Barack Obama, Neo-Progressive?


In a recent issue of the LRC, David Eaves and Taylor Owen, two of the best young thinkers in Canada right now, have a piece called “Progressivism’s End” in which they make the following argument: The old style of post-New Deal progressive politics has become stale and outdated, but continues to be defended by a new “conservative” Boomer class that resists innovation and reform even when it hinders progressive outcomes.  But Barack Obama represents a “neo-progressivism” that combines Creative Class values of pro-market innovation and lifestyle libertarianism with an enlightened and open-minded approach to political institutions and programmes. 

Unlike Clinton, who merely “triangulated” the old fights betweeen progressives and conservatives, neo-progressives have moved beyond those old battlefronts. In particular, it allows Obama to make two shifts:

First, he can create space to constructively discuss issues generally considered out of bounds, whether on the left (such as homophobia within the black church) or the right (such as racial injustice in America).

Second, a focus on progressive outcomes enables Obama to step out of the confines of Democratic orthodoxy and draw on workable ideas from across the political spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in this piece; I’m not even sure I agree with the assumptions that motivate the article. But it has given me a lot to think about, and it is well worth reading and thinking about. 

There have been a lot of complaints in the comments under a lot of my blog entries and those of my colleagues that there’s too much attention paid to the fluff and the polls and the horserace, and some have demanded discussion of meatier issues. (I dispute that as well — the magazine is full of meaty stuff, and I’m still waiting for my blog entry on Senate reform to catch fire….). 

Regardless, here’s your chance. Eaves and Owen have given you PLENTY to think and talk about. Comments are open, but only to those who have taken the time to read the paper. It’s the honour system of course, but  I know you’re all honourable people.

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Barack Obama, Neo-Progressive?

  1. I disagree that `triangulation`is necessarily a bad thing. I believe that compromise is one of th e most important things a government can do- maybe not please all of the people all of the time, but most of the people most of the time. As an example I turn to Wilfrid Laurier. A progressive in his time, and famous now fo rhis ability to compromise, to find a common ground of peace betweent two or more factions. This seems to meto be fundamental, not just to progress, but to democracy itself.

  2. Interesting read. Its hard to grasp as a citizen that has never really believed in labels. Who is a progressive, a conservative, a liberal etc.?

    I try to accept there are only “good ideas”, no matter the source. Follow ideas where the evidence matches the desired results. (Eg, safe injection sites.)

    That’s just being smart. I didn’t realize it needed a category or a label.

    I also agree with Sophie, why does compromise (or triangulation) need to be separate from neo-progressiveism? I think that Obama himself would reject that assertion.

    I reject the labeling of neo-progressive for that reason. Being progressive means you accept new ideas and are willing to work across ideologies to accomplish a goal. You use what works even if its traditional, new or paradigm shifting.

    Anything else is static or regressive.

  3. I’d like to echo Sophi & Catelli above. We need pragmatism, the opposite of partisanship. I can only hope that the bickering of this next parliament will be so unbearable that the nation will emotionally reject it, as it emotionally rejected deficit spending 15 years ago. Otherwise the authors’ prophesy of government’s irrelevance will certainly come true, minority government being our new doom.

    I’m inclined to support Dion’s Green Shift, even though I know so little about environmental issues that I’m unqualified to compare it to the Tory & NDP plans, simply because it strikes me as a radical idea. The very first radical idea I have ever seen in Canada in my entire adult life (I’m 31). We seem to be trapped in statis – as opposed to στάσις – in this country, a kind of trench warfare where 100 000 words a week are gunned down for the sake of a few bomb-blasted yards. Could such initiatives as the authors describe be the tanks that bring back a more fluid, mobile warfare of manoeuvre? One can only hope.

    I lived in Silicon Valley for five years, and it’s quite true what the authors say about the mindset of “creative class” it represents. We need more thinking outside the box in every sphere of Canadian life: entrepreneurship, First Nations policy, infrastructure policy, the arts, etc. But I genuinely fear that the vested interests are so well entrenched that it really will take a messianic figure like Obama to rally the energy and optimism of Canadians and to serve as a rallying point – socially and spiritually – for the kind of ventures the authors praise.

    Perhaps if young Trudeau got a haircut?

  4. Jack, don`t be absurd- his hair is wherein his power lies.

  5. “But I genuinely fear that the vested interests are so well entrenched that it really will take a messianic figure like Obama to rally the energy and optimism of Canadians and to serve as a rallying point – socially and spiritually – for the kind of ventures the authors praise. ”

    Fear no longer, mate! We have reached the age of blissfull ignorance. How else to explain not being able to see through the real thing?

  6. Of course, the Merovingian angle! That would also explain the part-Germanic, part-Romance dialect.

    Seriously, though, the contrast with Obama is stark. At the Coyne/Wells entrail-reading session at U of T last week, Wells made the point that the Liberals (if they decide they want a new leader) need to “beat the bushes” for a non-intellectual, non-Bay Street, non-patrician, non-leftist, and probably non-Quebec candidate who can win back rural Southern Ontario, Saskatoon, and Edmonton (OWTTE). (An very bilingual Acadian with a tattoo would be good, a well-built Manitoban even better.) (Too bad for me, who’s always been a fan of Dosanjh). But since that’s the smart Liberal play, and since the Tories are simply hostile to ideas of any sort, where does that leave our potential messiah? Bound with golden chains in heaven, as usual.

    The authors of this piece are surely right that new approaches such as they cite are currently happening outside governmet; but one only has to look at how much media exposure this campaign gets, and how big a platform politicians have even in peacetime, to see that government would be an ideal spot to launch a spiritual renewal of our country.

    Perhaps if we were struck by a meteor?

  7. Okay, I think I get what the authors are arguing. Neo-progressivists hold similar goals to fiscal prudency and social liberalism, but are unconcerned with the “correct” process so long as the desired outcomes are achievable?

    Am I wrong to say this is a sort of combining of the third-way with a kind of new public management?

  8. Jack,

    You are a writer, right? Along the ways, you must have come to an understanding of the difference between fiction and none-fiction, no?

    I mean, sometimes the two are a bit confusing to sort out. They are!- I am not kidding here.

    Let me put it this way: the word example in Dutch is “bijvoorbeeld” which literally translated says: by means of a pre-picture. In other words, when examples are given, a pre-picture has been placed in front of us, a picture which can then serve to highlight an idea, a concept set into a relatable image. Yet, the example must never overtake the idea or concept as such, meaning that the idea or concept must remain the fundamental focus of attention. The example must always be retractable into the overarching idea or concept. Yet, when the example becomes so powerful that it can shed the underlying idea or concept completely, we find ourselves to be carried into different territory or direction if you will. The example’s power of being turned into new territory turns the ‘world’ upside down. Now, all of a sudden, the viewer no longer understands that the example being given must play a secondary role. Instead, the example has been able to turn itself into a new idea or concept. Thereby changing direction of intent. That process is a very subtle process and we should always be on guard for that lurking danger of turn-arounds.

    And in that sense, the fine line between fiction and none-fiction is very fine indeed. Think about it: sometimes fiction can ring more true than none-fiction. And sometimes none-fiction can appear as to be fiction. Sometimes fiction (including what we see and hear on tv for instance)is carried into reality, and becomes none-fiction. But where exactly to pin-point the turn-around? Hell if I knew!

    In some of your earlier posts you referred to Nietzsche, which I thought was interesting. But would you find it interesting when I say that Plato was no big fan of giving out examples?

  9. Jack- as always, you make a lot of sense.
    Personally, I think the next leader really does need to come from somewhere outside of the major urban centres. The prairies, rural Ontario (or, hell, rural Qc) or the east coast would be good. Someone who atually has used their hands to earn a living…
    the last leader of any stripe I can think of like that is Diefenbaker. Before that, Tommy Dougas.
    When I’m reaching into the early 20th century, into other political parties, you know that we need a shift.

  10. Damn, I wish I could vote. I know just the guy, too.

  11. Francien, that was easily the most interesting comment I’ve read on these blogs. I do think that big questions, such as the ones raised by the LRC writers, are best addressed in the abstract, and I do think fiction is a key concept in politics – so here goes.

    I love that word, “bijvoobeeld,” I’m totally adopting it. How expressive! And particularly attractive to me as a fan of Nietzsche. If you’ll allow me to make the Nietzschean argument, it would be that the process you describe – that the example displaces what it represents, or that the fictional world replaces the “real” world – is the way the world of ideas (if not Plato’s immutable Ideas) does work, both for the individual and for society. I could not agree more that an awareness of this process is vital if we wish to understand it and predict its course, or (ah, hubris!) to control it, but I do not think we can stop it. My own criterion of approval or disapproval of any particular development of that dreamlike is thus not whether it reflects “reality” per se but whether it takes in the right direction or not; though in the absence of truth as an absolute criterion it’s not possible to apply an ideology in order to determine which direction is right and which is wrong. Perhaps if I were a little more conscientious.

    In other words, politicians give us fiction and in the process of doing so try to turn it into non-fiction. That is why I turn to aesthetics so often in assessing their performances. Of course, I hope it goes without saying that ordinary fact and honesty is a vital ingredient in a political act, as in any other artistic endeavour.

    I guess that’s why I’m so charmed by Obama’s candidacy. His policies are sensible and moderate, but he’s able to elevate them to the level of heroism through his virtuosity. He’s helped by the mood in the States in that regard, I think, as well as by his barrier-busting personal profile. Put those same ideas in the mouth of a grumpy old white guy running against a fellow centrist in prosperous times and they would hardly dazzle. But to me the dazzle itself is at least as important as the need to beat Bush.

    In the end, I’d like to see a compromise between “bijvoorbeeld” and “reality,” which is what Nietzsche himself advocated. I’d like there to be moments we’re aware of our power to change ourselves and our world, when we feel elevated above ourselves, when we feel reality yielding to the spirit, when fiction triumphs; but I wouldn’t want them to last forever. For one thing, that spells disaster in non-fictional “reality”; for another, it cheapens the fiction, which, taken in doses, preferably after reading the prescription label, gains all the more from its contrast with pragmatic reality.

  12. Sorry. First of all, thinking “outside the box” seems to require that we take the product of that thought, put it in a new box, and put a label on it. Neo-Progressivism indeed.
    The first case they put forward I find hard to distinguish from simple extortion.
    The second case is nothing new from what has been happening in hospitals for years. And has made them terrible places to work and offensive to patients. Except patients are called clients.

    So I stopped reading.

  13. “That is why I turn to aesthetics so often in assessing their performances”


    “I guess that’s why I’m so charmed by Obama’s candidacy.”

    Yes, all of that plays a role within both national elections ongoing. Interesting that you bring it up in that sense. You see, I don’t fully understand the Obama positive phenomenon in contrast to the Harper negative phenomenon. Because when it comes to aesthetics I find within Harper the most basics of aesthetics, namely the pleasant picture of unhyped, yet, solid performance. The man does not need to entertain me. I listen to politicians for political insight. And I will listen to Michel Rivard for good music (or Charles Aznavour depending on the mood, you’ll understand).

    Perhaps my Dutch background betrays me in that respect. The Dutch are much more aesthetically ‘sober'(for lack of better word or for simple accuracy). That is probably the reason why I cannot so readily understand the Obama phenomenon. He is a good orator, no doubt. But when I try and decyfer what it is he wants to change, I get lost.

    The opposite is happening when I listen to Harper. I do understand his speak for it matches up with his aesthetics. Obama, to me, seems to be wrapping things up continuously, while Harper seems to be more unwrapped from the get-go. Only recently has he been asked to wrap himself up more!

    And again, too, there is a difference between two nations. Canadians, by nature, are not as flamboyant as the Americans seem to be in need of for being whipped into action. I’m not sure if the Canadian voters are sure of who they are: Some days they want nothing to do with the Americans, while on other days they seem to long for the American style such as being portrayed by leaders like Obama. So which is it?

    Could Canadians indeed lack a true identity? And if so, why would that be? Where do we as Canadians want to go?

    One note on the comparrison between Harper and Bush. Just because Bush is so negatively rated right now, and has been for some time (some of it unjustly I believe) does not mean that Harper needs to be rated accordingly. Besides, just because one has an economic understanding that does not mean the only Bush can have an understanding and patent it as such. Each leader can form and relate to an understanding of economic circumstances in and of itself – and for each particular nation.

    But the Harper/Bush comparrison (bijvoorbeeld) is exactly where the example has been able to take over for going into new directions. Completely. Harper is not Bush. We all know that. There are some examples in which Harper is in agreement with Bush. But so have other leaders of our nation been in agreement with American leaders of the past and present.

    Or are you telling me that, at long last, comparing Dion to Obama might carry him over the top? How shal-low are we prepared to go?

    Under most circumstances I’d love to go into Nietzsche a bit more, but being that this blog is about election talk (mostly) I will try and stay on track. Thx.

  14. This essay reminds me of Tom Peters’s 1982 book “In Search of Excellence”. Described in wiki as: “one of the biggest selling and most widely read business books ever, selling 3 million copies in its first four years, and being the most widely held library book in the United States from 1989 to 2006 (WorldCat data). The book explores the art and science of management used by leading 1980s companies with records of long-term profitability and continuing innovation…”

    “[T]wo of the best young thinkers in Canada right now” start out by looking around their respective ivory towers (Queen’s and Oxford) and note that “[c]onfronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many of our friends and colleagues have opted out. Few even vote.”

    OK, then along comes Barack Obama, who, rather than having simply outmanoeuvred Hillary Clinton in the primaries to win the nomination, represents a whole new shift in political philosophy. Let’s put a label to it and call it something “new”.

    And then, like Peters did in “In Search of Excellence” they provide short profiles of a few people that fit their model in various industries to convince the reader of their theory.

    Well, they didn’t convince me. Looks more like Obamamania has infected their respective Centres of Excellence.

  15. If I can indulge in a bit of Canadian navel-gazing, to which you have unfortunately given the green light, I’d say that Canadians are somewhere between the Americans and the Dutch in terms of what they want from their leaders.

    Above all, the Americans want to Believe in their leaders. The President is sort of like the Tsar: the incarnation of the nation. So he has to be basically faultless, in voters’ eyes, and he has to constantly express the American Dream. This holds true for both left and right down there; I never met an American liberal who didn’t, in his heart of hearts, believe in American exceptionalism. Simply put, for Americans politics is moral.

    I’ve never been in Holland, but the Dutch people I’ve known have all struck me as almost eerily down-to-earth. A Dutch friend living in Canada remarked to me how strange it was to see all the Canadian flags around, since she associated such flags with romantic nationalism (and thus with the States).

    I think there’s a strong Obama-longing in Canadians too, which is why to this day a complete airhead like Stockwell Day has a lot of cachet with his grassroots. Many people, especially those who have forgotten his policies, look back nostalgically to Trudeau for that reason: he had the same in-yo’-face belief that Canada should be a great nation. At the same time, perhaps because our Head of Government is not also the Head of State, we want our leaders to be flawed mortals, not man-gods. I think the Harper-Bush comparison resonates not because Canadians see Harper as a messianic figure like Bush (W. was practically being worshipped in 2002-2003) but because, like Bush, or for that matter like any American leader, he doesn’t admit to having faults. So the very quality that makes an Obama or a Bush able to seduce huge swathes of the American electorate is actually a big disadvantage in Canada, and the Harper-Bush bijvoorbeeld is expressing that point of contact.

    All successful Canadian prime ministers have been mightily flawed. Trudeau used the F-word, Chretien couldn’t speak properly in either language, Diefenbaker was liable to bark like a dog, Mackenzie King consulted his dead mother on foreign policy (though I think that wasn’t known at the time). People today like Sir John A. as much for his drinking problem as for his political achievements. Being a regular mortal is key to success. So Sophie is dead right when she says the next Liberal should ideally be a working Canadian (or former working Canadian); and Harper, if he wants a majority, needs to seem less phlegmatic.

    I don’t know if this is of much interest or use, but here endeth my 2 cents.

  16. thanks, Jack,

    I guess I see all humans as beings with flaws, so that would be a given. Perhaps I pre-suppose too much.

  17. I wish Calvin Helin well. It’s not a coincidence that the only ethnic group with its own dedicated government ministry is, by far, the worst off. It’s a shame the first nations are afraid to publicly talk about how to solve their problems because they fear the right wing when it’s Liberals/liberals who have created the circumstances for their wretched existence.

    How many idealists are going to have their hearts broken when Obama wins the presidency and proves incapable of changing everyone’s life for the better. Obama is just one person but he sure does have a lot expectations and hopes to live up to. Obama is doing/saying nothing new, he’s just changed the wrapping paper on the presentation.

  18. My wife and I were just talking yesterday about the usefulness of the word progressive.
    ‘Left’ has become a tainted word that is more likely to bring up the vision of someone who thinks a puppet show or fish costume is a good way to engage the public in a political debate. In the same way that ‘feminism’ went through a period when people who agreed with the majority of the program couldn’t bring themselves to call themselves feminist. Progressive (not the authors needlesly annoying ‘neo-progressive’) means little and so allows a new coalition to coalesce around those left views that deserve to be carried forward.

  19. Very interesting article. I think it would have benefitted from a consideration of federal-provincial dynamics in this country. Education and health care are fundamental to Obama’s “progressive” vision, for example, and that’s something that just wouldn’t work here. Add to that the disproportionate effect upon Quebec nationalism and entrenched power, and it’s difficult to envision a truly “progressive” shift that wouldn’t ultimately contribute to our nation devolving into a dozen or so states.

  20. Kenneth

    The only reason ‘progressive’ has little meaning is because the left doesn’t know the history of their movement. Many on the left considered themselves progressive in the early part of 20th century. It was the progressives who brought fascism-lite to America. Woodrow Wilson, and maybe FDR, were progressives and I’m not sure why Liberals are eager to grasp their legacy. Their policies don’t impress me at all but the most shocking one is their love of eugenics.

    J Goldberg explains:

    “The main split among progressives on the issue of eugenics was between advocates of positive and negative eugenics. One side wanted to improve the environment so as to improve the genetic stock of the society. The other side wanted to weed out the defective whites and inferior races from the garden of humanity.”

  21. Goldberg never ‘explains’. he obfuscates.

  22. jwl wrote:

    “How many idealists are going to have their hearts broken when Obama wins the presidency and proves incapable of changing everyone’s life for the better?”

    I’ve often thought the same thing.  Love him or hate him, he’s being seen as “magic” by too many of his supporters, and there’s no way he’s going to be able to deliver on all his promises.  I’m in continuous conversation with a friend in California who believes that, because of this, O’s presidency (should it come to pass, and she believes it will) will be limited to a single term.  Democrats will then be able to say to themselves “Phew!  We finally had a ‘black’ man as President.  Now that we’ve got that box checked off…” and go back to whatever narrative they followed previously, or perhaps try to make up for their “bros before hos” attitudes of four years previously and fully support a female candidate for President.

    There will be a honeymoon, but the “afters” are likely going to be unpleasant.

  23. JWL, you’re kidding right?

    Since FDR supported eugenics (a highly debatable proposition to say the least, but we’ll accept it as a debating point), as a “progressive leftist” I support eugenics?

    Using that conclusion, Conservatives supported slavery, therefore all conservatives are for slavery.

    Western civilization has its black marks (in Canada we had interment camps, residential schools, suppression of women’s rights, etc. etc.), which were amply supported by both the “left” and the “right”.

    To ascribe those black marks to one political ideology or another and to also conclude that current proponents of those ideologies support those policies is a ridiculous proposition.

  24. Catelli

    I don’t make the claim that you are accusing me of but abortion does seem to be more supported by those on the left than right.

    My point was many on the left don’t know the history of their political thought/movement. They seem to think ‘progressive’ is a new term that has no baggage but they are wrong.

  25. But why does that history matter? I don’t actively involve myself as part of the “progressive movement”. I just support those that have an open mind that are willing to constantly re-evaluate their conceptions and ideals. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that most progressives probably feel the same way about themselves.

    The progressive label is an external label being applied. (Which is why I was disagreeing with the conclusion that Obama is a neo-progressive. He’s just a man with an open mind). As such it has no power over me with its “baggage”. I use it as a self-reference label when convenient because many people seem only to relate to each other if they can apply labels such as “progressive”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “libertarian”, etc. etc. etc.

    If you want to use “baggage” to criticize a movement, well all the labels have “baggage” and we can waste (and it would be a waste) years on debating the weight of that baggage.

    There’s a difference between learning from history and carrying it on ones back.

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