What is a “visionary minimalist”?

by on December 4, 2008  •  In Uncategorized

There are so many projections, attacks and defenses of Obama's appointments that it's hard even to keep up with them. I fear that there is more noise than strategy happening among progressives.  I don't agree with arguments that Obama's actions show surprising conservatism; I think they are exactly the centrism that we voted for, even if we would like to think that we were voting for more significant change.

That is not to say that a smart centrist is all we need. A smart centrist, with progressive inclinations, is simply the new starting point.  And that's not nothing. How far his policies will ultimately move the nation in a progressive direction is, I think, still an enormous question mark.

The most successful political leaders – Lincoln and FDR, for example – were deeply pragmatic. They had a gift for never getting too far in front of popular opinion, but there was never any question that they stood out, in front, pushing in a specific direction and bringing people with them. This is the role that I hope Obama will come to play. I'm just willing to give him a little time to consolidate his power and move into that groove. The most important goal in the near term is to build on the success of the election by more success: moving progressive legislation through Congress and into law in 2009.

The excerpt below comes from Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, a likely nominee for high office and/or a seat on the Supreme Court during the Obama administration, writing in the Washington Independent. I'm blogging it because of how Sunstein's argument that Obama (rather magically) combines conservatism and change sounds very much like Sunstein's well-known endorsement of judicial minimalism, the concept that in deciding cases, especially on socially volatile issues, courts should aspire to produce the narrowest possible basis for ruling, in order to maximize the dimensions of a given issue that are left for majoritarian, democratic institutions and processes to determine.

And it strikes me as odd, to say the least, (although quintessentially Sunstenian) to valorize minimalism when the context is precisely the kind of democratic determination – a nation-wide election – that stands in contrast to the courts. Elections are indisputably an appropriate mechanism for affirming a need for major reform. I do want a pragmatic progressive (the left wing of the possible), but spare me a minimalist. There's a big difference, in my mind at least, between the two.

Some public officials are minimalists. They do not like to reject the fundamental commitments of their fellow citizens. On environmental questions, sex equality, national security and economic policy, they try to bracket our deepest disagreements. They seek to obtain a consensus on what to do — not on why to do it….

Other public officials are visionaries. They have a large-scale vision about the direction in which the nation should go. They believe in big steps, not small ones….

Obama is something new in American politics — and not just for the obvious reasons. He is a visionary minimalist. This is a key both to his extraordinary campaign and to his unique promise… Obama’s minimalism lies in his consistent rejection of the standard social divisions — between red states and blue states, liberal and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. …

Obama shows unfailing respect for those with competing views. In designing policies — on climate change, tax reform, energy conservation, foreign policy — he attempts to produce solutions that will accommodate, rather than repudiate, the defining commitments of his fellow citizens. Even on the most divisive issues of separation of church and state, Obama favors approaches that will attract support from all sides.

But Obama is a visionary too. Unlike most minimalists, he is willing to think big.

When he speaks of change, he means to include ambitious plans for energy independence, universal health care and educational reform. No less than Reagan, he wants to transform the nation’s self-understanding. He seeks not only to go beyond the divisions of the 1960s, but also to synthesize deeper strands in our history.

Thus Obama recognizes and celebrates the individualist strain in American culture. But he draws attention to a counterpoint — one that emphasizes mutual obligations….


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