August 28, 2008

Barack Obama has not flip-flopped or betrayed his lefty fans. You need to understand: He's a "visionary minimalist."

Cass R. Sunstein offers up a useful term — so that everyone can always understand everything about Barack Obama:
Of course Obama is a progressive.... But, by nature, he is also an independent thinker, and he listens to all sides. One of his most distinctive features is that he is a minimalist, not in the sense that he always favors small steps (he doesn't), but because he prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.

When he offers visionary approaches, he does so as a visionary minimalist -- that is, as someone who attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans. His reluctance to challenge people's deepest commitments might turn out to be what makes ambitious plans possible--notwithstanding the hopes of the far left and the cartoons of the far right.
He is infinitely complex, people. It's you that need to get up to speed. Readjust. Visionary minimalism makes everything right.

And, no, it's not a new round of triangulation. Don't pin that on the new man:
Just as he resists ideological templates, Obama does not believe in "triangulation"; his skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled, not strategic.
(Did that hurt, Bill?)
Obama does not follow old-line political orthodoxies. Above all, Obama's form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work.
That can't be wrong.
[I]n his empiricism, his curiosity, his insistence on nuance, and his lack of dogmatism, Obama is indeed a sort of anti-Bush--and perhaps the best kind. If the Bush administration has often operated on the basis of the president's "instinct," we should expect to see, from Obama, a rigorously evidence-based government....

The larger point is that Obama's departures from left-wing orthodoxy should not be understood as a betrayal of his own beliefs, or as a kind of "tacking to the center." Instead, they reflect something altogether different: an independence of mind, and a rejection of doctrinal filters, that we do not often see in candidates for public office.
If I could know that's all true, I would vote for Obama. But it could just as well be a guise, a cover, to get me to fall for something I'm not going to want at all. After you do all that listening and evidence-collecting and cogitating, you still have to make the call. It can't be pure science. The instincts will tip the answers one way or the other. But Cass Sunstein insists that there's a rejection of doctrinal filters. I don't know that it is possible to think without something like a "doctrinal filter." But maybe it's possible that Obama does -- or at least comes closer to unfiltered thinking than anyone else is likely to do.

ADDED: This isn't the first time Sunstein has expatiated on Obama's "visionary minimalism" in TNR. Here's his piece from last January.

60 comments:

amba said...

Bill Clinton, too, mentioned "curiosity" as a quality successful presidents need. There's no question intellectuals love it. But how does it work as a basis for decision making?

jdeeripper said...

"Barack Obama is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life."

rhhardin said...

It's called negative theology, appropriately for the Messiah.

You list everything He isn't. And there you are.

rhhardin said...

Read the excellent Wiki page on negative theology here.

Compare and contrast.

Palladian said...

This is the kind of nonsense it takes to become a big-time professor? Do you think Cass Sunstein felt a little embarrassed after having written that?

"visionary minimalist"

Yes, Obama's "vision" seems minimal, at best.

Simon said...

I think that reading Obama's policy proposals adequately refutes any claim of minimalism or gradualism, and a reading of his speeches sits athwart that reading either (I think that the people who voted for him on the basis of speeches about "change" would have a right to feel aggreived if Sunstein's right). Cass is either being disingenuous or misusing the word.

And I don't think Obama's views are "difficult to characterize," either. What are we to make of such examples, presumably meant to make us think that we can't just call him a troglodyte pre-67 liberal, that he favors nuclear power and believes the Second Amendment provides an individual right? Does that mean that liberals who concede obvious realities have views that are difficult to characterize?

Simon said...

Palladian said...
"This is the kind of nonsense it takes to become a big-time professor?"

IIRC, George Orwell had a line to the effect of, some ideas are so stupid that only the highly educated can believe them.

Ron said...

Maybe Cass read something about Rothko, and thought, "visionary minimalism!" Good for painters, not so much with the loan-getting!

Peter V. Bella said...

…a rigorously evidence-based government....

What the hell is that?


AA: After you do all that listening and evidence-collecting and cogitating, you still have to make the call.

It may be too late to make the call.


an independence of mind, and a rejection of doctrinal filters, that we do not often see in candidates for public office.

Is he going to try to make everybody happy? Is he a Republicrat or a Democran? What is his philosophy then; “sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don’t?

Peter V. Bella said...

amba said...
Bill Clinton, too, mentioned "curiosity" as a quality successful presidents need.

But he was not takling about policy.

Simon said...
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Simon said...
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Simon said...

And Oh God, that last paragraph ("rejection of doctrinal filters") captures well the evil, saccarine, sickening faux-postpartisanship tone of Obama's campaign that has been grating on me for a year and a half. Are these people so idiotic, so utterly un-self-aware that they belive that they don't look at the world through the lens of their beliefs and experiences?

MPorcius said...

Obama works in mysterious ways
His wonders to perform

Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan his work in vain:
Obama is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.

P. Rich said...

So this morning we are treated to NYT, NYT and TNR. Lovely, as in, "That is a lovely garbage dump. Let's stop for a snack."

Henry said...

Funny, this description of Obama as a "visionary minimalist" makes him sound kind of like President Bush -- George Herbert Walker Bush.

While Obama is the anti-GHWB in speaking ability and experience, he seems to have the same diffidence to political principle.

One example. Obama is against the Iraq war, but for an expanded Afghan war. What's the vision here? The vision of being against "dumb wars" is not principle, it's just pragmatism.

When LBJ, FDR, and Reagan became president, everyone knew what they stood for and what they would try to accomplish. They had political principles.

Obama has nothing of the sort. It appears that whoever has his ear last wins.

That's a kind of minimalism, but not of the visionary sort.

Palladian said...

But Simon, Obama-style post-partisanship means listening to what you're saying, nodding and then doing exactly what they were going to do in the first place.

In other words: Stop clinging to your guns, religion, and silly ideas and get with our program. Once we all believe the same things, there will be no more partisanship.

EnigmatiCore said...

He's empirical. He is only interested in what works.

That his positions throughout his career have been consistently on the left, and not the kinda-left-kinda-center-left but the solid left, is merely a happy circumstance of the fact that this is what works.

That's what I have to believe, despite having lived through the Carter and Reagan years.

What did Billy Joel say about the Stranger? He is not always evil, and he is not always wrong. We all have that face. Left and right, neither has a monopoly on what is correct or what works, nor is always in the dark about such things.

As such, when I see someone who's record is orthodox liberal or orthodox conservative, I find it hard to swallow the idea that the person is merely interested in what works. That person may be interested in what is moral, or fair, or any number of things, but is so even when the contrary has proven to work.

Sometimes, what works isn't what is moral, or fair.

Wurly said...
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The Drill SGT said...

Of course Obama is a progressive.... But, by nature, he is also an independent thinker, and he listens to all sides.

Fakes listening to all sides and then turns Left?

Obama supporters, somebody list any of these things:

1. The times he has taken on the Democratic interest groups to accomplish something

2. The times he has worked with the GOP on a controversial agenda and succeeded

short list?

Try the same for Mcain

garage mahal said...

Forget everything that every liberal has said, everything that liberal professors have said, and just listen to Republicans and people that have worked closely with McCain have said. That his is nuts.

Putin-McCain.

If that doesn't give you a lump in your throat I don't know what could.

Henry said...

Ev'rybody's building the big ships and the boats,
Some are building monuments,
Others, jotting down notes,
Ev'rybody's in despair,
Ev'ry girl and boy
But when O the minimalist gets here,
Ev'rybody's gonna jump for joy.
Come all without, come all within,
You'll not see nothing like the mighty min.

holdfast said...

I think this means he will listen politely to all sides and give everyone hugs before doing the reflexively lefty thing. He talks a good game but votes with his party 96% of the times (vs McMaverick's 88%). His position on not killing live premies (ie "Born Alive" Act) is well to the left of his own party. His buddies are unrepentant terrorists and America-hating black supremacists. He thinks that government is the solution to every problem.

This guy is to the left of Carter and McGovern, never mind the semi-pragmatic Kerry or the sometimes centrist Clinton.

I have no freakin idea how he ever got tagged as a someone who can reach across the aisle or work with the other party. He has practically no legislative history at all - even his most ardent sycophants are struck dumb when an unusually probing news interviewer asks them to name his accomplishments in the Senate.

His first response on any foreign policy question is to adopt the fetal position while blaming US Allies - except when he wants to invade nuclear armed Pakistan.

Up to this point, whenever he gets a job, instead of actually discharging his duties he immediately beging campaigning for the next job - I wonder what that is now? Sec Gen of the UN? Holy Roman Emporer? Superman?

If it wasn't for him being half-white and beloved by the media he would have been written off as the naive tyro that he is over a year ago. Frankly, Hilary's right to be pissed - she has twice his Senate experience (snort-laugh) and she already knows how to be President just be being married to the guy - why next week, I plan on getting back surgery performed by my surgeon's wife, since she clearly knows how to do the job, having been married to him for 20 years.

The crazy thing is, by any reasonable light, the compulsive liar Biden has far more claim to be a serious presidential candidate than either of those affirmative action hires (as do Bill Richardson, John Kerry, Al Gore and Mark Warner).

holdfast said...

garage wrote "That his is nuts."

I assume you mean that, unlike the Dems, McCain has a pair.

Damn this election is weird - I don't even really like McMaverick, but this Dem idiocy is turning me into a fanboi!

former law student said...

…a rigorously evidence-based government....

What the hell is that?


The opposite of the wishful-thinking based government of the last seven years.

gophermomeh said...

I don’t see or hear a rejection of doctrinal filters. What I see is that he’s not operating under the usual dogmatic orthodoxies that we’re accustomed to seeing. There seems to be a broader, over-arching concept that he working with, which gives him the room maneuver around on the left side of the dial. He’s not a linear thinker, that’s for sure. Linear is easier to get a read on – his fluidity makes many uncomfortable. I get that and I’m ok with that, so far.

I’d much rather have someone of his temperament making the calls he’d be asked to make. Though the facts from crisis to crisis will change – and even in the campaign, they’ve changed, but his thought process seems pretty consistent. I guess there could be a chance that it’s been a guise, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that.

Simon said...

Palladian - like most of what Obama says, it sounds better in the original German. Einheit macht frei, my friends.

atshupp said...

Visonary?
60,000,000 abortions on demand an counting.

It is the relativistic embracement of a unprecedented genocide that can only be defined as the greatest holocaust in human history. It trumps all other issues and will be the historic linty and blithe upon this era of history.

David said...

It's nice synchronicity to have Karl Popper and evidence-based government on the blog on the same day. Popper was famous for his argument that science is falsifiable. A corollary was that the social sciences, which are not falsifiable (because we can never control all of the relevant inputs) are not science. Popper said that the only proper role for social scientists was to warn politicians that things weren't ever going to work out the way they planned and as a result they shouldn't do much.

In other words, the only evidence based government is conservative government.

PatCA said...

All this highminded jawing will evaporate into the ethers come November 8th. The man is a politician, pure and simple.

chickenlittle said...

Simon said: Palladian - like most of what Obama says, it sounds better in the original German. Einheit macht frei, my friends.

More: the Germans use a single word, Schuld, to express the notions of "guilt" and of "debt".

If Obama were actually speaking in German, he could conveniently unite his two biggest flocks, i.e., those feeling guilty and those in debt.

bearbee said...

Cass Sunstein's The Second Bill of Rights: FDR'S Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever

Nanny-state proponent.

Minimalist but not enough vision, I guess, leaves him hanging.

Sloanasaurus said...

In the Illinois State Senate, Obama was the only senator to vote against a bill to prohibit the early relase of sexual abusers. He was one of few senators to vote against increase sentances for gang bangers and voted present on a bill that made it more difficult for abusive parents to get custody of their abused children. In 2007 he was the most liberal voting member of the U.S. Senate - left of Bernie Sanders.

Obama sought immediate withdrawl from Iraq. That doesn't sound like a pragmatic solution does it?

He also actively opposed the born alive infant protection act in Illinois - a bill even Barbara Boxer supoprted.

Obama is not a real pragmatist - he only pretends that he will be one to get votes (Althouse's vote specifically).

garage mahal said...

garage wrote "That his is nuts."

I assume you mean that, unlike the Dems, McCain has a pair.


Haha. He is.

dr kill said...

Barry is the poster child of the Democrat wing of the Democrat Party. That they ended up together now, this year, is merely a gay marriage of convenience. Who uses whom most rudely is yet to be determined.

Howard Dean- Who the fuck are you?

Mr. Perfect- I don't know who I am this morning, but last night I was your African King.

Simon said...

Sloanasaurus said...
"Obama is not a real pragmatist - he only pretends that he will be one to get votes (Althouse's vote specifically)."

Pragmatism is a route, not a destination.

And I find it hard to fault desiring and taking steps to get the vote of Althouse and people like her.

former law student said...

He also actively opposed the born alive infant protection act in Illinois - a bill even Barbara Boxer supoprted.

When was Barbara Boxer in the Illinois State Legislature?

The Illinois bill that passed protected pregnant women and doctors, unlike the federal bill which declared that a brainless fetus with a pulsating umbilical cord was a human being for Federal government purposes.

William said...

Holdfast: Your post was a welcome corrective to the insulin shock of Sunstein's prose....How can people who know how to dress themselves hold such uncritical views of another human being. Obama gives his followers chills. His followers give me the creeps.

Sloanasaurus said...

The Illinois bill that passed protected pregnant women and doctors, unlike the federal bill which declared that a brainless fetus with a pulsating umbilical cord was a human being for Federal government purposes.

The Illinois bill was changed to mirror the federal bill and Obama still opposed it. The Obama camp has already admitted to this fact.

Nice try in trying to lie about it though.

lkdemott said...

Sounds like academic BS to me.

Personally, I like the visionary, straightforward views of Ronald Reagan:
Government is too big; taxes are too high; Communisism is evil.

Joe said...

Holdfast beat me to it. I am flumoxed by this new meme that Obama is not a guy who votes rigidly left. The man hasn't done a single thing to actually illustrate the new claims made about him. Were he an unknown, that would be one thing, but he's a sitting US Senator who hasn't done a damn thing. He is the very definition of an empty suit.

Alan said...

The problem is, if Obama really thought without a "doctrinal filter," his positions wouldn't all be on the left side of the spectrum. So much for Sunstein's theory.

vbspurs said...

I'm not sure Mama Cass should be opining about Obama.

vbspurs said...

Simon wrote:

Palladian - like most of what Obama says, it sounds better in the original German. Einheit macht frei, my friends.

Obama can't even speak SPANISH. German is way beyond him. At least Spanish resembles Arabic.

*ouch*

Seven Machos said...

What's Sunstein doing with something on the Internet? He's the guy who wants to manage the Internet because it divides culture into little islands. Or, as I like to say, creates the cultural space necessary for independence.

Ultimately, the subtext here is ridiculously circular leftist cant. Whatever our guy is decides is obviously the reasonable thing. He's such a deep thinker. He's reasoned through all the variables and options and come to this wise conclusion. So it happens to be leftist orthodoxy. So what? If you disagree, you are shallow-thinking and wrong and unwilling to accept the course that is proper.

Richard Dolan said...

Sunstein gives a nice tour of the language there, don't you think? In giving us his portrait of O, Sunstein is facile with words, nuanced to a fare-thee-well, and chooses a vocabulary just loaded with happy associations. But his picture is all airy generalities, lacking any specifics or substance you can focus on or grab hold of. O comes off as more of an empty slate, almost a ghost rather than man. In short, Sunstein's portrait fits his subject better than Sunstein might have intended.

Sunstein's effort to define O for us, to provide a way to explain what kind of guy O really is and what makes him tick, works on another level, too. It ends up highlighting O's biggest problem. Because the picture Sunstein paints has no focus, no center, no point really, it ends up as just a big, blurred mess.

If that's the best O's defenders can do, if that's the best that someone as talented as Sunstein can do, then O is in deep trouble. Most people have already noticed that they don't have any clear idea of who O is or what drives his train. What O needs, and what he must do tonight, is the opposite of what Sunstein is doing here.

Kirk Parker said...

Palladian,

"Do you think Cass Sunstein felt a little embarrassed after having written that?"

Nope. What I do think is that he is incapable of embarrassment. Just look at what he's said about the Second Amendment, for starters.

Seven Machos said...

Sunstein isn't much for those pesky amendments. First. Second. Not for the little people.

TMink said...

Ahhhh, now I see. The Obama that can be understood is not the true Obama.

Deep.

Trey (sarcasm off)

Mortimer Brezny said...

Cass Sunstein is just recapitulating "incompletely theorized agreement," a Rawlsian notion. Pick the shallowest basis on which to agree and set aside the deeper disagreements. It means that Obama will find the convergence of all views and reach pragmatic goals that incrementally advance the ball for us all. Or, visionary minimalism. Does this assume that everyone is rational and unwilling to forego incremental benefits for the improbable chance of total victory later? Yes. It assumes that everyone has a healthy appreciation of risk and fears losing tangible benefits more than loves gaining intangible future ones. But some people are irrational and love to play the lottery. Millions, in fact.

former law student said...

Nice try in trying to lie about it though.

Sloan -- the Illinois bill that passed is not the same as the federal bil that passed. It has more protections for pregnant women and doctors. You can look both up and see for yourself.

The Drill SGT said...

vbspurs said...
I'm not sure Mama Cass should be opining about Obama.


Well the fact that she's dead likely qualifies her to vote in Chicago, and voters have a 1st amendment right to opine, so there you go :)

Revenant said...

that he favors nuclear power and believes the Second Amendment provides an individual right?

Given that Obama supported (a) a total handgun bans in Illinois and Washington, (b) a national ban on semi-automatic weapons and (c) lawsuits against gun manufacturers and retailers who legally sold a weapon that was later, without their knowledge, used in a crime... one has to ask, "an individual right to what, exactly"? The right to own an old bolt-action rifle from a manufacturer that's been sued out of business?

Hoosier Daddy said...

Obama can't even speak SPANISH. German is way beyond him.

Wait, wasn't Obama chastising us US Americans because when Swedes, Brazilians and other assorted peoples of the world come here, they can speak English but when we US Americans go abroad, we can't speak their language?

Oh never mind. I'm certain the standards he sets for the great unwashed he plans on reigning over certainly won't apply to him or his kin.

Revenant said...

Sloan -- the Illinois bill that passed is not the same as the federal bil that passed.

You mean the federal bill that passed with unanimous support from Senate and House Democrats? That federal bill?

And could you stop peddling the lie that fetuses born without a brain would have been considered a living human being? The absence of a living brain is the legal and medical standard for death. That's why a whopping total of zero doctors have been prosecuted for "killing" such fetuses in the seven years since the bill was signed into law.

Your argument is that Obama shot down a bill aimed at preventing infanticide based on an irrational fear shared by absolutely nobody in the federal government, which the last seven years have shown to have been completely unjustified.

The two possibilities are (a) he's an idiot or (b) he's to the left of NARAL on abortion. Pick one.

Peter V. Bella said...

I just thought of something. The term flip-flop used in relation to Obama could be construed to be a negative code word for his upbringing in Indonesia, one of the lands of indiginous flip-flop wearing peoples.

former law student said...

a bill aimed at preventing infanticide

The bill was aimed at preventing abortion.

The absence of a living brain is the legal and medical standard for death.

OK -- the absence of the cerebrum and cerebellum, if you'd prefer. You can't get far in life with just a brainstem, unless you're a lizard. Here are the criteria for being "alive" according to the statute:

breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles, regardless of whether the umbilical cord has been cut

So any kind of spasm == alive

Read the Baby K story, if you have the time. Baby K was "alive" according to the statute.

zero doctors have been prosecuted for "killing" such fetuses in the seven years since the bill was signed into law.

Perhaps there's an absence of whistleblowers? Jill Stanek got fired, you know.

blake said...

Surely a man of such pragmatic action leaves footprints wherever he goes.

Small, positive changes made that show the way.

Surely the Chicago schools improved under his and Ayers guidance.

The man is 46. Young for a President, perhaps, but not for a human being. He should have left fingerprints all over his good works.

Revenant said...

The bill was aimed at preventing abortion.

Careful, now... the official line from Obama and the rest of the Democrats is that of *course* everybody wants to *prevent* abortion. It is *restricting* abortion that's naughty.

But really, now, nobody is going to believe that lie you're peddling. Nobody is going to believe that the entire Democratic Congressional delegation voted to restrict abortion. Give it up.

Perhaps there's an absence of whistleblowers?

Yes, FLS, that's it -- after the entire Democratic Party got tricked into backing the bill, the Bush Administration has wanted to use it to prosecute doctors who let brainless fetuses die, but haven't been able to because absolutely everybody involved in the process is refusing to talk to the authorities. That's an entirely sane thing to believe, I'm sure.

former law student said...

Nobody is going to believe that the entire Democratic Congressional delegation voted to restrict abortion.

Do you really not see how a law that has one effect at the Federal level, can have a completely different effect when enacted at the state level?

The Federal statute defines a "born alive" infant with respect to Federal law. The state statute defines a "born alive" infant with respect to state law.

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States...

Under Federal law, a "born-alive infant" will be a US citizen at birth, and is eligible to get a ham radio license. Under state law, a physician performing a necessary medical procedure can be prosecuted for murder.

And did you read about Baby K? That's what the Born Alive Act protects:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_K