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Who's afraid of give-and-take?

By Dylan Matthews

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.

By Dylan Matthews  | November 5, 2010; 9:05 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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"He cut a deal with pharmaceutical companies to get health care passed."

The deal was tacit -- apparently everyone involved but the public knew that the public option had been jettisoned. Yet instead of admitting this, the President encouraged us to fight on. That's not "messy give-and-take", not by a long shot. That's nothing short of betrayal, just so Obama won't look like he gave-and-took.

Posted by: stonedone | November 5, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I agree with stonedone, but would add that I'm OK with give-and-take, but his bargaining strategy amounts to giving first and talking later. I don't see any take.

Posted by: IndigoJoe | November 5, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse


Ganz didn't criticize Obama for working within the system INSTEAD of transforming it; the criticism (and it's not an attack, btw), is for working within the system WITHOUT transforming it.

The difference is crucial, and not subtle.

Posted by: vorkosigan1 | November 5, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Well, bizarre interpretations of Obama's (and anyone associated with him) governing and thought process and much more seems to be the name of the game for movement conservatives, or what I'm starting to think of as the great liberal hating and baiting cult.

Read Dinesh D'Sousa's "How Obama Thinks", or Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascists. Goldberg also works very hard to tie philosophical pragmatism to Fascism, not by dealing in any way with the substance of the philosophy, and not by confusing it with "common sense" pragmatism, but by citing positive things that James or Dewey said about Mussolini, and similar methods.

Goldberg is impressive in some ways, and may get a lot of his history right, like being up on the latest assessments of Hitler which are quite different from the 30s/40s liberal take, but only help his argument with people who can't hold more than one thought in their heads at a time (for me, that depends on the subject, and I doubt many of his readers are truly well grounded in either history of political philosopy). He also finds plenty of sloppy thinking which he uses to seemingly discredit all liberal thought.

On the other hand, he (Goldberg) is spinning like crazy. Somebody ought to write a whole book to answer his book and write it in a way that his readers can understand - not just for academics. It should include an alternative, less propagandistic critique of all the sloppy thinking he used to make his thought look good (while doing just as much or more sloppy thinking of his own).

The "liberal" side has long underestimated the ingenuity with which movement conservatives have been undermining everthing which is or could be used as philosophical underpinning of any sort of support for mixed government, or anything that has ever been associated with liberalism, including some of best grounded scientific arguments such as evolution and global warming. Their thoroughness is breathtaking.

They will also test an extreme position for a while, and if it manages to slip into the conversation without too much outrage, they will go a bit further, like calling intellectuals and sometimes flakey actors "elites" (while ignoring the billionaires who mostly run the world), and after a couple of years upgrading that to "Ruling Class".

This is what I find myself mostly dealing with in (I had hoped to follow a broader less polemical path). It is often not so well written or organized as I can only take tiny scraps of time for writing, but I hope I make some good points all the same.

Posted by: HalMorris | November 5, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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