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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An analogy of partisan politics to athletics may be helpful. A Harvard fan like me always wants to defeat Yale but at the same time always wants to defeat a worthy opponent. It’s a contradictory desire in principle because a worthy opponent will sometimes win. But in practice one learns to lose. Someone might object that to win an election is more important than to win a game. To which I respond: Maybe so, but it is more important to continue to have elections than to win one of them. Next to liberty of the mind, there is no more important liberty than political liberty. This means that no partisan victory is permanent and that we shall always return to different versions of the same questions. Progress can never make political liberty obsolete by solving the problems that we contend over. Those who want to put an issue like health care “beyond politics” simply want an imposed political solution to their liking.

In these pages recently, James Ceaser made the argument that Obama is inspired by the religion of humanity (see “The Roots of Obama Worship,” January 25, 2010). The desire to act on behalf of humanity betrays impatience with the contentiousness of politics within nations, where life is always both inspired and bounded by partisan and national loyalties. Over time the devotees of progressive politics discover that they can do away with domestic political differences only through a globalization that does away with national differences. That is why multiculturalism—which is today’s downsized term for the religion of humanity—is both a domestic and a foreign policy. 

Obama’s opponents sometimes dismiss his nonpartisanship as just a cynical mask for his progressive partisanship. But I agree with James Ceaser that Obama’s profession to be beyond politics is essential to his politics and must be taken seriously. To take it seriously one must find an answer to it. What is it in human beings that makes some of them love progress more than liberty and makes others love liberty more than progress?

 

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard and a member of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.


 

 

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