Commentary Magazine


Topic: founders

Citizenship and Obama’s Opposition

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

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In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Here’s the key passage from the president’s address:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.

Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together.

There are two big problems here.

One is the attempt to characterize opponents as people who are exploiting or fomenting cynicism about government in order to thwart majority rule for the sake of the privileged. This is the same old class warfare argument that flies in the face of claims that the president is the adult in the room while those on the other side are extremists who have debased our national discourse with attacks on his legitimacy.

More important is the notion that there is something illegitimate about fear of growing the power of government.

After all, contrary to the myth cherished by liberals that the Tea Party was a top-down affair in which a few extremist protesters were manipulated by a small group of wealthy conservatives, it was in fact a broad-based grass roots movement. Though its moment of greatest popularity may have passed, it is not the “the well connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business,” but ordinary Americans who worry about higher taxes and the creation of programs like ObamaCare that expand the scope and power of government.

Just as crucial, it is the crony capitalists who donated vast sums to the president’s campaigns that we find can count on being able to “whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.” A president that gave us the Solyndra boondoggle and whose Cabinet is increasingly populated with billionaire bundlers like Penny Pritzker is in no position to assert that it is his opponents that are unrepresentative.

After all, the fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What is most ironic about casting opponents of Obama’s agenda as seeking to thwart the will of the people is that such efforts are themselves only possible via grass roots action. The president’s message seems to be one that posits that participatory democracy is only proper if it produces results he likes, and not those—like the election of two successive Republican majorities in the House of Representatives—he doesn’t like.

What Barack Obama needs to come to terms with is that his opposition is not just a cabal of right-wing capitalists. Distrust of government is part of the DNA of American democracy. Those who are against Obama’s big government agenda constitute a significant portion of the American people and can look to the founders and the Constitution as their guide. The president can certainly seek to argue against their beliefs, but he should not do so by questioning their sincerity or dedication to the betterment of the nation any more than they should personally abuse him in this manner. If what he wants is a more involved citizenry, we applaud and concur in this appeal. But what the president must understand is that many of those who answer that call will do so in opposition to his program and can look to the original sources of American democratic principles for their inspiration.

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Political Moderation and the Conservative Disposition

Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

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Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

An oddity in our time is that some on the right who very nearly deify the founders and the Constitution fail to understand what Berkowitz calls “the unceasing need in the politics of a free society to adjust and readjust, balance and rebalance, calibrate and recalibrate… The Federalist reinforces the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution it expounds and defends.”

There have always been those in politics who are animated by the auto-da-fe. They thrive on relentless confrontation and want to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) go over the cliff with all flags flying. To be sure, such individuals can be a source of energy in a political party. They can also serve the purpose of stiffening spines when that is needed. And they may even be on the correct side of many public policy issues.

Yet it strikes me that in a deep sense, they do not possess a conservative disposition or even a particularly conservative outlook on the world. Rather, they have reinterpreted conservatism in order to fit their own temperament, which seems to be in a near-constant state of agitation, ever alert to identify and excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates. One day it is Chris Christie; the next day it is Bob McDonnell, or Jeb Bush, or Mitch Daniels, or Eric Cantor, or Lindsay Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or someone somewhere who has gone crosswise of those who view themselves as prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is a different conservative disposition to which we can look, one which was embodied in Michael Oakeshott, one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for British conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1975 essay on Oakeshott (which is reprinted here), the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike the rationalist, who is “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the gifts and blessings we have. Conservatives do not grow angry when the world refuses to conform to their ideals, nor do they see the present only as, in Oakeshott’s phrase, “a residue of inoppportunities.” He did not view the human situation as dark or dreary. 

At the end of her essay, Himmelfarb writes about the Oakeshott she knew, “with whom conversation, even controversy, was a sheer delight.” She continues:

He did not avoid disagreement; there was nothing wimpish about him. But he confronted it with such good nature and good humor that he always won the argument (he would never, of course, have called it that) by default, so to speak. It is not often that the person and the philosopher are so totally congruent. The “conservative disposition” – the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days. 

It is still a rarity these days – rarer at least than it should be. Because while passion in politics is a fine, even admirable, thing, so too is winsomeness, a certain generosity of spirit, and even a touch of grace. 

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