Sharp article from John Judis (co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority) on Obama tapping into the mythos of America as a nation of newness, unburdened from the past, prelapsarian Adamic. Article here.
Obama is the candidate of the new–a “new generation,” a “new leadership,” a “new kind of politics,” to borrow phrases he has used. But, in emphasizing newness, Obama is actually voicing a very old theme. When he speaks of change, hope, and choosing the future over the past, when he pledges to end racial divisions or attacks special interests, Obama is striking chords that resonate deeply in the American psyche. He is making a promise to voters that is as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch.
According to this line of thought, each generation of Americans could always start over and transform their country. In a lecture in Boston in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson described politics as a clash between “the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation” or between “a Conservative and a Radical.” “It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason,” Emerson explained. “Conservatism stands on man’s confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude.” At the time Emerson was giving his lecture, it was the Democratic Party that claimed the mantle of innovation and reform. The heirs of Andrew Jackson believed that, in expanding American democracy over the continent, they were creating a new world that would eventually eclipse the old. “The expansive future is our arena,” wrote Democratic Review. “We are entering on its untrodden space … with a clear conscience unsullied by the past.”
This ties in well with Obama’s assertion in Audacity of Hope that hope is (according to him) the perennial American virtue. You may agree or disagree but this suggests something more is going on his mind/campaign than being say just about him.
Judis points out that the initial democratic euphoria (of the Jacksonian era) was derailed by race and the Civil War. He could also added the New Deal coalition which broke down around race. Obama has argued he running as a non-identity politics figure can bring about a fundamental change.
And lastly for Judis, the Adamic figure is one who comes from the outside and is anti-governmental status quo, smelling something rotten in Denmark. (By the way check the plug for radical centrism in the article–here’s Mark Satin Mr. Radical Middle/Centrism himself analyzing whether Obama could be the first radical middle president).
But Judis also sees a possible shipwreck on the horizon (the precedent of Jimmy Carter, the politician that Bill Kristol believes Hillary and certainly the Republicans should most closely align Obama with):
Obama’s commitment to radical centrism could also be severely tested. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed the support of popular movements, gave priority to getting their substantive legislative agendas adopted; and they succeeded by uniting their supporters and dividing their opponents. If they had focused first on uniting Democrats and Republicans behind common objectives, they probably would not have gotten their way. And, if they had initially turned their attention, as Obama has proposed, to “the most sweeping ethics reform in history,” it is unlikely they would have passed public works spending (Roosevelt) or tax cuts (Reagan). Jimmy Carter, too, provides a cautionary tale: The last Democrat to take office on a radical centrist agenda, Carter failed to tame Congress or K Street and was defeated for reelection. He had campaigned for the presidency on the presumption that reformers could overturn the status quo in Washington. In the end, he turned out to be wrong.
Not discounting that analogy, it is wise to point as did Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on MTP yesterday that progressive large scale change has only ever happened in the US based on movements–this is Obama’s key strategic insight. e.g. The Civil Rights Movement, The Labor Movement/New Deal, even the initial Progressives. Only by a movement started outside the power corridors that then puts pressure on the federal government to act (the source of the real Obama/Hillary argument over the MLK/LBJ spat. Hillary like LBJ thinks power politicians atop must work the system, while Obama believes the people force the government to change–yes they can as it were.)
But even Judis admits he’s been wrong already on Obama, who knows where this might go.