November 28, 2008


Ideas And Politics: Frenemies For Life (Dick Meyer, 11/20/08, NPR)

There is a great tradition of disliking ideas in the history of American civic life, as famously noted in Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1964. Americans have a well-founded sense in the story of our politics. Our very best and enduring ideas involve the process and structure of our system, not policies, programs and ideologies: the Constitution system, the balance of power, checks and balances, and federalism. Such a wise system, based on such durable and clear grand ideas, needs to be fed and stocked with pragmatism and practical knowledge, not more ideas, philosophy, dogma and erudition: Eisenhower, not Stevenson.

This thinking spread the intellectuals of the democratic (little d) and Liberal (capital L) West after the totalitarian atrocities of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism. The leading British political thinkers of the second half of the century, Michael Oakeshott and Isaiah Berlin, both tied the totalitarian impulse to the grandiosity of too-big ideas, perverted rationalism and philosophic self-certainty.

The most influential American political philosophers in that period — John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin — were more entranced by ambitious, hyperlogical philosophic systems, but scrubbed their work of the soaring flourishes and metaphysical audacity that make the Continental greats like Rousseau, Nietzsche and Marx so fetching for ill-fed students and their professors. They stuck with the pinched language of analytic philosophy, sending few students into the streets.

Since Edmund Burke's objections to the bloodier aspects of the French Revolution, it has been conservatives who are most suspicious of ideas in politics. They are particularly wary of the idea that rationalism and logic can discover scientifically the correct ideas for organizing society, that "they" know better what is good for "you" than you do. [...]

Candidate Barack Obama was something of a puzzle on these scales.

Many voters and commentators responded to him as if he were a candidate of great, big ideas — a transformational thinker, a visionary. But from what I can tell, Obama's policies are very standard-issue, early 21st century Democratic; they add up to a platform, perhaps, but not a philosophy. Is "change" a big idea? Is a "new politics" that is less partisan?

Though obviously not anti-intellectual, by Obama's own account he is a pragmatist, not strongly bound to any "isms."

Why "obviously"? Mr. Obama's determined refusal to offer a single concrete example of anything he'd change and his avoidance of ideas suggest a politician who is anti-intellectual.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 28, 2008 12:06 PM
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