Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Obama: nothing new under the sun?

From north of the border, this blogger offers an interesting intervention into our conversations about Obama’s appeal to the young. In a sense, Obama is promising the impossible--a unity that overcomes division. As our pseudnymous Canadian friend (if I may be so presumptuous) observes, any "new" unity simply opens us up to a new set of divisions:

[I]t’s not that unity is never possible; it’s not that we can’t all agree to change; it’s just that if we are all to agree on change it has to be over a real promise that is truly open-ended, open to a further exchange of differences, open to new, if yet undeveloped, divisions. And if Obama presumes to represent such a promise, he needs to make clear how he can set up a new political dynamic, a new form of exchange, by bringing new ideas and realities into play in a way that widely raises excitement that a new game, a new challenge, is about to be unboxed and no one yet can know who will learn to master this game, since all players have reason to hope. That’s a consensus: the start of an exciting game.

So one question is whether Obama is capable of developing this sort of transformative vision. I’m, to say the least, dubious. Once you get beyond the soaring words, the ideas are quite conventional. And while the words are important, sooner or later they’ll have to be translated into policies, which will be ground up and chewed out by Congress. There will be perfectly mundane debates, and a President Obama won’t be able to rise above them. He’ll have to (try to) gore some oxen.

Our Canadian friend also notes that youthful insurgencies are nothing new (just ask the good doctor of Italy, Nicholas Machiavell) and quotes approvingly Julie Ponzi’s advice to McCain about how to speak to the young. I’d state the matter more theoretically and abstractly, as kind of a test: can the young admire anyone who is not essentially a vessel or reflection of their own self-image? I think they can. Narcissism is an omnipresent possibility, but so is admiration of the genuinely noble and good. I’m not sure a cranky old warrior is the best possible presenter of the human virtues, but at least this version of the old warrior lacks the darkness and cynicism of his losing predecessor from 1996.

Discussions - 1 Comment

Thanks for the conversation.

I think you're right that Obama does not have the stuff. He has the dream of a youngster without a firm grasp of what it takes to bring something new into the political world.

The other way to look at it is through the eyes of his supporters, like those who fly a Che flag in his Houston office.

I also agree that the choice between narcissism and true aristocracy of spirit is always available to the young. It's just that it's so hard when you're young, without sufficient humiliating, or ennobling, experiences under the belt, to have a firm grasp of what is truly disinterested conduct for the common good.

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