Monday, November 15, 2010

Process and Ideology

Peter Levine at HuffPo, taking on Paul Krugman's critique of President Obama by crafting a nuanced, empirically-grounded, and pragmatic alternative understanding of where we are politically.
...Obama did reject the diagnosis that we were simply "in trouble ... because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas." He didn't think that he could explain or argue the American people into a different political philosophy, one in which our major troubles stemmed from conservative ideas and the solutions lay in a more activist government. Obama wanted a more activist government and has taken the largest step in that direction since 1974 with the health care bill. But he didn't believe that the way to get there was to conduct a debate on ideology. He did think, contra Krugman, that the main problem was the process and not the misguided people in office....
As long as elections are privately funded, districts are gerrymandered, and legislative procedures are rigged, it doesn't matter who makes what argument or what the people believe who govern us. Policy will be determined by power.

Obama explicitly understood these points. He concluded that the problem was the process. Debate wouldn't solve anything, but we needed to build new relationships--relationships of trust between citizens and the government and among diverse citizens. Krugman scoffs at the idea of "men and women of good will ... coming together to solve our problems." That is indeed too much to expect of Congress, but it happens regularly in civil society. At the national level, politicians can at least display more of the civility that Americans expect of fellow citizens. (Civility, by the way, is not the same as bipartisanship.)

I think Obama's diagnosis and promise were correct. That doesn't mean that the execution has been satisfactory. There have been no new policies that permit or encourage broad public participation. There have been no serious changes in the rules and processes of Washington. The administration has tried to negotiate its way to satisfactory policies and explain their merits to the American people, instead of changing the system itself. In that sense, they have been doing what Krugman recommends, but with less economic ambition and impact. We need the kind of transformational presidency that Barack Obama promised and that Paul Krugman considered a mistake.

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