Dreams from Obama

July 1, 2009: By Jonah Goldberg

On February 12, 2008, the night Barack Obama won the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Democratic primaries, he held a massive rally (does he hold any other kind) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Where better,” Obama asked, “to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the Progressive movement was born?”

On the one hand, one has to give Obama … the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. After all, the University of Wisconsin progressives were soaked to the bone racists, nativists, eugenicists and imperialists. Many of the founders of the “Wisconsin school” of progressivism would be horrified by a black president, particularly one with an African name. Indeed, if they had their druthers, Obama’s father would never have been allowed to enter the country, never mind marry his mother. And at least some of the most prominent Wisconsin progressives might have wanted her sterilized against her will.

On the other hand, one has to give Obama points for honesty. While Obama certainly harbors no affinity for the “race patriotism” of the Wisconsin progressives, he certainly agrees with them in other ways. He is, in the most fundamental sense, the most authentically progressive president since at least FDR, and perhaps Woodrow Wilson.

One problem with talking about progressiveness is that the word has been shorn of its meaning. To say you’re a progressive these days is like saying you’re in favor of good things. We talk about “progressive music” as if the word simply confers a kind of spiritual blessing. But progressivism was, and is, a real ideology with good aspects and very, very bad ones.

Obama’s progressiveness stems mostly from his unshakable conviction that he and his like minded brain trust have an almost Jedi-like understanding of what is good and right: Constraints on their ability to pursue them are unwise, even unpatriotic. They agree with the French philosopher Condorcet that there is “a science that can foresee the progress of humankind, direct it, and accelerate it” – and they are the scientists who need to run the show.

This idea evolved until the Progressive era, when philosophers like John Dewey and the Progressives at the University of Wisconsin came to believe that individual liberties, particularly economic liberties, were an impediment to progress. If only the experts, or “planners” could be left in charge, they could make everything right. This is why Woodrow Wilson – the first U.S. president with a Ph D and a founder of the American Political Science Association — and Dewey had such contempt for the American constitution and bill of rights. All of those messy checks-and-balances interfered with their ability to do “what works.” This is why Stuart Chase, the progressive intellectual reputed to have coined the phrase “the New Deal” insisted that America must be put under control of an “economic dictatorship.” After all, he said, “why should the Russians have all the fun remaking the world?”

Now President Obama surely doesn’t see himself as a dictator, and he isn’t one. Indeed, this country does not tolerate tyranny well. We are a liberty loving people, with a strained, but still functioning republican constitution. Nonetheless, in much the same way Wilson and Roosevelt exploited crises, mainly war and the Great Depression, to expand the scope and size of governmental and presidential power, Obama clearly has similar ambitions. Indeed, the motto of his administration is “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

In terms of public policy, the most striking continuity between classical progressive thought and today is, again, economic policy.

People remember Teddy Roosevelt as a “trust buster” and he was one as president. But afterwards, when he became a fully committed Progressive (he was the Progressive Party presidential candidate in 1912) he abandoned trust-busting in favor of “combination,” the binding together of powerful economic forces for efficiency’s sake. “The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed,” Roosevelt explained. “The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combination’s, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.”

The credit for Roosevelt’s intellectual evolution from anti-monopolist to monopolist should go to Herbert Croly, the godfather of the progressive movement, founder of The New Republic and author of the Progressive bible The Promise of American Life. “Cooperation” was Croly’s maxim. He once said “[i]t should be the effort of all civilized societies to substitute cooperation for competitive methods.” In short, the idea was to yoke big businesses – the bigger, the better – to the state and use them as extensions of state power. The old market system, whereby firms were kept honest and prices low through competition, needed to be replaced by the enlightened rule of experts. Hence, in The Promise of American Life, Croly yearned for a “national reformer . . . in the guise of St. Michael” and an “imitator of Christ” who will crush laissez-faire capitalism and cruel individualism. Indeed, he wrote, an “individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed.”

As we watch Obama take over the auto, banking and student-loan industries. As we watch him argue for a new nationalized healthcare system and for economic and tax policy to be guided by the notion that the wealth should be spread around and that we are all our brothers’ keepers, it’s difficult to see how he doesn’t share this core progressive conviction. And, it is not crazy to suggest that, at least for some Obama supporters, “The One” is that imitator of Christ.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, then-candidate Obama explained that the “American Dream” must, in large measure, be replaced by “America’s Promise.” The American Dream is, after all, an individualistic ideal. We all pursue our own conception of happiness, as is our right under the Constitution. America’s Promise, however, is a collective enterprise in which politics becomes the new science of human progress. That is the Progressive’s Dream – and Obama’s.

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