The Magazine

What Obama Isn't Saying

The apolitical politics of progressivism.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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One might call this sort of governing rational administration or rational control. It is government directed by reason that does not appeal to reason but rather to subrational motives that will lead people to do what is rational without their quite understanding what they are doing. An appeal to reason would be a straightforward argument in favor of the principle of government control of health care, but this is thought to be too divisive and too demanding to succeed. So, rather than espouse the principle, Obama has evaded it, and done his best to keep attention focused on the result. The result is described in terms of present benefits made cheaper and more secure, with no attempt to explain how health care as a whole might look and feel when controlled by the government. It might, after all, be enhanced by a new sense of community—which is the benefit put forward by advocates of straightforward, single-payer government control. But to do this, Obama would have to argue against opponents of government control. They will say they cannot believe we will not suffer when health care is managed by bureaucrats, who like children want to touch everything with their sticky hands. There is too much risk in a debate of principles. You may wake up more opponents than you gain converts.

Obama has in his White House a Harvard law professor, Cass Sunstein, who recently coauthored a book that sets forth the idea and some techniques of rational administration. The book is entitled Nudge, and it shows how people can be nudged to make a rational choice when they cannot be openly persuaded to do so; for example, children in a school cafeteria might by careful placement of choices be gotten to select grapefruit rather than marshmallow. Similarly but on a grander scale, Obama wants to nudge the American people to approve the health care that is rational for them to choose.

But he has so far failed. The reason, fundamentally, can be found in our constitutional form of government. Rational administration is more suited to monarchy than to republics. The classical exposition of the idea of governing by reason through human passions is in the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, who favored monarchy over a republic. The classical demonstration of how rational administration operates is in Tocqueville’s book on the Ancien Régime, which shows how administrators of the French monarchy—particularly Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin—made it dominant by using reason without ever arguing principle. 

Obama is not our king. But he uses the monarchical branch of our republic without embarrassment to project the nonpartisan image of a monarch. He has not been a strong president; he has deferred to Congress, perhaps to his cost. But he likes the aura of monarchy and uses it skillfully to transcend partisan argument. He lets us know that he admires Abraham Lincoln, yet his speeches could not be more different from Lincoln’s in respect to argument. Lincoln used argument to transcend momentary feelings. Obama avoids it by recourse to vacuous words like “change” and “hope,” never saying toward what or for what.

The Constitution, however, maintains a separation of powers that allows and facilitates opposition to the majority. In this case Republicans, prompted by tea party activists, were induced to give voice to their principles and thus give substance to resistance that might otherwise have seemed a mere defense of the status quo. For, in fact, most Americans are satisfied with their health care, and they can easily conclude that they have more to lose than to gain from “reform.” The Democrats found themselves in the strange position of denouncing generous health care insurance, often secured by unions who support them, as “Cadillac plans.” Hypochondriacs they must be who dare to desire better health care than Big Government is prepared to provide them. Let’s tax them! Here was a vivid demonstration of the progressive principle in deed even as it shied away from expression.

We shall see whether Obama is goaded into arguing the principle behind his health care plan (and his entire administration, for that matter). He understands that his principle prospers best when it is not enunciated. His politics is apolitical; it wants to put an end to politics. It considers its measures to be progressive, and progress to be irreversible. Only through this conception can one recognize, and understand, the pretentiousness of wanting to be the last president to take up health care.

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