Out of Many, One: Obama and the Third American Political Tradition

Out of Many, One: Obama and the Third American Political Tradition

by Ruth O'Brien, Thomas Byrne Edsall

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Feared by conservatives and embraced by liberals when he entered the White House, Barack Obama has since been battered by criticism from both sides. In Out of Many, One, Ruth O’Brien explains why. We are accustomed to seeing politicians supporting either a minimalist state characterized by unfettered capitalism and individual rights or a


Feared by conservatives and embraced by liberals when he entered the White House, Barack Obama has since been battered by criticism from both sides. In Out of Many, One, Ruth O’Brien explains why. We are accustomed to seeing politicians supporting either a minimalist state characterized by unfettered capitalism and individual rights or a relatively strong welfare state and regulatory capitalism. Obama, O’Brien argues, represents the values of a lesser-known third tradition in American political thought that defies the usual left-right categorization.

Bearing traces of Baruch Spinoza, John Dewey, and Saul Alinsky, Obama’s progressivism embraces the ideas of mutual reliance and collective responsibility, and adopts an interconnected view of the individual and the state. So, while Obama might emphasize difference, he rejects identity politics, which can create permanent minorities and diminish individual agency. Analyzing Obama’s major legislative victories—financial regulation, health care, and the stimulus package—O’Brien shows how they reflect a stakeholder society that neither regulates in the manner of the New Deal nor deregulates. Instead, Obama focuses on negotiated rule making and allows executive branch agencies to fill in the details when dealing with a deadlocked Congress. Similarly, his commitment to difference and his resistance to universal mandates underlies his reluctance to advocate for human rights as much as many on the Democratic left had hoped.

By establishing Obama within the context of a much longer and broader political tradition, this book sheds critical light on both the political and philosophical underpinnings of his presidency and a fundamental shift in American political thought.

Editorial Reviews

Rogers Smith

“Obama’s vision of E Pluribus Unum—a democratic progressive vision—is central both to his own sense of purpose and to his appeal. Ruth O’Brien lays out very concretely how this vision is expressed in Obama’s policy positions and modes of governing. Out of Many, One is a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution to understanding Obama and contemporary American political thought.”

Rogers M. Smith
“Obama’s vision of E Pluribus Unum—a democratic progressive vision—is central both to his own sense of purpose and to his appeal. Ruth O’Brien lays out very concretely how this vision is expressed in Obama’s policy positions and modes of governing. Out of Many, One is a distinctive and thought-provoking contribution to understanding Obama and contemporary American political thought.”
Eric Alterman
“Ruth O’Brien's Out of Many, One is a model of thoughtful, careful scholarship in the service of compelling argument. It’s not been easy to make sense of many of Barack Obama’s decisions since his historic election. O’Brien provides a useful starting point and an important contribution to our understanding.”

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Out of Many, One

Obama and the Third American Political Tradition



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04159-9



In the Beginning: Locke, Rousseau, and Two Political Traditions

American political thought has been dominated by two contrasting traditions. The first is that of a minimal, weak state supporting neoclassical capitalism and imbued with strong individual rights, as seen, for example, in George W. Bush's "ownership society." The second is that of a relatively strong welfare state with regulatory capitalism, as starkly exemplified by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. In this book I will argue that Barack Obama, as candidate and then as president, represents a radical departure from both these traditions—that, in fact, his rhetoric and his actions have revitalized a third, latent but nonetheless potent, tradition in American politics. This third tradition privileges neither the individual nor the state. Instead, it promotes interaction, interconnectedness, and interdependency between the two.

To young people in the United States, the twenty-first-century American nation-state reflects no single political tradition. The relatively strong welfare state, which the Republicans have long condemned, is particularly hard to comprehend. It is manifested as a myriad of overlapping states that scholars have best described as a hybrid, hidden, or submerged. Yet even these adjectives capture at best a snapshot, a specific law or public policy, but not the whole nature of the relatively strong welfare state.

The welfare state that stems from the second political tradition can vary greatly, depending upon what service is being delivered: the mail, a driver's license, a loan. American youth go to the privatized post office; the locally run, state-administered Department of Motor Vehicles (the DMV); the privately or publicly run college or university's financial aid office, doling out federally guaranteed state and federal student loans; or the state-run Department of Homeland Security office, issuing passports for travel abroad from a county seat, a municipality, or a privatized post office.

All of these overlapping government offices both embody and symbolize what the American nation-state is in juxtaposition to the strong welfare nation-state found in Europe. What kind of hybrid it is—and how a state, federal, or local office is hidden or submerged—keeps evolving along with the perpetually changing institutional configurations that shape and reshape public policies and political identities in a recurring loop. In short, it's complicated. The American welfare state is a behemoth, not a benevolent guardian, let alone a savior.

When the American nation-state stopped guaranteeing welfare rights, thus reversing a policy that leftist activists from the 1960s onward have advocated, it did not just "end welfare as we know it," as President Bill Clinton said at the signing ceremony. It also embroiled the American state and society in a different type of conflict about political identities as well as social and economic or redistributive domestic and foreign public policies. As political institutions and identities shifted, most notably with welfare reform in 1996, it became harder for the tail end of the baby boom and the echo boomers to regard the relatively strong welfare state in a positive way.

Combining the relatively strong welfare state with the ownership society, welfare rights morphed into the "marriage cure." Yet this cure was not instigated by one political party. Nor did it occur under one regime, in one political time, or across an era or epoch. It reflected a bipartisan consensus of Republicans and Democrats that imposed their upper-middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heterosexual morality about the nuclear family on "single" moms and "deadbeat" dads.

It is this behemoth that Barack Obama knew needed reforming. Obama referred to his campaign and election as "Organizing for America," but it would be more accurate to say that he reconceptualized and reframed fundamental beliefs and values in the United States that are making and shaping political institutions and political identities. Obama embodies a new political perspective, embracing what could be called a collaborative approach that recognizes the interdependence and interconnectedness of all Americans, for better or worse. In neither his 2008 campaign rhetoric nor his actions after taking office did Obama distinguish between the private, the public, and the social spheres. Rather than having the state regulate society, or having society freed from state regulation, Obama advances a collaborative state and market and promotes a fully encompassing social sphere, or a collectivity.

Unlike either the strong individual-rights (or civil liberties) state or the strong welfare state, this third tradition is premised on forging alliances and on collective goodwill. Rather than operating in an absence of good faith and trust, with individuals suing to enforce their civil rights, Obama emphasizes human dignity and potential, not material potential, in a cosmopolitan collectivity of shared, yet shifting, alliances. The third tradition is not a belief that you have the freedom to live your life unfettered by the state or any organization—it is not the cowboy image. Nor is it equality of opportunity maintained by the state through regulation—a nursemaid or nanny state that helps individuals. Instead, Obama seeks to build human potential by emphasizing freedom, equality of opportunity, and earned egalitarianism as we press on toward ever-new frontiers. The relevant image is pioneers depending on one another in a wagon train—in a collectivity.

Pioneers, No Cowboys or Nursemaids

Obama's frontier more closely resembles the French Enlightenment borderlands of the Pennsylvania Alleghenies, as described by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, than the western Rockies, as emblazoned in American memory and myth by Frederick Jackson Turner at the end of the nineteenth century. Writing in 1782, Crèvecoeur, a French immigrant farmer, described Americans as part of a "new race," built on the pioneer principle of creating one's own wealth by tilling the wilderness. These frontier farmers had escaped the "prejudices and manners" of the ancien régime. "They wanted America to be the exception—the exception to the corruption and licentiousness of Versailles' court life." Romanticized, they hoped for peace and prosperity and expected the state to facilitate "stability, tranquility and political liberty."

A state facilitating the freedom of hardworking frontier men, women, and children, behaving responsibly and without privilege or corruption, interprets and mediates that freedom, not of just one, but of the entire "asylum." It is not the myth of independence, but more the wagon train, more the village, and it is not the individual or the state, but the interaction between the two, that facilitates freedom, promotes equality of opportunity, and mediates earned egalitarianism. The state neither protects individuals nor shelters society as an organic whole. Instead, the state both mediates and facilitates growth—both the organic growth of the individual and that of the individual within her social context—and therefore the collective that populates the United States.

In addition to the founding French frontier tradition, Obama's political vision includes a third, lesser-known, and harder-to-fulfill reformist and radical tradition of small-d democratic progressivism. First, it is democratic progressivism because of the power instilled in the people—the demos—that Obama hopes can be made more deliberative. Second, it is middle class, because an overwhelming majority of Americans aspire to be part of this middle class. Like Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, and most Democratic presidents thereafter, Obama sees the middle class as more of an ideological construct than a demographic category. It embodies hope as an aspiration.

Obama's progressivism is not in direct support of poor and working-class people displaced by global corporatism. His economic reforms work within the confines of corporate capitalism, polishing and softening the edges of only some of the sharpest consumer practices of a proprietary global capitalist market that most Americans believe lacks legitimacy, and some consider corrupt. Obama supports consumer reform as an antidote to Wall Street excess. He advances a middle-class perspective of incremental change made by those who already participate. Obama is a middling, middle-class economic reformer at best, not a radical, whose policies only indirectly help the poor and the working class.

One aspect of Obama's moderate middle-class progressivism, however, is radical. He seeks to transform the face of the American middle class, stripping it of its white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, heterosexual, affluent suburban connotations. He downgrades the "city on a hill" language of John Winthrop, the idea that the United States is a "Christian nation," substituting the civic religion of Alexis de Tocqueville. As a nation of joiners, all Americans—single African American mothers, gay married fathers, white soccer moms residing with their children in rural, urban, and suburban areas—are part of Obama's expansive spatial, physical, and virtual visions of an aspiring middle class.

In Obama's view, neither these individuals nor their nuclear and extended families can survive alone in the twenty-first-century global economy. Obama made inclusivity and interconnectedness paramount during the 2008 election and vital to his administration and reelection efforts. The critical consideration is whether a family, any kind of American family, adopts the middle-class ideal as an aspiration. "Our country is some kind of mongrel that is spiritually a chameleon," poet and New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch writes, "but always remains a bastard."

Obama's political platform showed the voting public that equality and freedom could be relational and reciprocal in the United States. Freedom could not be found alone, nor could equality (or equality of opportunity) be secured singularly. Depending on and being accountable to one another, Obama proclaimed, is essential to the American individual, society, market, and state in the twenty-first century. It is part of their democratic existence. "I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time," Obama said, "unless we solve them together."

Obama's campaign for reform was fresh. He imagined a nation that embraced the interdependence, equality of opportunity, authenticity, and freedom of its people. Obama envisioned how the United States could profit from what this book calls a democratic pragmatist notion of mutual inclusivity and survivability or what Spinoza calls self-obligation. All American citizens should have both the autonomy to determine their own needs and the right to self-preservation. So do citizens in other sovereign nations. Building on the basis of "shared reliance," Obama cast equality of opportunity, earned egalitarianism, and freedom as mutually inclusive constructs that foster a give-and-take among all parties. The state wields its power not to dictate, but to mediate and facilitate; it helps its citizens forge voluntary, shifting alliances.

The Collaborative State

What makes Obama's platform part of a third tradition is that his notion of "change" creates a new vision of American politics. His is not the public-interest progressive reform perspective practiced by Teddy Roosevelt a century ago. Nor does he advance a watered-down version of communitarian social contract theory that sees the state as "the solution," a central concept that other progressive eras have held in common.

To Obama, as to a significant part of the American youth, the state manifests itself as a bureaucracy, one in which a citizen stands in long lines and fears that the civil servant behind the counter could get one digit of her Social Security number wrong, plunging her into a mistaken-identity nightmare. Obama rejects the rigidity of the social welfare state. To be sure, he accepts regulation, but he does not believe that building governmental institutions constitutes liberal reform, as it did in the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society.

Put differently, Obama does not seek a European social welfare state "lite." The state is not the savior. No institution can come to the rescue, only people—people helping themselves as they help others. What is important is not that the state provide health care, nor that the state make health care private, but that the individual must buy into health care and that health insurance companies must reform their actuarial practices. The individual takes; the state mediates and facilitates, moderating proprietary capitalism through consumer reform. Obama governs the state, the market, and society with social technology. "In the bush or somewhere up in somebody's mountains, we assume—or hope," writes Crouch, "that there are people whose sense of life has not been totally encroached on by the boxed, electronic shadow world of television or the Internet universe in which cyberspace seems as real to many as God, angels and heaven are to an atheist."

Three Merged and Spinning Spheres, More Planet than Public Space

Obama relies on social technology to merge the public, the private, and the social spheres. Yet this should not be confused with the public space carved out by the second tradition of the relatively strong social welfare state. Obama does not collapse the public and the private spheres. Merging the three spheres is not similar to the social rights that we associate with the post–World War II democratization in Europe that underlies the EU. These spheres are better thought of as planets with intersecting orbits.

Explaining how the social welfare state expanded its conception of citizenship, the oft-quoted T. H. Marshall argued that strong welfare states in Europe gave, and should continuing giving, their citizens political, economic, and social rights after World War II. Some historians and sociologists studying American political development (APD) and political scientists informed by sociology initially incorporated Marshall's notion of universal social rights into their work on social welfare states, societies, and citizenries as a benchmark for the United States to aspire to, or conversely as a reform that represented a disappointing compromise. These descriptions of social welfare states, particularly those done from a comparative perspective, developed across political time or in distinct regimes or eras, cultivating a citizenry that got more and more "civilized" or reformed, becoming a mixed economy, and thereby stymieing real economic and political change. Marshall's strong social welfare state itself followed a teleological path or trajectory. The citizens composing societies in the EU battled and gained, first, human rights, which later included civil rights; second, political rights or suffrage; and finally, social rights.

This sociological view of APD cast doubt upon American exceptionalism by explaining how citizens in the United States participate, promoting (or not) their own self-interests. The most promising recent work in this vein incorporates sociology and social theory. It does not merely collapse the public and the private spheres, but recognizes how formal and informal units, like the family, are political institutions, and as such, foster differences between and among formal and informal groups, and particularly peoples with different, and often vulnerable, identities.

This book recognizes that Obama's merging of the private, the public, and the social spheres does not mean that he gives American citizens the traditional social rights and obligations that come with the European strong social welfare state, or the EU. It does not advance the idea that social rights are housed in a social sphere. It relies on social theory to make a nonlinear and nonteleological argument in APD that features social technology. It rests development on a perspective of history cast as time, agency, and contingency that is articulated best by blending Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard.

For the democratic progressivism of the third tradition to be effective, the state, the market, and society must be performative. The state and its active citizenry must foster and facilitate political participation that produces public policies that are progressive, not regressive. When Obama intersects and merges parts of the public, the private, and the social spheres, he focuses not on production but on consumption in the state, the market, and society. The president does not maintain that progress vanishes, as neocons claim. Globalization did not end history any more than Cold War liberalism ended ideology.

Obama recognizes the reach of an interconnected and interdependent market, state, and society in what political theorist Benjamin Barber called McWorld in the mid-1990s and what cultural studies professor Toby Miller called "creepy Christianity" after 9/11. Miller reminds us of Attorney General John Ashcroft pulling blue drapes over Lady Justice's breasts in an attempt to restore the "majesty of law" and Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz returning over half a million military berets made in China after 9/11. Obama realizes the "significance" of Cokes, curtains, berets, and burgers. He understands the dangers associated with turning french fries into "freedom fries." And Obama knows that hope cannot create change in the absence of authentic political participation.

This underscores how an all-encompassing and all-encroaching social sphere, as Arendt notes, has its perils. It outlines Obama's critique of American hegemony; and at the same time, it highlights hope for Americans and shows how Americans can become good global citizens. Obama's vision of globalism recognizes how all three spheres spinning simultaneously can collaborate and/or collide. A collaborative state, market, and society can be cooperative while having pockets of resistance that put political institutions and peoples of different identities in collision. Obama seeks an effective, enlarged social sphere free from resistance that incorporates the public and the private spheres. But this third political tradition can produce change for its demos, and hope for generations in the future, if and only if its citizens cooperate and actively participate in constructive civic action.

Excerpted from Out of Many, One by RUTH O'BRIEN. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ruth O’Brien is professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of several books, including Bodies in Revolt, and Crippled Justice.

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