Commentary Magazine


Peter Berkowitz’s Essay

Over the weekend, based on the recommendations of Peter Wehner and Paul Mirengoff, I read Peter Berkowitz’s essay “Obama and the State of Progressivism, 2011.” Paul called it “excellent,” and Peter called it “impressive and persuasive.” I would add “comprehensive,” because it starts with the widely noted fact that Obama presented two different faces in his campaign and then explains that phenomenon by describing the evolution of 20th-century progressivism.

In other words, Berkowitz first describes how:

By running for president as both the candidate of hope and change and the candidate of sobriety and good judgment, somehow simultaneously a progressive and a moderate, a man of big ideas and a pragmatist concerned with real-world consequences, an unabashedly partisan left-liberal Democrat and a proudly post-partisan leader, Obama cultivated ambiguity about his principles and his policies.

He then connects that cultivated ambiguity to the requirements of the “new progressivism,” which speaks in the name of the people but pushes policies the people do not necessarily want, on grounds the people are sometimes not smart enough to know they want them:

The new progressivism … doubts the ability of the people to recognize their true interests while exuding confidence in the ability of highly trained elites to impartially administer federal programs on the people’s behalf. But in contrast to the original progressivism, the new progressivism seeks to obscure its awkward combination of egalitarianism and elitism.

… The old progressivism openly argued that the people’s interest could be better served by reducing the limitations under which government labored. … [T]he new progressivism … conceals its devotion to top-down government in bottom-up rhetoric. It seeks to reduce dependence on the people by redefining democracy as the reforms undertaken by elites in the people’s name.

The essay is a fascinating explanation of how Obama achieved the holy grail of progressivism — federally mandated health care for the people — amid assurances from people such as Bill Clinton that the people would love it a year later, only to get a shellacking a year later when the people got a chance to speak for themselves.