Monday, August 17, 2009

The problem with professors becoming presidents

A lot of what our job is about is understanding the point of view of others, even when we disagree with them. A lot of our job is explaining to students a wide variety of viewpoints, and allowing them to choose from among them.

I don't think FDR worried so much about the point of view of others--Doris Kearns Goodwin said he "gloried in his enemies."

FDR also largely got what he wanted.


Bruce Wilder said...

I think that's a terrible misunderstanding.

FDR mastered others, precisely because he studied the viewpoints of others, while keeping his own, private and even secret. He recognized how point-of-view arose from role and responsibility, and he would use his power as President to "assign" points of view, without necessarily committing himself.

His insistence that his New Deal policy was one of relentless and ruthless experimentation left him this freedom, to tap passionate advocates and support their disparate independent action.

He rather famously managed his agency and department heads, by making parallel assignments sure to create conflict, which he would resolve. So, he had Ickes at PWA and Hopkins at WPA, for example.

He used much the same strategy in dealing with Congress, letting powerful barons in the Senate and House develop disputes that he could arbitrate. So, he could set Carter Glass against Wright Patman.

Presidents "preside" and in doing so, would do well to hide their personal points of view, while creating opportunities to associate strategically with many conflicting points of view.

Lincoln, presiding over the greatest tumult in American history, hid his point of view on almost every controversy of the day, committing to only a very, very few principles so basic as to command near universal assent. And, he was able to accommodate his famous cabinet of rivals and the passionate support of a great variety of friends, without any of them being quite sure where he stood on temperance or nativism or negro equality of capacity, or any number of other issues.

Richard K. Green said...

Bruce, this is well said, but I am still not sure that FDR saw the point of view of the GOP. Lincoln certainly did not see the point of view of the Confederacy.

Bruce Wilder said...

What I hear you saying is that FDR did not legitimate the viewpoints of his opponents, in the way that a college professor might try to legitimate various viewpoints, as a means to teach the full analysis of a problem or conflict.

I'm not sure that's entirely true, either, but, as a thesis, it makes sense to me.

I think FDR was strategic, in picking and choosing which opposing points of view to legitimate, which to characterize in the most pejorative terms imaginable.

As the head of a remarkably conflicted Party and political coalition, he had to be particularly adept and tactful, so as not to split his own coalition along any of its numerous faultlines.

We don't even know his views on many issues of the day -- like many politicians he may not have felt he could afford opinions on every issue. We do know, now, what he thought about the approaching conflicts in Europe and Asia, yet he was, very ably, to adapt many elements of the isolationist sentiment that predominated, and to use his enactment of that point of view to lead and prepare.

When he went after, say, "economic royalism", he did so, with great attention to detail, accuracy in his appreciation of another's point of view only adding to the sting of his rhetorical arrows. But, in, say, shaping Social Security, he understood very well, the ambivalence many people might feel, as well as what would make the hostility of the rich most acute. He employed the Progressive rhetoric and ideology of mutual self-help, created "accounts" with "Social Security numbers" and deliberately avoided any tax on capital or high incomes, that might highlight redistribution.

Lincoln, as you noted, was always extremely careful not to legitimate the Confederate point of view. But, I would say he understood that point of view in great detail, as he demonstrated, at length in his 1st inaugural, where he acknowledged each point of disagreement.

Bruce Wilder said...

Obama's problem, imho, is, in fact, that, despite his gracious and unflappable manner, he does not sufficiently understand and acknowledge the viewpoints of his allies and supporters, let alone pejoratively label his opponents.

The Democratic Party is a two-mode coalition, with one collection of various moderate-conservative elements, and a second collection of various liberal and progressive elements. The Administration only acknowledges the viewpoints of the moderate-conservative elements, and not even all of those.

I am most familiar with his economic advisers, as independent personalities and intellects. It is a stellar cast, but pretty much all in a single constellation. There's plenty of conflict, but it's only a conflict of egos. Christine Romer, the Last Monetarist, isn't going to be able to explain how and why and when Ben Bernanke is being a right-wing tool; Larry Summers isn't going to be willing to; Austan Goolsbee, please! Cass Sunstein . . . I don't think so. Rahm Emmanuel, millionaire former investment banker, and Tim Geithner, former NY Fed President, are the outsider populists in this crew.

Where FDR could drive a team that included remnants of Wilsonian and Bull Moose Progressivism, Bryant populism, ardent segregationists, southern Baptists, Jews, Catholics, trade unionists, Henry Wallace and Theodore Bilbo, Obama seems to be unable to read Daily Kos.

Nor, apparently, can he quite bring himself to acknowledge the adamant opposition of the Republicans, and their determination to wreck what they cannot stop. He is hardly the only Democrat unable to characterize the Republican Party accurately, succinctly and pejoratively. One of the great weaknesses of the Democrats for 40 years running, has been an inability to label their opponents persuasively -- while the Republicans have been able to label their tax-and-spend, big-government, pro-terrorist, bleeding-heart opponents with great success, over and over again.

Now, it may be that all of this is a function of the existing political balance of power, combined with Obama's personal political strategy -- a calculation about the power of the plutocracy and the plutocracy's Media propaganda machine and the plutocracy's employees in Congress, as well as the disorganization and demoralization the boomers.

The populist outrage seems pretty unfocused, despite ample cause. I suppose you can blame Obama for not offering to lead it and shape it, but he's a pretty smart politician, and may not believe it substantial and reliable -- and he may be right.

Obama, apparently, chosen to offer his services and particular gifts to the Plutocracy, in selling as progressive "change" the policy combination of confirming the plutocracy in its control and exploitation of the American economy, while substituting neo-liberal technocracy for the mad and inept incompetence of the Bush Administration.

If so, we elected the Black Herbert Hoover. Oops.

Richard K. Green said...

The funny thing is I always considered myself part of the moderate-conservative wing of the Democratic Party (I thought Bill Clinton was overall a wonderful president). But perhaps I am not...

Richard H. Serlin said...

I think the jury is still out on how hard Obama will fight (although I'm worried). This may be part of his strategy to look new-age, fairy land post partisan, and then when the Republicans respond by kicking him in the nuts, and kneeing him in the head, he can say, "See, I was reasonable; I tried, and you saw I had no choice but to fight hard for the good of America".

I can say that although we will have to wait and see with Obama, Hillary was a much safer bet for a fierce fighter for the greater good like FDR was.