Who's afraid of give-and-take?
The historian James Kloppenberg's "Reading Obama" -- an "intellectual biography" chronicling philosophical and legal theories that have influenced Obama -- is near the top of my current reading list, but I was a bit thrown off by Peter Berkowitz's review of it in the Wall Street Journal today. Berkowitz argues Kloppenberg's book fails to shed much light on Obama's current decision-making, which is fair enough. Which legislative initiatives Obama decides to promote probably has much more to do with the party composition of the Senate than with his views on Hilary Putnam. But Berkowitz's complaint is different:
Theorists of deliberative democracy typically denigrate the messy give-and-take among actual flesh-and-blood citizens and dismiss it as the outcome of flawed procedures for conversation. They prefer the conclusions that derive from abstract and sometimes intricate theories. Meanwhile, in the guise of rejecting absolutes, the adherents of philosophical pragmatism absolutize partisan progressive goals and reconceive "moderation" as merely exercising patience and flexibility in the pursuit of progressive ends.
To read Mr. Obama accurately and to grasp fully the connection between his ideas and his politics, one must examine not merely the dreams and hopes that inspire deliberative democracy and philosophical pragmatism but also the intellectual vices that these doctrines foster and the illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies that they spawn. A lot of voters this week, intuitively, did grasp the connection. The problem goes beyond "marketing or P.R." to ideas.
Leaving aside Berkowitz's apparent confusion of philosophical pragmatism with being pragmatic in the normal sense of the term, this is a bizarre reading of Obama's governing method. Obama has hardly shied away from the "messy give-and-take" of politics. He cut a deal with pharmaceutical companies to get health care passed. He negotiated with car companies on emissions standards. Deliberative Democrats want to determine policy by having an open conversation where participants can agree on a solution without pressure from powerful interest groups, which necessarily entails trying to limit or end the influence of those groups. Obama, by contrast, has worked directly with interested parties and crafted policies that take their concerns into account. This is exactly what the community organizer Marshall Ganz attacked Obama for on Wednesday: working within the system rather than trying to transform it.
One can argue over whether Obama's approach was correct, or whether he should have tried to cut interest groups out of the process. I'm inclined to believe that passing health-care reform would have been next to impossible without the pharmaceutical industry's support, and that cutting emissions would be tougher without auto industry cooperation, but your mileage may vary. But Obama has repeatedly engaged in "messy give-and-take" politics, and faulting him for avoiding it is odd, to say the least.
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.
| November 5, 2010; 9:05 AM ET
Categories: Obama administration
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