians of either party — the Clintons, the Bushes — just aren’t as comfortable making civic-minded, public-interest arguments as their forbears. It’s not how they see the game is played. This is also due to:

* WATERGATE, GATEGATE. From Vietnam to (particularly) Watergate to bureaucratic bloat to Iran-Contra to the fiascos of today, Americans have experienced a severe diminuition in what we believe government is and should be capable of. This open-eyed skepticism about centralized power should be a good thing, but not if we throw out the baby with the bathwater. You know how Richard saida withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy?” Irony isn’t only the shackles of youth, it’s the shackles of our politics as well.

There’s other things going on too. Not to get all Caro up in here, but LBJ, I think, was inherently uncomfortable making civic arguments as well (unless he was appropriating them, a la “We shall overcome.”) His view, shaped as it was by the exigencies of local Texas politics and his days running the Senate, was that everything ultimately boiled down to self-interest. (This partly explains how he could screw up Vietnam so badly. Eventually he thinks about buying off Ho Chi Minh with a TVA-style system of dams for the Mekong Delta, not realizing that Ho — and North Vietnam — are persevering in part because they’ve committed to an ideal more important to them then self-interest: national independence, a cause they felt they’d been fighting for for thousands of years.)

But, perhaps most important to note, I think it’s fair to say that one reason the rhetoric of citizenship went out of style was because:

* THE PATTERN WAS FLAWED, for all the reasons I said above. If I was a guy growing up in Chicago, Mississippi, or anywhere else, and I was being treated as a second-class citizen by the white power structure, either by being denied the right to vote or being snubbed out of quality jobs or housing, and then I was told my civic duty was to go die in Southeast Asia for lousy reasons (while the Dick Cheneys of the world piled up deferments), I might turn against the civic project too. If I was a woman who was told my civic duty basically amounted to finding a good man, keeping his stomach full and his house clean, and punching out healthy, patriotic American children, I’d rebel against this flawed social order as well.

In short, the post-WWII, Cold War-obsessed civic culture of the 1950s and early 1960s was stifling and half-baked. It basically told citizens that their civic obligation was to buy as much as possible, to not consort with Reds, and, most importantly, to not cause any trouble. It needed to be broken up and reconfigured.

(The progressives of the 1920s come to this conclusion as well, when they see how easily Wilsonian public-interest rhetoric enables the Red Scare (thus letting people on the Right brand every possible progressive program as “Bolshevik.”) This is why some of the most civic-minded Progressives — Jane Addams, for example — play a major part in the creation of the ACLU.)

Here we get to the inherent problems with arguments that rely on civic-mindedness and appeals to citizenship. For one, a public interest that treats certain citizens as second-class is inherently and fatally flawed. Look at the early New Left — for all its progressive inclinations and civic-mindedness on paper and even in practice, it still basically treated women like the help. (See SNCC and Stokely Carmichael: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.“)

Plus, as a general rule of human nature, groups of people working together tend to desire conformity and despise independence, no matter what their political inclinations. This is as much a failing of the Left as it is the Right. (See Animal Farm, Dylan plugging in at Newport, etc.)

Also, here the coercion problem in civic strands of political thought rears its head — Rousseau’s social compact forcing people to be free, and all that. An argument made on the basis of citizenship presumes coercion — citizens are expected to do this (vote, serve in the military, be informed about public matters) and not do that (drink, hang with Communists, etc.) Coercion isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself — I think everyone agrees citizens should not kill, own slaves, etc. — but [1] telling people they have to do anything goes against the view of absolute individual freedom enthroned today, and [2] coercion invariably leads to conformity. which is ultimately the avowed enemy of republican government, which both relies on and should promote individual excellence.

How do we get around this Gordian knot? My answer (which, not surprisingly, was also the answer of many of the Progressives) rests with Emerson. As I just said, an argument based on citizenship presupposes inculcating a certain virtue into citizens. But what if that virtue was individuality (not the same as individualism) and independence? The ability to think for oneself, the freedom to grow and innovate, and then the inclination to come back to the circle of citizens, share what you’ve learned, and deliberate about the public good? Emerson argues that we express our consent to government by expressing our dissent with government. If republican government is going to reach its full potential, it needs a community of independent-minded nonconformists. This is the type of citizenship a progressive candidate could and should get behind.

And the Progressives did promote it — People always read Herbert Croly as an apologist for strong, centralized government, but this isn’t quite right. Decades before he got into poltics, Croly was an architecture critic — he was deeply concerned about art and aesthetics, and was trying to fashion a political architecture that would help individuals to thrive. At the end of The Promise of American Life (p. 414), Croly talks about what’s he’s been aspiring to create: “A national structure which encourages individuality as opposed to mere particularity is one which creates innumerable special niches, adapted to all degrees and kinds of individual development.” For him the “Jeffersonian ends” of individuality and improvement were as important as the “Hamiltonian means” of a strong central government.

Ok, to step away from Planet Theory and get back to our real world: How would progressive-minded candidates of today work towards this new civic fabric? Well, first and most importantly, they would have to reconceive today’s liberal arguments in civic, progressive terms, to stop using the language of consumer choice and individual freedom — which plays so easily into the hands of corporate power and the small-government Right — like a crutch and bring back the language of citizenship and a shared narrative/vision/history that brings people together. The civic idea is so desiccated at the moment, for all the reasons mentioned in the original post, that just hearkening to its continued existence would be an immense step in the right direction (as well as a huge political boon for the Left regardless.)

From there, progressives, like their counterparts a century ago, would have to work to fix a broken system. This means campaign finance and lobbying reform, doing what we can to ensure that unwashed money doesn’t corrupt the system as horribly as it does now, and that dollars don’t speak louder than people.

As important here is voting reform. The voting system in our nation is absolutely abysmal. I refuse to believe that a country that can give almost every supermarket or store an ATM and almost every person a cellphone and iPod must be reduced to semi-functioning punchcard booths or electronic voting that can’t create a paper trail. And the long lines we see on every election day are patently shameful. Election Day should be a holiday (why not?), we should move to weekend voting, we should establish a Marshall plan to get every county in America an operating voting system, or something. Also, I doubt mandatory voting would ever work in this country, but what about tax incentives, or more likely public-private partnerships to encourage turnout? (Thanks for voting — here’s your free sundae at McDonalds and 20% off your next purchase at Borders.) The people who say this would be tantamount to bribing folks to vote are usually the people who don’t want voters showing up at the polls.

Today’s progressives should also look to education. The (Bill) Clinton model of adult, lifelong education is a step in the right direction, but what’s missing is the civic component. Civics is deader than dead in our high schools and colleges, so on the most basic level that needs to be emphasized. But, equally importantly, we need to reemphasize the skills key to republican government: critical thinking, deliberation, etc. (Dare I say it, reading.) From an early age we all need to learn how to sift through information to reach a critically informed opinion, to ask the right questions about the information being presented to us, and — perhaps most importantly — to learn how to engage with people who disagree with us in a constructive fashion.

And, a civic-minded progressive would continually look to our shared past and our shared future to bring Americans together. This would mean not only basking in but owning up to our collective past — say, adding a National Museum of Slavery to the Mall. It would also mean engaging in great civic projects which would bind the nation in common purpose (one of the many reasons I believe in the necessity of the space program.)

Some might argue that I’m on crack for thinking that campaign finance reform, civics classes, a slavery museum, and/or a trillion-dollar space program is going to change what’s wrong with America. And, no, these aren’t sufficient. But, as I said in the original post, the story is everything. If our leaders help us reconceive our view of the government — to remind us that the government is an expression of our shared values and ambitions as citizens — then we can begin to look at other problems differently. If we’re all in it together, the continued existence of child poverty, or the woeful lack of health insurance for many, here in the richest nation on Earth becomes that much more unacceptable.

I’m not naive enough to believe that embracing civic progressivism or adopting the rhetoric of citizenship is going to change the country immediately, that money is suddenly going to disappear from our political process thanks to one new law, or that the next iteration of American’s civic fabric will be bereft of the types of discrimination in evidence in the 1860s, 1920s, 1960s and beyond. But, to borrow from Cornel West, “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.

To put the same argument another way, there’s a scene in The Princess Bride where our hero Westley (Cary Elwes) and the princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) are on the run and looking for safety in the dastardly and invariably fatal Fire Swamp. “We’ll never survive,” bemoans Buttercup, to which Westley responds: “You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about a lot of things, including progressivism in politics. Does true love exist? I dunno. Lord knows it hasn’t seemed like it, and I’ve been kicked in the teeth often enough at this point to think not. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t live my life as if it could happen. Same with this view of civic progressivism. David Greenberg may be right that civic-minded candidates have done pretty poorly in recent history, but that doesn’t mean the principle is flawed, or that we should stop trying.

And, besides, to jump over to another fantasy classic, you don’t wear the ring — you destroy the ring. So I’d rather stake my claim with the public interest progressives, even if that doesn’t play as well as all the blatant appeals to self-interest, than get all Boromir up in here and start acting like Republican-lite, which all too many of our party frontrunners have been doing these past few years.

Progressivism: A Born Loser?

Reagan aside, I do respectfully take issue with Greenberg’s prior Slate piece comparing Obama to a long list of well-meaning losers, including Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. Greenberg writes: “Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It’s a style — an ideology, really — that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest…What he doesn’t seem to understand — as Stevenson did not — is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.

I would argue that these constant appeals to individual self-interest is exactly what’s what wrong with Democrats today. Put simply, our civic life has nearly wasted away, with devastating consequences for the Left in this country.The major operative question our politics seeks to answer today is not “How should we live?” or “What can we accomplish together?” but “Where’s my stuff?” And, due to this narrow, limiting absorption with individual self-interest, lefty candidates of late have mostly based their proactive appeals on small-minded ideas like bribing elderly voters with prescription drug benefits and everyone else with tax cuts. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?

As a result, more and more citizens are tuning out of the process completely. Without vision, the people perish. People find the grasping individualism at the center of politics today inherently unsatisfying, and they look for a deeper common purpose wherever they can find it. And, since Democrats too often can’t stop speaking in uninspiring technocratic policy-wonk, a consequence of their limited vision and ambitions, voters have been inclining in recent years toward the GOP, who at least offer a flawed but workable story, often rooted in gung-ho nationalism and unpacked ideas like “Freedom, Yeah!”, about who we are as a people. The story is everything (which is one main reason why I was drawn to American history in the first place.) To be successful, to be anything other than GOP-lite — a pathetic state we’ve been floundering in for decades — Democrats need to tell the nation a story about our shared history and our shared goals, and stop pandering to voters’ immediate self-interest all the live-long day.

Greenberg may argue that civic-mindedness in a political candidate is the province of losers, but I disagree — It’s all in the telling. After all, it was the extremely popular John F. Kennedy who reminded us to ask what you can do for your country, and his slain brother RFK obviously talked a great game in that respect too.

In this piece, Greenberg also discusses the retreat from the “the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach” under FDR. (This is also the ground my dissertation covers.) And, yes, the broker-state model of governance honed by the New Deal worked for a long time. More importantly, the idea of interest-group pluralism it cultivated has had many critically important successes to its name, not the least the civil rights revolutions of the past few decades (although those too have a strong civic component — MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it explicit: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” This is not the language of self-interest but an appeal to a shared narrative as Americans.)

But I would argue that the enthronement of individual self-interest above all else in politics has reached its logical endpoint, and as a result our system is on the verge of falling apart — half the country doesn’t vote, money constantly bends the rules and everyone knows it, people are losing the inclination (or even the capacity) to act as informed, independent citizens. Indeed, you could argue Hillary Clinton’s failure with health care reform in the nineties exemplified the problem with broker-state leadership: When setting out to confront the issue, the Clintons cut everyone in on the deal, from insurance companies to HMOS to the AMA, in true broker-state fashion. As a result, no reform at all was forthcoming.

This was mainly because, as I’ve said before, the individualistic/broker state model of liberalism has no theory for coping with corporate power — It serves the wants, needs, and interests of consumers, what’s wrong with that? But a civic-minded progressive would argue that there are more important goals than the sating of individual desire, that the government is an expression of our common aspirations and should be more than just a dispensing machine, and that undue corporate influence over — and outright corruption in — our political affairs in fact represents a dire threat to the republic and to our way of life.

The progressive idea of citizenship both offers and demands higher aspirations of people than the lowest common denominator of individual self-interest that both parties appeal to today. We’re fast becoming a society where freedom is measured at best by what choices we make, but more often by what we can own as consumers. Progressives envison a society where freedom is also measured by what we can accomplish as citizens. Ultimately, freedom isn’t a state of being — it’s a state of becoming, of improvement, of progress. A political candidate who could tap into this progressive vein, I think, could inspire people like they haven’t been inspired by politics in a good long while. So, this is my crux of disagreement with Greenberg here — I don’t subscribe to the notion that common-good, public-interest progressivism is inherently a losing proposition. Quite the contrary.

Still, Greenberg’s article does a solid job of delineating the origins of Obama’s progressive appeal, and, at the very least, we agree that Obama is considerably more progressive than Clinton.

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