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January 28, 2008


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A few points in support of what was said.

American politics is indeed conducted in a horribly divisive and disrespectful manner. But according to the received story, in the press, this situation is more or less inevitable. The received story is that the division is driven by the existence of two wholly irreconcilable outlooks on life in America: a Red outlook and a Blue outlook.

This is not just a lame story but a pernicious one. Rather than explaining the current state of politics, it fuels it: if you think you have nothing in common with those you disagree with, you will not be inclined to make arguments with them, you‘ll just shout at them. Furthermore, this story seems especially damaging to those with a progressive agenda. It is the right that needs to get people to ignore, say, that tax cuts for the very rich are against their economic self-interest and manifestly unjust, and support cuts out of some broader identification with the culture of the right. The received story is used by conservatives to take real issues of justice off the debate. (Not that there hasn’t been dangerous irresponsibility on the left too.)

Obama has consistently tried to challenge the received story. For instance, in passage he often repeats:

“The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.”

This tells in favour of Obama as the candidate for deliberative democracy and, perhaps, for a more successful progressive movement.


I think this is an accurate and illuminating analysis of what Obama is saying. But I'm very concerned about the part of his thought that connects these views to effective political action. That seems in a way the big challenge, and in part it requires theorizing. I don't know that he has got very far with it, or adequately understands the gap that's there. (I'd be happy to be wrong about this.)


My colleague, Renford Reese, wrote an article for one of our local papers about the Clintons' "win by any means" approach, which may be of interest to participants on this blog:

Ann Ferguson

The problem I have with Bob G-W's account of Obama is that it ignores the question of what his economic philosophy is. His response on the current subprime mortgage crisis to hold borrowers to an ethic of personal responsibility is too individualist, and ignores the corporate fraud of real estate agents and the structural pressures on working poor people. I dont see him really challenging corporate capitalist lines of thought on, e.g the health care issue: why isnt he demanding single payer health care? And if he keeps not saying what he really stands for as a way to pull in people who wouldnt at first agree to a discussion of the common good across party lines, at what point does he become coopted by his hope of creating a new populist politics so that he is unable to carry out a needed program of radical reform?

Nicole Garner

I much appreciate your helpful articulation of what you take to be Obama's metapolitics, what's at the heart of his efforts as a candidate, really. I've been withholding judgment until I heard and learned more about him.
Meanwhile, I've been particularly disturbed by the reactions of some, Gloria Steinem in particular, to Obama's win in Iowa that have taken the form of making the campaign a contest between a white woman and a black man with the former due more support than the latter. Back to the divisive gender-race politics of the First Wave Feminist Movement...!!
I'm seeing real promise in Obama's candidacy, though the "experience" issue is hardly trivial. You've given me more to think about. Meanwhile, I hope that we can all assist - our students especially - with the critical work of mitigating the felt-need to go for one-upmanship on either gender or race...

Posted by: LouOutlaw | January 28, 2008 at 02:08 PM

I haven't looked into Obama's specific views after I heard his views on healthcare and have listened to/read his classist remarks, it was good to see something else about him by someone not on his campaign or working for a news agency.
I tend to always be frightened by anyone who says the "common good", this usually simply means the good of the middle class, the class who already has all the necessities of life (housing, consistent (& constant) access to heat & electricity in their own houses, all of them, water, food, phones, i could go on all day with this).
That simply means that the people in my community (family, friends) will continue to lack those necessities.
I was really into Hillary running, she ended up talking ALOT about the middle class, I was done with her.
There are a few things that I still do like about her, she doesn't back down, at all. I actually met her a few years ago- she had a special session for eating disorders and my boss spoke, she actually talked to me at both lunch and dinner and she actually cared- actually asked me to describe what it was like to be very anorexic and want help and to be consistently turned away from everywhere simply because I am not one of the privileged who have necessities.
I also like that she has a blog, and people do respond. Although a blog is still an elitist thing (many people do not have access to or know how to use a computer, or know how to read) her website/blog have been a huge attempt, i think, to actually HEAR people. I actually think her ideas of change aren't radical at all, they are much less than what needs to be done actually.
It is, though, at least a very small beginning for making life in this country tolerable for people who aren't privileged (and, by this, i mean people who lack nearly everything).
But then, for me, none of this is ever about either gender or race, it is always about poverty, and i suppose in a capitalist society, there will never be a good presidential candidate for my group.

Jon Trott

LouOutlaw, re Gloria Steinem you meant "Second Wave" didn't you?

Bob G-W, thank you for articulating so well issues about Obama that, while as an Obama supporter I grasped in a general sort of way, I couldn't have spelled out with anywhere near your clarity. Very helpful. Thanks.

Marianne Janack

I really like Bob's analysis of the Obama/Clinton styles. And it really sheds light on why Obama's shift to replying to Clinton's attacks in kind has taken him off message--the message is meant to be exemplified by its manner of delivery, and when Hillary gets him to play by the rules of attack and counter-attack, his difference from her is muted.

I agree with Lou, too, about the tragedy of the return of the old Black Man vs. White Woman framing of the discussion. I'm getting ready to teach the Suffragist movement to my class, and I had been thinking about how relevant this issue is again. When I've taught this material in the past, the students had a more difficult time seeing how this dynamic could take hold. From the perspective of the late 1990's and the earlier years of the 21st. century, it seemed so clear: "How could the suffragists have been willing to make this kind of deal with the devil?" But now we can see that historical scene being replayed in a new context. Do you think that Steinem's forgotten that history?

Nancy Fraser

Hillary or Barack?
Two Views of Feminism

I was distressed to read that the President of NY State N.O.W. excoriated Ted Kennedy for “betraying women” by endorsing Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton (NYT, 2/1/08). But I was not entirely surprised. That view reflects what has by now become the mainstream self-understanding of American feminism as a political interest group. To the extent that feminists understand themselves in this way, as defending women’s policy interests within the existing framework of politics-as-usual, they have found an excellent standard-bearer in Hillary Clinton. But that is not the only way to understand feminism. Not so long ago, many of us saw ourselves as participants in a transformative social movement, which aspired to remake the political landscape. Intent more on changing the rules of the game than on playing it as it lays, we mobilized energies from below to stretch the bounds of what was politically thinkable. Expanding public space and invigorating public debate, our movement projected, not a laundry list of demands, but the inspiriting vision of a non-hierarchical society that nurtured both human connections and individual freedom. Some feminists continue to cleave to that self-understanding. For us, Barack Obama represents a better vehicle for feminist aspirations than Hillary Clinton. The democratizing energies now converging on him promise to create the terrain on which our sort of feminism can once again flourish. Drawing its momentum from activist forces, and inspiring the latter in turn, the Obama compaign offers feminists, and other progressive forces, that rarest of political opportunities: the chance to help build and shape a major realignment of American politics. That is a prospect worthy of the best and the highest in American feminism.

Nancy Fraser
Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics
New School for Social Research

Jordan Dodd

I'm not sure it's apt to call Obama a 'deliberative democract'. From what I've seen, Obama seems to be someone who may well believe in (to use a phrase from Professor Fraser's comment) "expanding public space and invigorating public debate". Indeed he may well also believe that there's a need for "debate and deliberation about the common good", as Professor Gooding-Williams writes. But it's worth noting that even if Obama has these beliefs, the bar for being a deliberative democrat - at least as that term is typically used in political philosophy - is much higher. Deliberative democrats typically distinguish themselves by maintaining that there is a necessity relation between P being a legitimate democratic process and P substantively involving substantive public deliberation (deliberation of a certain sort, with certain access conditions, etc.). I'm no Obama expert, but does he say anything that merits attributing him such a strong view tying deliberation and legitimacy? It would be fascinating if he had, since, e.g., it would be tantamount to Obama challenging in a strong way the legitimacy of the entire American 'democratic' process and thus the legitimacy of the American government. But I suspect he hasn't said anything to that effect. My suspicion is that Obama's actually an aggregative democract who believes in the value of public spaces and public debate as a means to diffusing or resolving the vicious polarizations in American politics. That's a philosophically interesting view. Intuitively, it's also a view that's compatible with most of Professor Gooding-Williams' analysis. E.g., Obama could hold (i) that a radical transformation of American political culture is necessary for progressive reform and (ii) that the particular transformation that's needed to create progessive reform is (in part) the creation of more public spaces and public debates that can be used to attempt to diffuse or resolve the polarizations in American politics. Even if Obama does hold both (i) and (ii) though, that would neither require nor suggest that he's a deliberative democract. (i) and (ii) are views about what's needed for progressive reform. They aren't (and don't entail) views about what's necessary for legitimate democratic processes or legitimate governments. The worry then is that we risk associating Obama with a different (and far more democratically radical) theory than is apt if we call him a 'deliberative democrat'. As well, we risk mis-capturing the philosophical departures between he and H. Clinton.

Ken Warren

I’m not sure that if find the “meta” prefix particularly helpful in this instance. With respect to Obama, one could start by noting that in his run for the Illinois State Senate he assured his victory by challenging the petitions of his most prominent rivals for the Democratic Party nomination. His challenges stood, and both opponents were removed from the ballot, which means he won his first office without having to debate his most formidable opponent on the issues. I, frankly, don’t fault him for the petition challenge. It’s what smart politicians do. But I also think it means that one has to approach the “deliberative democrat” label with some degree of caution.

And one could continue with the fact that the provenance of Obama’s viability as a politician was his being embraced by elites in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, who could ensure a high turnout in the relatively wealthy part of the 13th Senatorial District, offsetting the rather low turnout in the more populous but less wealthy, and hence less likely to vote parts of the district. Again, I’m loath to criticize him on this point, because it’s smart politics from the standpoint of getting oneself elected, except to say that his political life presumes the nature of politics as an elite-driven enterprise (which presidential politics inescapably is these days), and it’s not clear what this has to do with changing the framework in which notions of the common good can be debated.

There’s zero chance for example that an Obama presidency will see any serious discussion of the idea that a for-profit health care system is immoral. Even within the technocratic way in which the Democrats have approached health care in the campaign thus far, Obama, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, has a policy that comes up short of that of Hillary Clinton’s. To be sure, Austan Goolsbee, the University of Chicago Business School Professor, who is Obama’s chief economic adviser, has written in a review of Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, that “Moore begins by blaming the profit motives of health-insurance companies for the main ills of U.S. health care. While it's easy for free-market types (and I consider myself one of them, mind you) to dismiss his critique of a profit motive, in the case of health care he isn't so far out there.”

But this concession doesn’t mean that Goolsbee is advising Obama to go for single payer, because his article concludes, “A lot of stuff goes wrong with [our health care system], but to replace the whole thing would cost a hell of a lot of money. Moore thinks the car is already broken down beyond repair. The metaphor isn't perfect, though, I realized after I left the theater. All cars have to be replaced; our health-care system, if improved, could live for a very long time.” So with Obama we’re in for a lot of deliberation about whether or not the carburetor will outlast the clutch, but not about getting a new vehicle anytime soon--which is the case all the way round with him. When asked about Obama’s view of our current fiscal crisis, Goolsbee has said, “Well, it's clear with the massive fiscal hole of the last six or seven years, that's not a problem you could fix in a day. Senator Obama has said, look, I don't want to do anything that's going to increase the deficit -- everything we come up with has to be paid for”—which sounds to me not like a compromise with post-Reagan Republican ideas but an echo of them.

I suppose it’s arguable that Obama could lower the temperature of some hot-button issues, so that something like genuine deliberation might actually happen, but it seems to me that the strategy for lowering the temperature is to preempt some points of view from serious debate creating a deliberative “democracy” that is not deliberative enough.


Building coalitions doesn't seem exactly a recipe for effective action on issues about, e.g., health care, getting out of Iraq, and stopping global warming. A very brief piece are Brooks' toxic NY Times editorial today locates a possibly important difference between the candidates:

Ron Sundstrom

I've enjoyed reading the reactions to Bob's comment's about Obama's connection to deliberative politics and his references to the "common good." A recent New Yorker piece takes a similar position and contrasts Obama's "deliberative" style with Clinton's penchant for partisanship: See George Packer's "The Choice" in THE NEW YORKER (Jan 28, 08).

In these discussions about Obama, Democrats, and the common good, it is important to remember that
Michael Tomasky got the Democrats back on to the language of the "common good" with his article, "Party in Search of a Notion," from THE AMERICAN PROSPECT (April 2006).

This talk of the common good, from Tomasky's perspective may be completely in line with partisan politics and need not be identified with deliberation. See Tomasky's review of Krugman's new book, "The Partisan," in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (54:18 Nov 22, 07).

If, with "jj" (and Krugman), you think that the common good is best served by the fulfillment of the DNC's progressive agenda, then coalition building isn't as important as "strong" leadership.

Indeed, the old debate over the meaning of the "public good" and "public interest" has been returned to because of Tomasky's invocation of the concept and the willingness of both Clinton and Obama to utilize the idea. See the collection on public interest in DAEDALUS (Fall 2007). The essays by E.J. Dionne, Robert Bellah, and Gary Hart are particularly relevant to the present discussion.

In short, I think there is reason to share Nicole Garner's worry that "common good" talk is really a facade for some special or particular interest. But all, the same, I agree with Bellah, Dionne, and Hart, that there is a great need to at least reflect on the idea of the common good and the meaning of citizenship.

Here is a worry of mine that is tangential:

Bellah doesn't stop with invocations of the common good. He calls citizens to accept the good of being political. I am quite attracted to such civic republican ideals of citizenship (Or is it a bold liberal perfectionism? Maybe it is both). However, the political philosopher in me, steeped in the demands of liberalism balks at such "calls" or projects of "soul making." But the pragmatist in me yearns for for those projects. I don't think that deliberative democrats, can escape this problem: deeply embedded in deliberative democracy are thick norms that lend themselves to republican and liberal forms of perfectionism.

Mike B.

Great post--was with you right up until the end, when you said that Obama "articulates in new terms (talk of common sense and of a common good) a new progressive agenda." Maybe I'm reading him wrong, but I think he's advocating the same old progressive agenda, but in a new language, and that's why I like him so much.


Great post. It reminded me of a chapter in Galston's "The Practice of Liberal Pluralism" about poltical toughness. I couldn't trackback, but I posted thoughts here: .

Lisa Ellis

My colleague Diego von Vacano has written an op-ed relevant to this discussion, on what Obama should say about race:

Lisa Ellis

Sorry: here is a new link to DvV's piece on what Obama should say about race that should work better. Registration is free but required at the Post:


Amidst all the positive comments I'd like to add a bit of critical thought - not negative, but critical.

1. I do think that B. Obama is an appealing figure and his talks really can excite a crowd. He has found some words/conpets that really appeal and he shows a mastery of large group speaking.

2. Some of my own colleagues have compared him to Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders or even to Gandhi as a reformer.

This comparison may be apt. I do not know. One of the things that concerns me is that these great reformers did so from outside the governement. It is one thing to reform; another to work IN a bureaucracy.

3. I have looked for examples of his moving anything through Congress in his tenure as Senator. I know he has had only one term but our local Democratic John Hall is in his first term and he has managed to move some things.

I would feel a lot better about Sen. Obama's candidacy fpr President if he could show seme bureacratic successes. The President of the United States is the head of an executive branch. S/he is not an 'outside' reformer. Being able to work with and move thing through the bureaucracy is an essential component of the job.

5. I would also feel a bit more confident if he had been or would still be willing to answer those who questioned some accuracies in his Autobiography [SEE: Richard Cohen's article on the topic. Note. Cohen endorsed Obama but the Autobiography issue is still outstanding and the Senator has refused to address it thus far]

We have had experience with leaders who seem to change or invent facts 'because they would really "fit the scenario".

No matter what is said in words or on the stump, it is not NEW politics to make facts fit a vision AND it really concerns me. I am too much of an old time academic to feel easy with such things. Maybe Sen. Obama can answer the questions but so far her has refused to do so....that is troubling to me.

6. Now I know that some of my colleagues have said , But look at the big picture....and the big words and a black President would put American Racism behind us forever and he is offering a new direction, has ignited the young etc.

Still, I find these things troubling - and would feel a lot easier if they were addressed.


Jim Oakes

Ken Warren points to the ways the Obama senate campaign in Illinois hardly comported with his claims to being a deliberative Democrat. There are elements of his current primary campaign that suggest something similar.

For example, Obama has clearly figured out how to stack precinct caucuses and win delegates without having to win votes. His victories in Iowa, Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Minnesota, Alaska, Kansas, and North Dakota were all caucus victories. Clinton has won a single caucus, by a hair, in Nevada, but even there Obama claimed more delegates. Caucuses are a notoriously undemocratic means of achieving victories, and they tell us nothing about Obama's ability to win over the votes of major Democratic Party constituencies.

Second, media pundits have been praising Obama for campaigning in Republican states as further evidence of his commitment to non-partisan politics. I'm not so sure. The one demographic Obama can count on is the African American vote, so it makes sense for him to rack up delegates in deep South states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. In those states the high proportion of black voters in the Democratic party insures his primary victory. But as with his caucus victories, this tells us nothing about his ability to win the allegiance of Democrats in states the Democrats can and must win in November.

Outside of his home state Obama's appeal is chiefly to affluent whites--Delaware and Connecticut. Clinton has, by contrast, won major primary victories in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California. She virtually tied with him in Missouri, but the only Democrat to win Missouri in a presidential election in the past quarter of a century was Bill Clinton. She won Tennessee. And though she won no delegates, she posted overwhelming victories in the vote counts of both Michigan and Florida.

As Ken Warren suggested, Obama's strategy of winning delegates without winning meaningful votes makes good political sense. But it is a far more "elite-driven" strategy than Clinton's. To my eye it does not suggest a deep commitment to deliberative democracy, nor does it yet demonstrate broad electoral appeal among Democratic voters.


Feminist Law Professors has a quote from Amanda at Pandagon that addresses the question of why Hillary is the policy wonk:

"I think a lot of why Clinton is tone-deaf is the same reason that women can’t either not have sex (frigid) or have sex (slut). Is there a way she could be right? I think part of her choice to be policy-oriented is that it’s the least offensive. I see this a lot with female politicians, choosing the least offensive path instead of going the charismatic route available to men."

Account Deleted

Clinton has the better health care plan, but she voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. A critical issue for me is which candidate will be better able to respond to Republican attempts to cast the Democrats and their nominee as soft on terrorists. Which candidate will be better able to convince the American public that staying in Iraq, invading Iran, maintaining our current policies regarding Israel, or unilateral action are not good ways to deal with al Qaeda. Clinton's vote in 2002 weakens my faith in her ability to deal with fear-mongering and American imperialism.

Kate Lindemann

Today I learned that last week H. Clinton offered to debate B. Obama in Wisconsin. He refused and said he would not debate with her for two weeks.

Odd - She was willing to debate him and allow him to get his message before the public when she was ahead...but now that he has momentum he is not willing to debate???

I do not see that as an action of NEW politics. It is the same old hardball politics that has gone on for ages. Unless, of course, there is some other reason why he will not do a public debate now. Anyone working on the Obama campaign who could shed light on it?


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