Barack Obama: paradigm shifter

Cross-posted in Orange.

A few accurate and a great many inaccurate things have been said about Barack Obama's advovacy of a "new kind of politics."  Especially amongst the media, this has been treated as "why can't we all get along" vapidity, a bland notion that people shouldn't be mean to each other.

The truth is that what he is advocating is far more subversive and dangerous to the status quo.  

Insight into just how Obama intends to transform our politics and policy comes from Thomas S. (T.S.) Kuhn's seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

First, however, I must again hammer home a point crucial to understanding Obama's approach:  you cannot separate process from policy. It is error to treat process and policy as unrelated concerns.  In fact, it is very, very often the case that process drives policy outcomes  Power determines policy, and process is power.

Now, to T.S. Kuhn. Kuhn was not a politician nor even a political scientist nor was he a sociologist.  Kuhn was a physicist.  And Kuhn's important writings were on the history and philosophy of science.  In other words, not someone prone to substituting platitudes for logic and evidence.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Al Gore's favorite book, btw), thus gives us an unusually valuable insight into the scientific process.

Kuhn's central thesis and greatest contribution to the field of science was the notion that the great scientific advances do not occur through a gradual accumulation of knowledge and disciplined approach to empiricism.  Instead, the great advances are episodic, not linear.  And, crucially, they are the result of radical changes in conceptual framework, or paradigms.  These scientific revolutions occur from paradigm shifts--a move from one paradigm to another.  Fundamental change occurs when scientists change the way they view the universe instead of when they get new data about the universe.

When do paradigm shifts occur?  They occur when old paradigms break.  When do old paradigms break?  When they prove inadequate to explain the facts and data as known.  

The classic example is The Copernican Revolution.  For centuries before Copernicus, the prevailing paradigm was the Ptolemaic geocentric universe, i.e. that the Earth was the center of the universe.  While initial astronomical observations were perfectly consistent with this model, as these observations became more and more accurate the model had to adapt.   Over time, these adjustments turned the Ptolemaic model into a clumsy, convoluted mess.  Astronomers posited new and more complex mechanisms such as deferents and epicycles. in the observed movement of stars and planets.  

Eventually, it became clear the the Ptolemaic model and its assumptions just did not work.  Scientists had to change the way they thought of the universe. Copernicus introduced the (radical!) theory that the Earth rotated around the sun.   Kepler, Galileo and finally Newton built upon this new paradigm to create a more coherent alternative to the Ptolemaic model that opened up tremendous insights not only into astronomy, but also led to the greatest advance in the history of physics, Newton's three laws of motion.

Like the Ptolemaic model, our political system is broken.  Right now in our primary the debate is between the Clintons, who are experts at working the system as it is--adding cycles and epicycles-- to tweak it towards marginally improving our society. Obama wants to transform the system.  Just like Copernicus et al changed the way we look at the universe, Obama seeks to change the way we look at our politics and each other as participants in that political system.

This theme has emerged most strongly in Obama's foreign policy statements.  The Washington Establishment, the bipartisan party of the Very Serious People, scolded Obama as being naive and irresponsible for challenging their groupthink.  Obama's foreign policy advisor, Samantha Power, issued this memo which articulated Obama's challenge to the foreign policy paradigm:

It was Washington's conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve.

Vision: American foreign policy is broken. It has been broken by people who supported the Iraq War, opposed talking to our adversaries, failed to finish the job with al Qaeda, and alienated the world with our belligerence. Yet conventional wisdom holds that people whose experience includes taking these positions are held up as examples of what America needs in times of trouble

Glenn Greenwald had this reaction:

America is plagued by a self-anointed, highly influential, and insular so-called Foreign Policy Community which spans both political parties. They consider themselves Extremely Serious and have a whole litany of decades-old orthodoxies which one must embrace lest one be declared irresponsible, naive and unserious. Most of these orthodoxies are ossified 50-year-old relics from the Cold War, and the rest are designed to place off limits from debate the question of whether the U.S. should continue to act as an imperial force, ruling the world with its superior military power.

Most of the recent "controversies" involving Barack Obama's foreign policy statements -- including his oh-so-shocking statement that it would not make moral or political sense to use tactical nuclear weapons to bomb isolated terrorist camps as well as his willingness to attack Al Qaeda elements inside Pakistan if the Musharraf government refuses (as they did for some time) -- were not "controversial" among the Establishment on the merits. They were "controversial" (and "naive" and "irresponsible") because they breached the protocols and orthodoxies imposed by the Foreign Policy Community governing how we are allowed to talk about these issues.

Instead of backing down, Obama continued to push the envelope in his speech of October 2, 2007:

But the conventional thinking in Washington has a way of buying into stories that make political sense even if they don't make practical sense. We were told that the only way to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons was with military force. Some leading Democrats echoed the Administration's erroneous line that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We were counseled by some of the most experienced voices in Washington that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act and vote like a Republican.

And the conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002. This is the conventional thinking that measures experience only by the years you've been in Washington, not by your time spent serving in the wider world. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place - the outdated assumptions and the refusal to talk openly to the American people.

Well I'm not running for President to conform to Washington's conventional thinking - I'm running to challenge it. I'm not running to join the kind of Washington groupthink that led us to war in Iraq - I'm running to change our politics and our policy so we can leave the world a better place than our generation has found it.

On the issue of torture, Obama has challenged the loathsome Jack Bauer paradigm, that plays nudge nudge wink wink with the issue of torture.  Even Bill Clinton has cited this fictional television character as a valid paradigm for interpreting the nexus between human rights and national security.  According to this paradigm, we have to be officially against torture, but if a Jack Bauer situation arises, well, rip their fingernails off!  Obama calls Jack Bauer interrogation what it really is, a betrayal of American values.:

Torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them. Torture is how you get bad information, not good intelligence. Torture is how you set back America's standing in the world, not how you strengthen it. It's time to tell the world that America rejects torture without exception or equivocation. It's time to stop telling the American people one thing in public while doing something else in the shadows.

Though foreign policy is where this challenge to the outdated paradigms is most evident, Obama has also indicated that domestic debates and our broader political culture similarly need drastic reform.  In The Audacity of Hope, he discusses the us vs. themism that poisons our politics as the toxic residue from the 1960's culture wars.  

Despite a forty-year remove, the tumult from the sixties and the subsequent backlash contines to drive our political discourse.  Partly it underscores . . . the degree to which the arguments of the era were understood not simply as political disputes but as individual choices that defined personal identity and moral standing.

Audacity of Hope, p.32

But it was now true for every other issue, larege or small, domestic or foreign, all of which were reduced to a menu of either-or, for-or-against, sound-bite-ready choices.  No longer was economic policy a matter of weighing trade-offs between competing goals of productivity and distributional justice, of growing the pie and slicing the pie.  You were for either tax cuts or tax hikes, small government or big government. No longer was environmental policy a matter of balancing sound stewardship of our natural resources with the demands of a modern economy; you either supported unchecked development drilling, strip-mining, and the like, or you supported stifling bureaucracy and red tape that choked off growth.  In politics, if not in policy, simplicity was a virtue.

Audacity of Hope, p. 33

Activists in both parties began developing litmus tests, checklists of orthodoxy . . . [i]n this Manichean struggle, compromise came to look like weakness, to be punished or purged.  You were with us or against us.  You had to choose sides.

It was Bill Clinton's singular contribution that he tried to transcend this ideological gridlock . . . he instinctively understood the falseness of the choices being presented to the American people.

Audacity of Hope, p.34

Not only are our politics at large diminished by this outdated mentality, but also the Democratic party, which until recently was stuck in a defensive posture.

Instead, we Democrats are just, well, confused.  There are those who still champion the old-time religion, defending every New Deal and Great Society program from Republican encroachment . . . But these efforts seem exhausted, a constant game of defense, bereft of the energy and new ideas needed to address the changing circumstances of globalization or a stubbornly isolated inner city.  Others pursue a more "centrist" approach , figuring as long as they split the difference with the conservative leadership, they must be acting reasonably--and failing to notice that with each passing year they are giving up more and more ground.

Audacity of Hope, pp.38-39.

Indeed.  Much of the time it seems the debate is between purists and DLC-types.  Neither purists nor the DLC have a vision for effective governance.  And, if we play the divide-and-conquer game established by the Rovians, we get gridlock.  

Think about the absurdity of our Congress spending more time debating a newspaper ad and Rush Limbaugh than in dealing with global warming.  Does this passage from Obama not ring true?

[M]aybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines.

Audacity of Hope, p.41

[W]hat's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics--the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.

Audacity of Hope, p.22

If that is the broken paradigm, what is the new paradigm that should replace it?  Obama sets it forth thusly:

In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudgeds and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago--played out on the national stage. . .  what has been lost in the process, and yet has to be replaced, are those shared assumptions--that quality of trust and fellow feeling--that bring us together as Americans.

In other words, Americans must once again see something of themselves in each other, even when the person is of another party or ideology.  Global warming will devastate the planet beneath the feet of progressives and conservatives.  The 9/11 hijackers didn't bother to check to see whether the people they slaughtered were members of the ACLU or the NRA.  The sense of empathy present in our families, our neighborhoods, and our places of worship should also find its way into our politics and our government.  We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

And, make no mistake about it, this is a progressive and populist vision.  Obama wishes to restore government's accountability to ordinary citizens.  And, the ethic that we have obligations to one another is the central cornerstone of progressivism itself.  Indeed, indifference towards other human beings is the trait progressives decry in our culture and in our government.  That ethic of empathy and compassion is the new progressive paradigm for our nation.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, Obama's change in process is all about bringing out changes in policy.  Whereas other 'change' candidates like Bradley and Hart have been about lofty ideals, Obama is concerned not with ideology and theory, but results.

Barack Obama has this vision for the United States.  This Son of Kansas and Son of Africa can help the Americans see something of themselves in each other, and help the United States and the rest of the world see something of themselves in each other.  

I say we give him a chance.

Permission to copy, post, and redistribute this diary is freely given provided that proper credit is attributed.

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