W.W.G.W.F.H.D. (What Would Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Do?)

O joy, o rapture unforeseen: a post about Obama that has nothing to do with Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Andrew Bacevich has a piece in The American Conservative making the case for conservatives to support Barack Obama for President.

The case has basically two parts. First, the GOP has abandoned the true path by supporting big government at home and interventionism abroad, and a McCain Presidency would only further advance the party along the false path. Better to lose and regroup than to win under that banner. Second, Obama opposed the Iraq War, so electing him would at least lay down a marker for potential repudiation of a war that, in his view, marks the ultimate betrayal of conservative principles.

He makes a pretty narrow case, as he must since, as he admits, Obama is neither a neo-isolationist nor a neo-realist, but an internationalist whose key advisors want to embed American power in a larger structure of global governance that is less America-dominated and more formally constraining than has been the case in the post-Cold War world, which is not an agenda that Bacevich endorses at all (nor would I expect any conservative to do so – that agenda may be laudable or laughable, but it’s not conservative).

I’d like to argue here that there ought to be another reason – a paradoxical one, actually – for conservatives to find hope in an Obama Presidency, but so far I’m not convinced that this particular hope is warranted.

The hope is that an Obama Presidency would “advance the argument” about America that has gotten rather stalled of late, in a way that a McCain Presidency and, certainly, a Clinton Presidency would not.

By “advance the argument” I mean: come up with a rejoinder that is not identical to the last argument made by a side. By a rejoinder, I don’t really mean a change in specific policies so much as a change in the rhetorical and theoretical frame within which such policies are generated.

Ronald Reagan did something like this in the 1980s, and the neo-liberals associated with Bill Clinton did it to a lesser extent in the 1990s. Reagan changed the frame for the Cold War from defending America from an implacable foe to liberating the world from an evil and oppressive system. That change terrified liberals in the early 1980s, as it was expressed in terms of extravagant rhetorical confrontation and a real, substantial military buildup. And it worried conservatives in the late 1980s, as it was expressed in terms of a real willingness to rid the world of nuclear weapons and an apparently sincere belief that the Soviet system could be dismantled peacefully (as, in fact, it was). I believe that this change was overewhelmingly laudable, in spite of the fact that one unintended consequence was rhetorically to empower today’s neoconservatives, who use the same frame to justify the most expansive vision of the meaning of the Iraq War (“World War IV” and all that).

Domestically, the Clinton Administration was able to change the frame around government activism and government spending on social problems. The GOP critique of the Great Society had led to lasting skepticism about the ability of government to address social problems, in large part because it planted a conviction that the government did not understand or care about the consequences of its own actions. Busing, crime and welfare were the three big-ticket items on the list of legitimate grievances that drove so many Democrats towards the GOP from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Busing was largely a dead issue by 1992, and Clinton, during his campaign and again after the humiliation of 1994, changed the frame around these issues by talking about infusing government with values that persuadable voters could respect. The GOP had long talked tough on crime by calling for tougher sentencing; Clinton talked about hiring more cops. The GOP had attacked welfare for undermining the work ethic; Clinton signed a bill to introduce work requirements, then expanded government efforts to support the working poor through the EITC and other means. I’m referring to specific policies here, but the big rhetorical change was: we care whether the policies actually work, about outcomes not just inputs, and we know that values have something to do with whether you get good outcomes. The Bush Administration has basically lived within this frame from a rhetorical perspective from the beginning; the only alteration Bush made was to talk up faith and religiosity explicitly as a key component in the “values” mix.

So, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I call these changes advances for two reasons: because I believe they genuinely improved policy outcomes, and because I believe that a stale debate results in progressively worse policy outcomes as more and more energy goes into bidding for a tiny margin of persuadable voters on already familiar terms. (Which pretty much describes the Rove electoral strategy, come to think of it.)

Where do I see hope in Obama of advancing the argument? Mostly in his Alinskyite training.

It fascinates me that Hillary Clinton wrote her thesis on Alinsky, and that Barack Obama started his political career working for an IAF affiliate that trained him in Alinsky’s doctrine and practice. Clinton’s thesis was a critique of Alinsky, and her main line of attack was that his philosophy was outmoded because it depended on action that was local and direct, whereas in the modern age real change required, basically, capture of the commanding heights. Obama is now out to seize those commanding heights, at least in governmental terms, but his background is as a community organizer, someone who teaches tenants’ groups how to fight lousy landlords (private and public), who teaches parents’ groups how to fight lousy schools (public), and so forth.

My hope for Obama is that this background will lead him to advocate, as President, more for empowerment and less for control. That he will be more inclined to tilt the playing field to make it more possible for local groups of citizens to organize for their betterment (or for NGOs like the IAF affiliates to organize them) and less inclined to impose regulations and bureaucratic structures from the center.

To give an example of the distinction I’m drawing: No Child Left Behind has been a mess in many ways, because it has attempted to drive change through the education bureaucracy and the education bureaucracy has responded in predictably self-protective ways that have, in many cases, shortchanged students and made problems worse. That’s not to say the NCLB has been an unmixed catastrophe; there are ways in which it has put a spotlight on problems in the system. But on balance, I’d say it’s been a mess for the regular school system. And my best evidence for that is that the biggest cheerleaders for NCLB are charter school advocates who are operating outside the regular school system. Charter schools, meanwhile, follow precisely the sort of model I’m hoping becomes more common: the government empowers social entrepreneurs, and holds them accountable for results, doing an end-run around the bureaucracy but preserving the key rule-setting and evaluation function so there’s political accountability. (Which, by the way, has not been the way much outsourcing by government – whether we’re talking about Blackwater or the faith-based initiative – has been handled lately.)

In the biggest sense, this would mean absorbing and recasting for the left a frame that the right has used successfully for a generation, namely one of individual and community empowerment and opposition to entrenched bureaucratic interests. What would recast it for the left is two things: first, adding “corporate” to the kinds of entrenched interests attacked in this way; second, by articulating why simply leaving the fight to people unsupported ultimately results in outcomes that are bad for democracy, and that therefore the government should puts its thumb on the scale – not in terms of dictating outcomes bureaucratically but in terms of making it easier for poorer people, less skilled people, less well-connected people, etc. to get organized to advance their own interests.

In practice, of course, the kind of approach I’m talking about will mean a lot of results conservatives don’t like. Any move to empower organizing will mean stronger unions and particularly stronger pro-union laws in localities where political organizing can get such laws passed. Check out what the folks at the Manhattan Institute have written about living wage laws, for example, which have long been supported by the IAF affiliates. But I’m not arguing that such an approach would yield conservative results; I’m saying that it would advance the argument, and get better results than the stale approaches that dominate too much of the debate today.

What’s the best evidence I have that Obama might lean this way, apart from his Alinskyite training? Not much. He’s got a few supporters who are big charter school advocates, like Whitney Tilson, and he’s made occasional gestures in the direction of education reform. He’s supported by the unions who are doing the most actual organizing out there, and opposed by the public-sector unions who don’t need to organize workers at all. That may be it. But, you know, I have the audacity to hope.