Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Presidency

Beyond Political Dispute

Harvey Mansfield thinks that we ought to take Obama's claims to "post-partisanship" more seriously.  Obama's critics have been quick to point out the many ways in which Obama's method of being beyond partisan politics seems only to be a cover for advancing the opinions an interests of his own party.  Fair as that critique may be on its surface, it seems that Mansfield does not think that it goes far enough.  Perhaps Obama's critics would be well-advised to stop pointing to what they take to be the President's cynicism and hypocrisy and, instead, focus their attention on the thing that Obama appears to take as an unquestioned "good."  What is post-partisanship and is it a thing worthy of citizens in a democratic-republic?  Perhaps Obama's critics give too much credit to the apple of his desire?

In keeping with the view that one always learns more about a person if he understands the man first as he understands himself, Mansfield eschews the easy course of looking for ulterior motives beneath the President's stated self-understanding.  Obama's claims to be "post-partisan" and to desire a kind of "post-partisanship" are serious ones that deserve more investigation and analysis.  But are they ends that are worthy of the dignity of America?  

In the first place, one can only think that "post-partisan" is a term of approbation if one is already, in fact, beyond politics.  In other words, one only admires those who are beyond politics if one exists in the realm where perfect reason (or, what's more likely, what one takes to be perfect reason) rules. One can only admire the attempt to takes things off the table if one is closed off to argument and political dispute or, quite literally, beyond it.  In this realm, one need not discuss such arcane questions as the goodness or the badness of more government involvement in the administration of health care.  The only questions for such people are when and how we are going to get government involved and how effective it can/must be when it does get involved.  It's a kind of "how to" rather than a "why" politics.  

But this is unworthy of Americans.  In a regime where the people (rather than a monarch and his minions) is sovereign,  trying to occupy heights where the big questions of justice are beyond politics or political dispute is no special or particular kind of virtue.  As Mansfield shows, this kind of "politics" in Obama (if one may call it that) is responsible both for his successes and his failures.  There is something in his certainty that both appeals and repulses and there is much in our constitutional order that does not permit his ultimate success without a serious fight.  Those who reject Obama's "politics" would do well do work harder at understanding this apparent contradiction in the souls of Americans, to say nothing of the constitutional order that has--up till now, anyway--kept us free from the worst of this electoral schizophrenia.

Mansfield notes another seeming contradiction in discussing Obama and what makes him tick:

He lets us know that he admires Abraham Lincoln, yet his speeches could not be more different from Lincoln's in respect to argument. Lincoln used argument to transcend momentary feelings. Obama avoids it by recourse to vacuous words like "change" and"hope," never saying toward what or for what.

This strikes me as an especially keen insight into the political soul of Obama.  There can be no doubt that he is an admirer of Lincoln's . . . but why?  What is it about Lincoln that he purports to admire?  During the campaign he suggested that it had something to do with Lincoln's ability to unite discordant political elements in the pursuit of a common and higher purpose--a la Doris Kearns Goodwin's fine work, Team of Rivals.  But how well did Obama understand Lincoln in this?  Lincoln certainly did unite some discordant elements to achieve that higher purpose--and he did it with a seeming kind of Solomonic wisdom impossible not to admire (I suspect, even, if one was only his "worthy" opponent).  But he also--as many of our Confederate sympathizing friends will be quick to point out--was not afraid of an argument that might divide.  I suspect that Obama views himself in something of a similar position to Lincoln's--which is revealing in itself--and that the idea of Progress takes the place of Union in this metaphor.  Obama is also not afraid of potential division, but he appears to be afraid of a genuine argument.  But if Obama wants only to compare himself by way of method and forms to Lincoln, he ought to examine Lincoln's a little more carefully.  How did Lincoln manage these political movements that Kearns Goodwin and so many other have rightly admired?  What was his appeal or method of persuasion?  (Oops, I already said too much in saying "persuasion.")  Surely, Lincoln was a shrewd political actor.  But he was more than that and, if we are to keep to our admonition that we learn more about men by understanding them as they understand themselves, then we ought to consult Lincoln more than Barack Obama in order to discover that thing that Lincoln considered the real demarcation of human improvement and progress--and therefore, the thing above all other things that an American statesman ought to strive toward when speaking to his fellow citizens.  Lincoln appealed to the minds as well as to the hearts of his fellow citizens.  He didn't consider anything--except the truth of human equality in rights--to be "off the table."  And his understanding and respect for this ultimate principle made it imperative, for him, to be willing at all times and everywhere to give account of it. 

Lincoln did not consider that progress was simply a collective movement of souls dragged along in history's path by their betters--whether willing or unwilling to follow. True progress--if it is to come to a people--must come by the slow process of individual growth toward natural and higher ends--which suggest limits even as they proclaim possibilities.  Progress is a thing that must be achieved again and again--by individuals and communities--as human generations come into and go out of being.  Progress is not, necessarily, a cumulative thing--though it appears from the context of the lecture here delivered by Lincoln that he suspects that it could be imperiled equally by a false "over estimate" of human reason as it once was by a "false underestimate" of it.  In Barack Obama's case, it is hard to tell whether it is an over estimate or an under estimate of human reason--or some combination of the two--that is more responsible for his failure in the first year of his Presidency.  I suspect that it is some combination of the two things.  For he under estimate's the capacity of the American people (perhaps, deliberately so) to handle debate about the ends and purposes of government and, sensing that, they call him condescending and arrogant.  At the same time, he over estimates the capacities of those he considers the enlightened (or "progressive") few to govern with necessary wisdom and he has relied--perhaps fatally--upon his own political shrewdness to gloss over their inadequacies.  One can call this approach to American government many things . . . but Lincolnian is not one of them.

Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 1 Comment

Julie, Good post, nay essay. Your point about progress as standing in for union in Obama's appropriation of Lincoln is thought provoking.

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