This past February I wrote about the peculiar faux messianic quality of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in “The return of Sister Flute.” Last month, I noted how Obama proclaimed at the end of his victory speech in St. Paul that we would be able to look back on his election to the presidency as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Obama of course professed to makes this patently absurd claim “with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations.”
Well, what of it? In the cover story of the new issue of City Journal, Michael Knox Beran answers that particular question. Obama is illustrative of the utopian temptation that is inconsistent with limited government. Obama, Beran concedes, “is not the first politician to argue that politics can redeem us, but in posing as the Adonis who will turn winter into spring, he revives one of the more pernicious political swindles: the belief that a charismatic leader can ordain a civic happy hour and give a people a sense of community that will make them feel less bad.” Beran suggests the incompatibility of Obama’s utopianism with American constitutionalism:
The politics of consensus that Obama favors is incompatible with the Founders’ adversarial system, which permits those whom he disparages as “ideological minorities” to take stands on principle that, at times, frustrate the national consensus. Obama makes it clear that there is no place, in the politics he advocates, for those “absolutists” who would defy the community. The “ideological core of today’s GOP,” he writes, is “absolutism, not conservatism,” an absolutism driven by those who prize “absolute truth” over “communal values.” This commitment to absolute truth, he argues, stands in the way of a politics that can solve our problems and change our lives.
Obama’s appeal, in short, is indicative of a low level of political life, in which freedom is exchanged for the false promise of redemption. Toward the end of the essay, Beran offers “the good news is that the country has defenses against [Obama’s] brand of redemptive politics.” He asserts that these defenses are both constitutional and cultural. Beran does not explore the question how much damage can be done, how much freedom can be lost, before those defenses are triggered. I am much less sanguine than Beran on this point. Even so, Beran’s essay is something of a tour de force that should provide a warning to anyone who’s paying attention.
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