A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.
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Yes, We Cant
From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Deval Patrick, the politics of hope have been a bust.
25 February 2008
Aging baby boomers see in Barack Obamas down-the-line liberal voting record the promise of a left-wing revival. The college students and twentysomethings of the Millennial Generation see in him a way of pushing the quarrelsome, narcissistic baby boomers off the stage. Someone is bound to be disappointed by this extraordinary performance artist. But what both the boomers and the Millennials share is a desire to be part of what Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the 1840s, called the politics of hope. Emerson wrote during a time of numerous experiments in utopian living. Obamawhose candidacy rests upon a standard utopian dichotomy between the earthly evils of poverty, injustice, war, and partisanship, and the promise of the world to come if we allow him to rescue usappeals to the same Elysian strain in American and Western political life, largely in remission since 1980, when the 1960s truly ended.
Americas founding fathers were a famously hard-headed lot; they understood that government had to be structured to remedy the defects of better motives. Since self-serving interest groupsor factions, as Federalist 10 calls themwere an unavoidable element of liberty, interest could only be checked by competing interest. But while this insight is the main stem of our political tradition, there is another, albeit punctuated, brancha utopianism that derives from the millenarianism of the sects that emerged from the Protestant Reformation and eventually populated America. Utopian . . . ideas, notes Daniel Flynn in his new history of the American Left, are as American as Plymouth Rock. This is why, as Sixties activist Bo Burlingham put it, the Left bobs up and down in American history, a battered and leaky craft which often disappears beneath the tide, but somehow never sinks.
In the wake of bloody utopian experiments in 1930s Europe, a slew of erudite authors launched compelling attacks on them. Jacob Talmon, Karl Popper, Raymond Aaron, Czeslaw Milosz, and Hannah Arendt laid waste to the historical, philosophical, sociological, and literary assumptions that supported communism and fascism. But their arguments didnt endure, despite their power. By the mid-1960s, utopianism had again taken hold, and its lure was such that even Arendt, once a vocal opponent, found herself drawn to the religion of politics. Propelled by her disdain for America in general and the Vietnam War in particular, as well as the promise, as she saw it, of worker-control experiments in Europe, she effectively reversed much of her earlier writings.
She wasnt alone. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger had published The Vital Center, the canonical statement of disillusioned, empirical, and anti-utopian postWorld War II liberalism. Schlesinger praised the empirical temper and a realistic sense of mans limitations that recognized that freedom means conflict. Tracing the shared assumptions behind Brook Farmthe famous American utopian experiment of the 1840sand the Soviet Union, he distanced liberalism from an optimism born of eighteenth-century rationalism and a nineteenth-century romanticism about progress, which left too many unprepared for the mid-twentieth century. Democracy, he wrote, brooks no worship of great leaders because it knows that no man is that good. And Schlesinger rebuked the leftists who, admiring the USSR, couldnt believe that ugly facts underlie fair words. It was an intellectual tour de force.
But a little more than a decade later, Schlesingerromanced by John F. Kennedywalked away from these arguments. His admiration for the liberalism of a moderate pessimism about man was replaced by hero-worship and a sense of the dashing, aristocratic, articulate Kennedy as someone who could transcend standard political categories. Kennedys untimely death canonized the hard-nosed Massachusetts polwith a mixed record at best as our first celebrity presidentas JFK, a Lincoln-like martyr to civil rights, the King of Camelot who, if he had lived, would have made all right with the world. This Kennedy passed into Democratic Party legend and still inspires some today: remember Bill Clintons 1992 campaign ads, featuring a picture of the young Clinton visiting the White House with a group of young student leaders and shaking hands with Kennedy. Kennedy, the ads implied, was passing the torch.
Obama, the celebrity-like candidate drawing on his generational appeal and noble bearing, fits better into Kennedys robes than Clinton did. Unlike Kennedy, who didnt think of himself in messianic terms, Obama seems short on irony. Still, for lovelorn boomers and for youngsters whove known only the failures of the Bush years, Obama promises a Camelot-like reenchantment with politics. Ive been following politics since I was about five, says TV host Chris Mathews. Ive never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers, hes the New Testament. In this view, just as Kennedys victory in 1960 brought the country out of its Eisenhower-era stupor and put the Catholic question to bed for good, so an Obama victory will reenergize our politics and bring an end to poverty and racial division.
Hillary Clinton has searched in vain for a way to combat Obamas appeal. In the recent Austin debate, she criticized Obama for borrowing generously from the speeches of his good friend and coeval Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. Lifting whole passages from someone elses speeches, she challenged in the debates one charged moment, is not change you can believe in, its change you can Xerox. Clintons arrow here was not aimed so much at plagiarismall candidates borrow heavily from each other and from past campaignsas at Obamas claim to authenticity. But with the press, on both left and right, all but openly rooting for Obama, little came of her attack; more important, the press missed the true importance of the Patrick comparison.
Bay State journalist Rick Holmes describes Obama and Patrick, fellow Harvard Law School graduates, as peas in a pod. Patrick is the Obama campaigns national cochair. Obamas presidential campaign has modeled itself on Patricks gubernatorial campaign. Patricks 2006 campaign slogan was Together we can, while Obamas is Yes we can. The brilliant Chicago political operative David Axelrod has managed both mens campaigns. Both candidates have made persistent appeals to the politics of hope.
So Clintons criticism seems an opportune moment to ask how Patricks inspirational rhetoric has translated into governing a state where Democrats control both houses of the legislaturethe likely scenario for Obama, too, should he take office. Patricks governorship is the closest thing we have to a preview of the politics of hopeand that governorship has been a failure to date. As Joan Vennochi observes in the Boston Globe, Democrats who control the Legislature ignored virtually every major budget and policy initiative presented by a fellow Democrat. Patricks record in office, Vennochi concludes, shows that it can be hard to get beyond being the face of change, to actually changing politics. His stock has sunk so markedly that Hillary Clinton carried the state handily against Obama in the Democratic primary despite, or perhaps because of, Patricks support for his political doppelgänger.
In one area, however, Patrick has achieved some of his goals. In thrall to the states teachers unions, he has partly rolled back the most successful educational reforms in the country. Most states gamed the federal testing requirements that were part of President Bushs No Child Left Behind Act. But Massachusetts, thanks to Republican governors William Weld and Mitt Romney, created the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability to ensure that the states testing methods conformed closely to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)federal tests that are the gold standard for measuring educational outcomes. In 2007, Massachusetts became the first state to achieve top marks in all four categories of student achievement. One of Patricks first efforts as governor was to eliminate the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.
Patrick hasnt delivered reform, much less the transformation that both he and Obama promise. This should come as no surprise. Obamas utopian vision of transcending the interests that make up the fabric of our democracy is unlikely to fare any better than the politics of hope did in Emersons time. The key question at hand is whether Obamas Edenic bubble bursts before or after the election.
Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.