Barack Obama and the paradox of progressivism

I encourage those of our readers with a philosophical bent to take the time this weekend (it will require about an hour) to read Peter Berkowitz’s excellent essay “Obama and the State of Progressivism, 2011.” Peter links the political difficulties President Obama has encountered to the “paradox of American progressivism, old and new,” a paradox “rooted in the gap between its professed devotion to democracy. . .and its belief that democracy consists in a set of policies independent of what the people want.”
The original progressives, exemplified by Herbert Croly, acknowledged the paradox. Thus, Croly wrote that “any increase in centralized power and responsibility. . .is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy.” But “the fault,” Croly stated, “lies with the democratic tradition” and the fact that “the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadquate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.” Thus, the “erroneous and misleading” democratic tradition “must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy.”
The new progressives, exemplified by Obama, refuse publicly to speak this way. It seems clear, though, that Obama shares Croly’s view, which he expressed behind closed doors in his famous characterization of working-class voters (to a wealthy San Francisco audience) as “cling[ing] to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them. . .as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Peter also connects Obama’s “determined effort to push dramatic transformation under the cover of moderation, and pragmatism, and post-partisanship, and his claim to speak on behalf of the people while aggresively promoting programs at odds with majority wishes” to three schools of academic thought. They are John Rawls’ “deliberative democracy” theory, Richard Rorty’s perversion (as I see it) of pragmatism, and “empathy.” All were, or have become, intellectually dishonest attempts to equate progressivism with justice and, as Peter explains, to override, in the people’s name, their expressed perferences.
The academic concept of “empathy,” which is so shallow that it’s shocking to think of it as a school of thought with any traction, featured prominently in Obama’s statement of why he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Although Sotomayor had famously touted the virtues of the special empathy possessed by “the wise Latina,” she repudiated this line of thought during her confirmation hearing, as did Elean Kagan later on.
There is no doubt, however, that Sotomayor’s brand of empathy lies at the heart of much progressive thinking about the law. That Sotomayor and Kagan backed away from such views when they were “on stage,” and that Obama himself did not use the word “empathy” in touting Kagan, is further evidence of the paradox of progressivism.
JOHN adds: I can’t resist adding this photo, which I just saw on Facebook; click to enlarge:
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