Obama: Adamaic American


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.

And further:

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.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Comments (14)  
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  1. Progressive large scale change requiring movements.


    For more, see Liberal Fascism, pp 1-415. On how mobilization — the moral equivalent of war — is not only required for progressivism/statism/collectivism/fascism, but part and parcel of it.

    Saul Alinsky.

    Saul Alinsky.

    Saul Alinsky.

  2. In case you don’t know:

    Hewitt: Jonah, reading Liberal Fascism, I come across the recognition, I knew it, but I didn’t really confront it, that Saul Alinsky has two candidates for the Democratic nomination. And not just people who read his books, people who worked for him. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both Alinskyites.

    Goldberg: Yeah.

    HH: It’s stunning.

    JG: They’re both true disciples of Alinsky.

    HH: Yeah.

    JG: And it’s amazing. And Alinsky was obsessed with power.

    HH: Yeah.

    JG: Obsessed with power.

    HH: A fascist, clearly a fascist, even though he would reject the title, I’m sure.

    JG: Right, right. I mean, a rose by any other name.

    HH: Right.

    JG: If you just read what he writes about power and of winning the institutions, of crushing your enemies, I mean, he just reads like a fascist.

    HH: Conflict all the time, conflict all the time.

    JG: Right.

    HH: Well, listen, here’s some rhetoric not from either of the two, but from Michelle Obama. I want to know if you hear in it any echoes. Cut number one.

    MO: In 2008, we are still a nation that is too divided. We live in isolation, and because of that isolation, we fear one another. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t talk. We believe that our pain is our own. We don’t realize that the struggles and challenges of all of us are the same. We are too isolated. And we are still a nation that is still too cynical. We look at it as them and they as opposed to us. We don’t engage, because we are still too cynical.

    HH: Cut number two:

    MO: Don’t get sick in this country, not here. Americans are in debt not because they live frivolously, but because someone got sick. And even with insurance, the deductibles and premiums are so high that people are still putting medication treatments on credit cards. And they can’t get out from under. I could go on and on and on, but this is how we’re living, people, in 2008. And things have gotten progressively worse throughout my lifetime, through Democratic and Republican administrations. It hasn’t gotten better for regular folks.

    HH: We’ve got four more cuts, Jonah, but I want to get your opinion at this point. Things have gotten progressively worse for at least sixteen years.

    JG: Yeah, no it’s an amazing thing. And if we elect the right president, all of a sudden, I’m going to get to know my neighbor (laughing). What?

    HH: But the continuing crisis, right?

    JG: Yeah, yeah.

    HH: Isn’t that part of the playbook?

    JG: Right, that we’re on this incredible, inevitable slippery slope to evil, and the only thing we can do is we need a leader who personifies the people, personifies unity, who will unify and rally the nation in his spirit, and be our savior. And that’s how Obama is running, is he’s running as a secular savior.

    HH: Cut number three:

    MO: We have lost the understanding that in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another, that we cannot measure our greatness in this society by the strongest and richest of us, but we have to measure out greatness by the least of these, that we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. That is why I’m here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this race who understands that, that before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.

    HH: Jonah Goldberg?

    JG: Mother of pearl. My God. You know, it’s amazing what it reminded me of, is Hillary Clinton’s speech at Wellesley when she graduates. She says we’re not interested in social reconstruction, we’re…no, we’re interested in human reconstruction. She wants to create, recreate new men. The desire to create new men and fix souls, you know, that gets to the heart of this drumbeat over the 20th Century.

    HH: The next Michelle Obama cut:

    MO: If we can’t see ourselves in one another, we will never make those sacrifices. So I am here right now, because I am married to the only person in this race who has a chance of healing this nation.

    HH: Jonah?

    JG: (sigh)

    HH: Have you heard this before?

    JG: No, I hadn’t. I hadn’t. She’s going to, you know, I mean, my husband will express the Volksgemeinschaft (laughing)

  3. Brother Matthew,

    I do find it endlessly fascinating that you always seem to focus on a secondary point to critique–I don’t know if that means you agree with the main point or not (that btw is a side point).

    I wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of your theory, but the claim that Hillary Clinton is an Alinksy-ite is factually wrong.

    Clinton studied Alinsky, wrote a paper on him (I believe) and concluded that his methodology was wanting. She came to believe more strongly in working the levers of power from within. Hence her policy wonkishness, argument from experience/readiness, and casting herself in the role of the uber-back room dealer LBJ.

    She is many things, an Alinsky disciple is not one of them.

  4. On Obama. It is true that he followed Alinsky’s community organizing model, though it would be hard (I would say impossible) to argue he was into Ailnsky’s hatred of the other side and desire to crush the opposition. His Illinois State Senate Record suggests cross-partisan impulses. His book promotes the same.

    He also comes from a black liberationist Afro-centric church. And at the same time he disagrees with the pastor’s daughter choosing Louis Farrakhan as a role model. I think the same applies with Alinsky.

    For some proof, you might consider a read of this piece on the non-ideological policy folks he has around him.

    The words you cited (via Hewitt) are his wife’s. I find them dumb. I’m not interested in a president fixing a hole in my heart. I don’t think you’ve proven that they are much more than those are his wife’s interpretation.

    I mean Oprah did call him The One right? I mean Oprah knows everything right?

    He is a liberal and unfortunately to appeal to the base in a Democratic race he is evoking more economic populist themes right now. None of which I find appealing. He had better things to say on the market in Audacity of Hope. I hope in the general and more importantly (if and when) in the governing he returns his more pro-market impulses, like those of his advisors.

  5. On progressivism.

    The facts then are clear and we can both agree on. Progressive change happens with movements.

    You believe that the reason for that fact lies in the inherently fascist nature of progressivism.

    An alternative theory would argue that governments (like the individuals who run them) are corrupt and corruptible and do not generally care about the welfare of the mass of citizens, particularly lower income ones (since they aren’t the ones buying influence or funding campaigns).

    Therefore those citizens must assert their rights publicly and remind the government that it works for them (not the other way around). If they do not put such pressure and organize then they will never have any of their political agenda met.

    It is highly intriguing in that regard that Goldberg focuses on LBJ but not the Civil Rights movement as liberal fascist –particularly given what was said above about Clinton-LBJ and Obama-MLK comparisons in terms of strategy/tactics.

    Perhaps there are other explanations as to why progressivism needs movements or some combination of the two above. Given the fervor with which you endorse the liberal fascist view, I don’t think we are having a particularly rational debate on this subject. But for what it’s worth, there it is.



  6. It also is laughable (at best) that Hewitt and Goldberg are worried about executive power. Of all people they don’t have a leg to stand on this subject.

    Really they are only worried about a Democrat holding power. They are some of the biggest supporters of executive aggregation of power under George Bush–now they are freaked that the system they in part helped to promote might end up in non-Republican hands.

  7. All I’m doing is through ideas into the mix. I’m not interested in a discussion with you because, with past as precedent, you are too slippery for my energy level. And write too many words that you then plausibly deny accountability for.

    For more on the Alinsky/HClinton connection, see Liberal Fascism. It is a book that is eyeopening and revealing of what is actually in hindsight an obvious characteristic of progressivism — carefully orchestrated demagogic rhetoric to render ambiguous the bright lines between what is classical liberal and what makes people feel good, according to their impulses and prejudices.

    Obama is doing that in spades right now, and it is scary. That his wife is saying scary things doesn’t help.

    A sober mind, which is not yours, would take fright of Obama’s rhetoric; because in terms of public perception, campaign rhetoric sets the stage for governance. No politician who talks the Obama talks deserves trust that he won’t govern in the same general manner as his speech to receive election.

    There is a way out for Obama, from my point fo view. And that is to dedicate a good couple months talking about principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution, in terms of the genuine and timeless wisdom contained in each.

    All politicians who seek atonement ought provide that for the country.

  8. There is a way out for Obama, from my point fo view. And that is to dedicate a good couple months talking about principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution, in terms of the genuine and timeless wisdom contained in each.

    If we are in book citation mode, then he has an entire chapter on his understanding of the Constitution and the judiciary in Audacity of Hope. The guy taught constitutional law classes at UChicago.

    Granted that sorta thing doesn’t come out on the campaign trail–but then again what does? Has McCain done anything like that? Maybe he has, but I can’t think of any and I follow this election pretty closely.

    Of course Obamania could turn ugly. As could a possible Obama presidency. What I said was that elements of both candidates made me nervous (other elements in both I found appealing) but overall I was more worried about McCain’s temper and his war rhetoric than Obama’s. Not that am I totally without any fright–therefore proving my mind isn’t sober or some such nonsense.

    Also I could be wrong about that judgment, as could you in yours. An educated guess but guess nonetheless.

    I unfortunately lack a Political Bible which has converted me to the one holy faith revealing all truth to me of this contest and thereby releaving me of any self-doubt concerning what is to come.

    pax. cj

  9. No, McCain hasn’t. Of course, his is not the campaign that runs against the tide of American government of limited ambition. Nor is his the campaign that uses New Age demagogy. Nor is his the campaign whose wife has spouted disgusting sentiments in at least two recent speeches.

    In other words, McCain has nothing to atone for.

  10. Anyway, to change the subject; so do you know Koine Greek?

  11. No I don’t know Koine Greek. I know the alphabet and a number of words but not the grammar.

    I can read (poorly) Biblical Hebrew and Latin. More medieval Vulgate Latin than the Classical variety (which is damn tough).

  12. Will Koine be part of your program?

  13. I took Hebrew instead, but Koine is taught. Interestingly evangelicals often have to study both languages. I should study Koine and probably will once I am finished.

    It’s not Attic Platonic but still it ain’t easy as you may be finding (what the hell is middle voice anyway?). How are you finding it so far?

  14. I’ve studied both beginning Attic and beginning Koine. I took a class in Attic, and I have undertaken to independently worked through introductory texts coaching both. I’m finding it is largely about the text, for I have seen beginning Attic presented in ways both inviting and obtuse. The Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ texts under the Reading Greek banner are good for Attic. I’m using the Elementary Greek from Opentexture.com for Koine; this one is designed for roughly the 3rd grade pace, and I enjoy it, and obviously move quicker through its lessons than prescribed. As I’ve said in a couple blog posts, it is making more sense to me to learn both Latin and Greek from their biblical incarnations, and saving the classic works in both languages but especially Attic Greek for more advanced-level understanding. I.e., better to crawl before jogging. And as I understand it, the differences between Koine and Attic are lesser than the differences between both and Homeric. (Reading Homer being one of the top goals of learning Greek in the first place.)


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