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Obama, John Rawls, and a Defense of the Unreasonable

by Nonpartisan Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 12:24:14 AM EST

Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians

 If you want to understand President Obama's soul, read his books.  But if you want to understand his beliefs, read John Rawls.  The Harvard academic, who died in 2002, was the most important philosopher of liberalism in the twentieth century, mostly because, in so many ways, Rawls' ideas describe the world we live in.  That has never been more true than today, when our President has, consciously or unconsciously, exalted Rawlsian ideas to the position of the greatest possible good.

Care to hear more about this explanatory model that is so central to Obama's thought, whether he acknowledges the influence or not?  Read on.


* * * * * * * * *

The big question that confronted liberal theorists in Rawls' heyday was the problem of pluralism.  The old liberal theories -- those by Locke, Kant, J.S. Mill, and others -- were based on the idea that one set of values was "right" and others were "wrong."  For Locke, an atheist or someone who didn't believe in the afterlife couldn't be trusted to hold to the social contract (because they wouldn't be afraid of divine retribution), so such people were cut out of his philosophy.  Mill was okay with nonbelievers but considered non-Western peoples to be "barbarians" who had to be educated in rationality before they could enjoy the fruits of liberalism.  In the modern, post-colonial world, such assumptions simply didn't hold water.  So could liberalism be made to encompass the immense variety of peoples and beliefs in the world -- without either losing its punch or discriminating against vast numbers of people?

Rawls' first attempt to solve this problem, A Theory of Justice (1971), was fairly well-received.  Rawls imagined a bunch of reasonable people deciding to form a society from scratch -- what he called the "original position".  Given that these reasonable people disagreed on many things, what kind of society would they make that could accommodate all of them?  Rawls thought they would agree on two principles.  The first principle was that all of them would have as much freedom as they possibly could without infringing on the freedom of others.  This wasn't a new idea; in fact, it came straight from Mill's writings a century earlier.  The second principle was more interesting.  Rawls said that there would be equality of opportunity with regard to positions of power.  He also said that inequalities, which were necessary in a non-Marxist society, would "be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society."  This last bit became known as the "difference principle."  What Rawls was getting at, put simply, was that if someone was going to get a leg up from the system, it should be the least fortunate, not the most.  A perfect example of this idea is affirmative action: since we can't make hiring and college admissions completely fair, they should be biased toward those who need them most.

A Theory of Justice was a good system, and it took into account a lot of the problems with earlier liberal theories.  But soon critics, most prominently Michael Sandel, began to pick it apart.  Rawls, they said, hadn't solved the problem of pluralism because he hadn't offered a theory that could supersede all other possible theories.  Some people in the original position might choose Rawls' system, but other people would make other, equally valid systems.  What made Rawls' ideas any better than anyone else's?

Rawls was stung by these criticisms, and he significantly reformulated his theory.  The result was Political Liberalism (1993), a much more innovative and significant philosophy.

Rawls began Political Liberalism by acknowledging that his earlier theory was only one of many competing philosophies -- what he called "comprehensive doctrines" -- held by participants in liberal governments across the world.  However, he noted that most liberals, whatever comprehensive doctrine they held, wanted at least some of the same things other liberals wanted.  For instance, President Bush and President Obama (both "liberals" under the political theory definition) have strikingly different views on American politics, but they both supported the federal bailouts and stimulus packages.  Bush's comprehensive doctrine is pro-business, and Obama's is pro-big government, but it didn't matter that they had different reasons for supporting the same legislation -- the bills got passed anyway, and both presidents were happy about it.

According to Rawls, a large majority of people with different views are able to form what he called an "overlapping consensus" -- a core set of policies and governing principles that are contained within all their comprehensive doctrines.  So long as those people are "reasonable" -- that is, so long as they are rational and willing to work with other reasonable people -- there's no need for them to share the same comprehensive doctrine or agree on fundamental principles.  They can govern just fine without any such philosophical agreement, just by passing laws that all or most of them can agree on for their own different reasons.

This is, of course, exactly how our government works: a bunch of people who disagree on ideas come together and agree on policies.  But Rawls was the first to elevate this practical political solution to the level of a philosophy.  Rawls' great insight was that our political system works precisely because of, not in spite of, the fact that we lack universal philosophical standards of right and wrong.  The reason all previous liberal theories had run afoul of pluralism was that they had divided the world into right (those who agreed with the theory) and wrong (those who disagreed with it).  Rawls replaced this dichotomy with another one: he divided the world into the reasonable (those who were willing to work within the overlapping consensus) and the unreasonable (those who weren't).  Rawls' overlapping consensus was much more inclusive than previous theories, since only people with extreme positions would be unwilling to work with others in the overlapping consensus -- and it also meant that people could only be excluded from the consensus by choice, not for any other reason (deep-seated religious belief for Locke, incorrect beliefs for Kant, ethnic/racial/national origin for Mill).  Anyone was welcome within the overlapping consensus unless they voluntarily absented themselves from it.  And anyone who worked within the overlapping consensus had a voice in shaping what that consensus turned out to be.

* * * * * * * * *

I've given Rawls a lot of credit here, because I think Political Liberalism is one of the most innovative ideas ever formulated.  But I also believe the Rawlsian system is fatally flawed.  To understand why, we need to look at what it means to be "unreasonable" in a Rawlsian sense.

By definition, an unreasonable person is someone who's unwilling to work within the overlapping consensus.  There are several reasons a person might choose not to work within this consensus.  S/he may want to overthrow the system entirely, as Marx did from the left or Turner Diaries author William Pierce did from the right.  S/he may object to some of the people working within the system and feel that she shouldn't have to work with such individuals.  Or s/he may feel that the overlapping consensus is incapable of solving important problems within society.  Let's take each of these cases separately to see the problems they pose for the Rawlsian model.

People who want to overthrow the system, like Marx and Pierce, are generally pretty extreme.  And there aren't many people who are going to cry over the exclusion of either of these guys from the halls of power.  But the problem with Rawls' theory is that it excludes them without providing any logical or moral reason for doing so.  Rather, they are excluded precisely because their view differs from the mainstream (the overlapping consensus).  Rawls' innovation was to eliminate the concept of a "wrong" political view, but in doing so he removed the justifications previous liberal theories had devised for excluding extremists from power.  It's one thing to be told your opinions don't matter because they're morally and logically wrong; it's another to be told they don't matter because, regardless of their merits, most people think they're extreme.  The latter option is familiar as mob rule, as the law of the street -- but no liberal philosophy has ever viewed this as a good thing, until Rawls.

Looking at the second case, we can quickly see that populism is not permitted in the Rawlsian world.  "Throw the bums out," as Ross Perot put it, is a distinctly un-Rawlsian sentiment.  You can't throw the bums out, because the bums want to be there and are willing to work with you.  The only way to get rid of political figures you don't like -- not just to remove them from office, but to prevent them from exercising substantive political influence -- is to wait for them to retire.  Rawls' overlapping consensus is so welcoming, so all-encompassing, that it denies the voting public the right to choose who influences their government.  This is particularly problematic when it comes to powerful corporations and special interests.  Corporate fat cats always want influence and are willing to work with anyone in power, so they can't be removed from a Rawlsian government, even though they usually don't represent the best interests of the people.  Sure, you can vote the party in power out of office, but the corporations will just cosy up to the new party in power, and nothing will change.  There's something profoundly undemocratic about a system where the people have to play Whack-A-Mole with nefarious characters who refuse to stay out of power no matter how many times they're sent packing.

As troubling as these cases are, it's the third case that poses the most problems.  By doing away with the concepts of right and wrong, Rawls has ensured that the de facto "right" is what most people in power think at any one time.  A government based on overlapping consensus operates within the Overton window -- the range of generally acceptable alternatives on any given issue.  The problem isn't just that alternatives outside the Overton window are automatically devalued; it's that for some issues the objective truth lies outside the Overton window.  Global warming is an excellent example.  Most reasonable people (by the Rawlsian definition) agree that the range of possible alternatives ranges from no action (the Bush administration's choice) to the 5-7% carbon emissions reductions proposed by the Kyoto Protocol (at least theoretically Obama's choice).  But the science clearly shows that only a 50% or greater reduction can stave off environmental holocaust.  In the Rawlsian bizarro-world, the science is wrong because it disagrees with the overlapping consensus.  Rawls gives us no way to move beyond the practical in order to achieve the necessary.

* * * * * * * * *

Sadly, we live in that Rawlsian bizarro-world.  There have been plenty of presidents in our history who have elevated the overlapping consensus to a high art through the ideas of "bipartisanship" and "getting things done" -- think of Bill Clinton's "triangulation" or Eisenhower's inveterate moderacy.  But few (perhaps only John F. Kennedy) have venerated the overlapping consensus as itself the supreme good of the nation in the way Barack Obama does.  Few have failed to spend political capital on expansive policies, not because they feared losing reelection, but because they believed doing so would be breaking a sacred trust -- but Obama is one of those few.

Read his books and you'll see that, despite the fact that Obama holds strikingly liberal views on a variety of issues, his anger at the Bush administration is directed not at its policies, but at its politics.  For Obama, Bush's supreme betrayal was in breaking the Rawlsian consensus.  Bush's extreme partisanship, his utter disregard of the Democratic members of his government, turned Americans against each other and polarized the electorate.  For Obama, that was Bush's greatest crime -- because to the President, we are a nation of consensus before we are a nation of laws or dreams or anything else.

It's the only interpretation that explains Obama's baffling and infuriating rejection of progressives and his embrace of the moderate wing of the Republican party.  It's the only interpretation that explains his choice to elevate people like Judd Gregg, Ray LaHood, and John McHugh, who committed the unforgivable sin of voting to impeach a President because they didn't like him, to high posts in his administration.  It's the only interpretation that explains his active support of Republican Arlen Specter against Democrat Joe Sestak.  It's the only interpretation that explains his unwillingness to proceed in passing legislation without Republican support, or to pressure his party's Majority Leader to eliminate the Senate's pernicious filibuster rule and strip Republicans of their last vestiges of power.  Obama does these things not because Mr. 68% in the polls needs the additional support, but because he truly believes that Republicans within the overlapping consensus are more important than Democrats outside it.  The consensus, for Obama, is more important than the outcome.

John Rawls was a great thinker, and Barack Obama is a great man.  But by excluding the unreasonable from meaningful political participation, they have ensured that only mediocrity can emerge from the political system they both venerate.  And in these troubling times, mediocrity just isn't good enough.  So I'm proud to declare myself a member of the unreasonable.  It's the only place where great change happens, where democracy succeeds fully, and where populism reigns.  In the Rawlsian world, where the practical defines the realm of possibility, the necessary simply cannot triumph.

Display:
by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 12:30:06 AM EST
Though I enjoyed this, I am suspect of the frame it appears to be in. While I agree that philosophical ideas play a part and should not be ignored, I tend to interpret political action primarily in terms of interest.

It's the only interpretation that explains Obama's baffling and infuriating rejection of progressives and his embrace of the moderate wing of the Republican party.

So alternate interpretation would be: his professed views are not what is in his interest to enact. Then he might want to push for progressive ideas while upholding rules that let the republicans bloc him and thus have his cake and eat it to. This could either stem from his professed views not being his real views (Blair comes to mind), or his private interests outweigh his political interests when they conflict.

Rawls then becomes great philosophical cover.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 06:09:47 AM EST
on this.

If you're elected by a minority plurality, have people gunning for you from the very beginning of your term, and have a minority in both houses of Congress, then you have to do what's in your interest.

When you're at 68% in the polls, were elected in a landslide, and hold near filibuster-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, plus you are the best orator of your generation, then "political interest" ceases to become an operative term.

Obama doesn't need to accumulate any more political capital.  By throwing his weight around, he can basically do anything he wants.  Many presidents in this situation have done so with excellent results (Wilson, Johnson, Reagan).  So why does Obama keep playing to the center?  I have no clue, unless Rawlsian theory explains it.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 03:01:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Obama is a man of the Center.  His whole campaign on "Change" was a change to the center of the US political/economic system not a change of the system.  By circumstances this meant a shift Leftwards which encouraged (some) people of the Left to classify him as Left.  

Skepticism is the first step on the road to truth. -- Denis Diderot
by ATinNM on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 10:14:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. "
(George Bernard Shaw)

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 07:54:42 AM EST
... way to effect change is to craft a change coalition which, while it may include some in the current overlapping consensus, also excludes some, and makes up for it by including those presently marginalized or considered beyond the pale.

Which, oddly enough, is how it seems that progressive change seems to occur in the US, so whether or not Rawls is generally applicable, it seems to be a functional description of how thinks work in a Madisonian Democracy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 08:37:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
a change coalition which, while it may include some in the current overlapping consensus, also excludes some, and makes up for it by including those presently marginalized or considered beyond the pale

Isn't that the same as redefining the "overlapping consensus" by swapping two groups which are not willing to work with each other but of which one was "in" and the other "out"?

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 01:42:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Normally in US history its far more than swapping one group in for the group swapped out ... its stitching together a program that forms a collection of previously disparate groups into a single coalition. For example, in forming the Republican Party, Anti-Slave Whigs that had been driven out of the Whig party, Free Soilers, more moderate Know Nothings, and Abolitionists were united on an Anti-Slavery and Industrial Protection platform. The Square Deal and New Deal Coalitions are even more famous for the linking together of formerly disparate groups around common agendas.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 11:25:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems that Obama is busy building just one such coalition, leaving a rump Republican party nobody can work with.

POLITICO.com: Obama picks off another moderate (Jonathan Martin, 18 May 2009)

"It's great politics," said former Rep. Tom Davis, an outspoken moderate and shrewd political thinker. 
He noted the well-publicized move last month by a Michigan county Republican Party to bar Huntsman from speaking because of his centrist views. "They kick Huntsman out, telling him, `You're not wanted,' and Obama says, `You're welcome here,'" Davis said. 

"It says in spades what is the problem with our party: We're driving out the heretics, and they're looking for converts." 

"There's no doubt that they didn't want to run against this kind of Republican," said another top GOP strategist. "Now who are the faces of our party? Cheney, Sarah Palin, Newt [Gingrich] and Rush Limbaugh." 
In Rawlsian terms, the "radical left" part of the coalition that elected Obama may well recoil in horror at the thought of having to work with the Blue Dogs and with the "Obama Republicans" (by analogy with the Reagan Democrats) thereby excluding themselves from the emerging new "consensus".

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 11:31:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But he's not building a change coalition, so the prospects for substantial change coming out of that are not very strong.

Which puts us very much in the same situation as the first two years of the Roosevelt administration, pursuing small improvements on things that needed improving and haring off in a misguided direction on the most serious problems facing the country. Without the election of the New Dealers in 1934, the New Deal would have missed the majority of its long term legacy.

But that's normal too. In a Madisonian system, all a President can do is try to form a governing coalition. Its up to the people to elect a Congress that requires the President to pursue progressive reform as a part of maintaining a governing coalition.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 12:11:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So the only way any of the needed changes to the political and financial systems can occur is for the existing system to be vividly shown to be pernicious and to be unsalvageable without fundamental change.  Further, this perception must be generalized down to a significant portion of the population.  A tall order.

Do you think Obama is capable of such a change in the face of massive failure of existing policies?  Do you think Biden is any more willing to make necessary fundamental changes.  He was one of many I preferred during the primaries to Obama.  If the next year is anything like I fear it could be we could be looking at a very interesting midterm.  Normally, I wouldn't think there was much chance of electing a majority of progressives to the Democratic caucus.  It might be different this time.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 10:53:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rawls can be summed up as favoring the golden rule: do unto others...

This explains his "veil of ignorance" framing for designing a society. You get to design anything you want, but you don't get to chose your position in the formulation. So if you design a system of one king and everyone else a slave, you don't get the choice to be king. This ties into his larger ideas of justice as fairness.

As for obtaining a consensus of rational participants, this has been thrown into doubt by much recent psychological work on whether people really are rational or whether a lot of what they think is based upon emotionalism and other hidden mechanisms. In economics this has produced the school of behavioral economics, which combines the ignorance of economists about how the world works, with their ignorance of how the mind works.

In some ways Adam Smith was, once again, ahead of his time. He recognized that people would act in their own self interest and that for society to function there needed to be a balance of forces. That this has happened for only short periods of time in a few places over the past 300 years, shows that we still don't have any good mechanisms to prevent concentrations of power.

I always preach democracy as the least worst system, but manipulation of opinions is so easily carried out that the people can often be persuaded to drive off a cliff. One only has to look at the succession of wars during the period, the (armed) battles between labor and capital and the similar battles for civil rights to see how the few can control the many.

As for Obama, I don't know anything about his "soul", but I can see what he does, and it is the deeds that count. I see his lack of substantive progress as a sign that presidents are not as powerful as the press makes out. In the US the permanent government (the legislature, the military and big business) persists from one administration to another. Overcoming their power is nearly impossible for one intent on real change.

FDR almost didn't succeed and it took many years for his biggest changes to take effect. Obama is not faced with the same level of collapse and the people are not as desperate as in the 1930's, so popular pressure for change hardly exists. It is one thing to register some vague discontent in a poll, it is another to get off the couch and get politically active.

Losing two wars and the destruction of the Gulf Coast haven't inspired outrage, so why should we believe that a bit of theft in the financial sector is going to be the trigger?

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 09:15:01 AM EST
I don't think you can infer that presidents aren't powerful just because Obama's a failure.  Look at Bush -- he most certainly was powerful, and he never had the majorities in Congress that Obama does.

It is a matter of will, and Obama does not have it.  And I think Rawlsian theory explains why.

I agree that you can't produce a rational consensus, but Rawls and Obama disagree with us.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 03:04:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I need to reformulate my theme of power and capture by the permanent government so that it is not so absolute.

The more subtle way to state this is that presidents have the power to break things, but not to fix them.

Starting the wars was easy. Failing to enforce laws on the books just required a bit of inattention.

Similarly failure to pass improved social programs or to address climate change and energy policy is simply a matter of maintaining the status quo. To see what was missed requires an imaginative leap into what might have been, not the sort of thing to get people riled up.

If Obama is trying to effect change he not only has to contend with the power of the permanent government, but he has to use political leverage that he really doesn't have. Having served only a few years in the senate he didn't build up the kind of political capital that LBJ did, for example.

Years of dealing with fellow legislators gave Johnson a lot of obligations that he could call in. What can Obama offer a congressman who has to run for reelection and who gets the bulk of his campaign funds from big business? It's all about money and right now it is the cost of running for office which determines how legislators act. Clinton faced a similar difficulty. He came from outside Washington and faced determined opposition from both parties. The result is that he just pretended that legislative defeats were victories. We are still suffering some of the consequences.

The best Obama can offer is a few trips to a district and some funding from the house or senate campaign committees.

If you think he has more influence than this please explain.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 03:55:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But I don't agree.

The power Obama has is not inherent in the presidency, it stems from the fact that people generally like the President more than they like Congress.  This poll shows that process in effect.

What Obama needs to do is immediately throw down against every single opponent who's less popular than he is.  That means the Senate Republicans, Ben Nelson, and most especially Harry Reid.  He needs to do what Wilson did: demand that these people follow his policy prescriptions to the letter, and embark on an extended speaking tour through their districts to make sure they comply.

Sure, it'll cost Obama some political capital.  But it will absolutely destroy all those who stand in his way, leaving him with a 45% approval rating and undisputed control over the country.  He can then take his sweet time gaining back his popularity, since his opponents will be completely cowed.  You think Harry Reid, who can't stand up to 41 Senate Republicans, will stand up to the President?  Hardly.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 04:29:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have a feeling that I'm a lot older than you are and have seen presidents fail too often to be optimistic that your approach would work.

There was a TV show yesterday (NOW on PBS) discussing the abortion doctor murder and one of those interviewed made the point that there are about 40 million women in the US who have had abortions since it became legal and yet they haven't worked to preserve this right for their daughters.

Only the crazies on the right are in a state of high outrage, the rest of the country is just passive. They'll answer a poll about their feelings, but won't get off the couch to do anything meaningful.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 04:34:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I simply don't see why it requires people on their couches to do anything.  Unless you're old enough to remember LBJ in 1963-64, I don't think you remember a liberal president with the kind of popular mandate Obama has.  All Obama needs the people to do is turn out and vote for him again in four years -- and his impressive political machine can handle that just fine.  Obama can accomplish many things all by himself, so long as he can count on his machine turning out the votes again in 2012.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 05:16:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
First of all I remember Harry Truman, although only vaguely.

Second how is Obama supposed to do the things you favor? He can't pass legislation. He can't even initiate it.

If you think inviting some congressman in for a stern lecture is all it takes you haven't been paying attention.

The reason the Gingrich revolution worked is because the GOP threatened, bribed and forced out congressman who didn't do their bidding. The president had nothing to do with it. The Dems never have that sort of cohesiveness, its the difference between people who believe in democratically arriving at consensus legislation and the authoritarians that demand all policy come from the top down.

I admire your idealism, but you still haven't explained how its supposed to work.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 05:24:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The President can campaign against members of his own party who fail to support his agenda.  He can recruit primary challengers from his own campaign to Senators and Congresspeople who don't support his policies.  For starters, he can recruit a top-notch challenger to Harry Reid and demand that Reid eliminate the filibuster or be defeated in the primary.  If that fails, he can start recruiting Republicans to defeat them in the general.

Basically, he needs to begin playing ultimate hardball with the Blue Dogs and those who support and enable them.  These people are cowards.  If they think Obama poses a greater electoral threat to them than the Republicans do, they'll fall in line.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 06:07:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
He is doing that. He is threatening progressives that are balking on certain provisions of the Defense Supplemental that they will receive no help from the White House in 2010, and he is a major player on the team to prevent progressive challenges to Gillibrand and Spectre.

What I don't follow is where you get the idea that his agenda is progressive beyond the "progress from the radical right to the center-right" level. He campaigned on increasing the size of the military and on a "new kind of politics", "reaching across party lines".

If the make-up of the Congress is going to change in a progressive direction, it will be despite the efforts of the Obama administration, not because of them.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 11:29:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
His books outline a much more progressive agenda than did his campaign or his presidency.

But I agree with your last sentence.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 03:36:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... criteria for judging his success, so that you could well differ on whether he is a success or a failure ... indeed, its conceivable that you necessarily differ.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 08:39:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This vaguely reminds me of what happened in the 1980's and 1990's in France, after the (at the time ruling) PS abandoned any semblance of going against capitalism. "Intellectuals" dominating the media (Alain Minc, Bernard Henri Levy) said there was a cercle de la raison which could have a voice in the policy debate, a circle that included only the PS, the RPR (now UMP) and a few centrist ; excluding the FN (far right) but also the communists and the greens. Thus the policy debate in the MSM became a race to the center right as noone was really allowed to discuss the fundamentals of neoliberal capitalism ; the end result was the PS (and the Overton window) drifting decidedly to the right ; the PS losing its popularity (with the result of Jospin not getting in the runoff of the 2002 election) ; and then Sarkozy deciding to break that circle by unashamedly courting the Le Pen voters...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misčres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 08:43:26 PM EST
Exactly right.  I think this is exactly what Obama is doing to the United States.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 11:35:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Intellectuals" dominating the media (Alain Minc, Bernard Henri Levy) said there was a 'cercle de la raison' which could have a voice in the policy debate

That was also called the pensée unique (the single thought) - a term that made it into Spanish political discourse, too, whereas 'circle of reason' didn't.

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 06:45:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
pensée unique was used from those outside of the circle - and for attacks from one side of the circle to the other, claiming absence of inspiration.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misčres
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 08:45:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the Rawlsian bizarro-world, the science is wrong because it disagrees with the overlapping consensus.  Rawls gives us no way to move beyond the practical in order to achieve the necessary.

Can you really argue that people who refuse to acknowledge the science are "reasonable people"? They clearly are not willing to work with the climate scientists.

I think the key flaw in Rawls' scheme as you present it is that the relation of "willing to work with" is not transitive. Just because A is willing to work with B and B with C doesn't mean that A is willing to work with C.

For instance, Democrats may be willing to work with both climate-change activists and climate-change denialistss, but the latter two are not willing to work with each other, even if they may be both willing to work with Democrats. What makes the climate-change denialists part of the "overlapping consensus" (and thus "reasonable") and the climate-change activists "unreasonable" (and thus not part of the consensus) other than an arbitrary determination by the Democrats that, if the denialists and the activists won't work with each other, they'll work with the denialists?


The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 03:04:19 PM EST
By the way, the fact that you call Rawls' a "bizarro world" betrays you as a believer in the idea that one set of values was "right" and others were "wrong"

The brainless should not be in banking. — Willem Buiter
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jun 14th, 2009 at 03:05:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I mean not the scientific evidence that humans are causing global warming, but the scientific evidence that we need to cut emissions by at least 50% to stop it.  Those who disagree with the first conclusion are outside the mainstream.  Those who disagree with the second conclusion are, in the United States, the entire mainstream.

Regarding your second point, I'm a relativist at base, so I don't believe that there's an absolute right and wrong.  But I do believe that the world needs a functional right and wrong or it becomes a bizarro world.  My idea of an ideal political election is a virtual death match -- the defeated candidates and ideas leave the arena never to return.  In the Rawlsian reality, the defeated candidates simply retain their power in unelected positions.

In Europe, this isn't as much of a problem because the defeated parties have a role that is simultaneously built-in and subordinate.  If voting McCain out of office made his allies as insignificant as Segolene Royal's are in France, I'd be fine with our election system.  Sadly, they seem to be still running our government by proxy.  What I want is them and their ideas gone from the political scene, unless and until they win another election.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...

by Nonpartisan on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 04:13:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for posting this diary.  While I dislike the Rawlsian philosophy, as you described it, I find it to be highly plausible that Obama could have been deeply affected by it while at Harvard.  Is it known whether he took courses from Rawls or from other Rawlsians?  It is the most believable explanation I have seen for Obama's actions and more maddening lack of actions since his inauguration.  Pelosi and Reid, suffering as they seem to be from the political equivalent of "battered spouse syndrome", are the worst possible figures to occupy the leadership of Congress at this time as they are the least likely to force issues.  What we need is a progressive equivalent to Gingrich.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jun 15th, 2009 at 11:18:30 PM EST
Highly doubtful that Obama studied with Rawls -- he only went to Harvard for his law degree, and law students generally take almost all their courses in-department.  Rawls was a member of the philosophy department at Harvard.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Tue Jun 16th, 2009 at 12:56:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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