Monday, August 13, 2007

The Appeal of Obama Across Ideological Lines

Over at Right Wing News, a conservative New Orleanian who regularly visits that site, and who goes by the internet name "RWNReader2," posed a question to John Hawkins, the owner of the blog, asking for data that would convince a conservative-leaning acquaintance of his not to consider voting for Barack Obama, as this acquaintance indicated she might do. Hawkins thought this question worthy of a response. Click on the link above that references RWNReader2's question in order to read RWNReader2's question as well as Hawkins' reply.

I think Hawkins completely missed the boat on this one. His answer was based on the premise that Obama is fashioning himself a moderate; and therefore all RWNReader2 had to do was to expose Obama's liberalism in order to sway his acquaintance to give up on Obama. The problem is that Obama has NEVER fashioned himself as anything but a liberal. So, trying to tag Obama with the "dirty" word of "liberal" just isn't going to cut it. I imagine that RWNReader2's acquiantance assumes that Obama, as a Democrat from Illinois, must be a "liberal." Because of this, I would argue that RWNReader2's acquaintance finds Obama appealing not IN SPITE OF his liberalism, but actually because of it. The thing is, Obama's liberalism is authentic, principled, and well-communicated. The problem for conservatives is not that Obama is hiding his liberalism, but that Obama knows how to convey the core principles of liberalism in a way that resonates with people's values. Hawkins, like many conservatives, simply cannot bring himself to recognize that there is value in liberal ideals which can resonate with all discerning human beings.

It is a mistake for conservatives to try to "reveal" the liberalism of Obama as a means of convincing people to vote against him, as if simply mentioning the "dirty" word "liberal" is enough to do the trick. Why is it a mistake? Because such conservatives would be revealing that which is already exposed. Furthermore, they would be conspicuously avoiding addressing what it is about the substance of Obama's unabashed liberalism that many find appealing.

Obama's strength is that he knows how to move away from liberal soundbites and can articulate a compelling vision and idea of liberalism that touches people's humanity and reaffirms their dignity as individuals who also share the dreams and struggles both in the world at large and within their local communities. He inspires people both to be the best individuals they can be as well as to be the best selfless, other-oriented citizens they can be.

Hawkins thinks Obama is fashioning himself as a moderate because Hawkins himself recognizes the appeal of Obama's liberalism, but he can't fathom accepting this appeal as a product of liberal ideology, so he has to call it something other than liberalism. He calls it "being moderate." Others call it "charisma." And still others call it "being smooth and slick," as if there has to be something sinister and deceptive behind the undeniable appeal of the man and what he has to say.

Proof of the emptiness of this line of thinking about Obama is that all the "evidence" Hawkins can give to RWNReader2 in answer to RWNReader2's question is a couple of links to some rankings by some organizations of how "liberal" Obama is on a liberal/conservative scale. As if that's going to be convincing to someone who says: "Yeah, and so? Tell me why that's so bad when I find myself hearing Obama articulate an ideology behind his rankings that I like and respect." Apparently, Hawkins has no answer to that.

It is not a fluke that when Obama speaks, time and again even conservatives find themselves often finding something admirable in what he has to say and how he says it. The little secret is not that they find themselves impressed with Obama because he resonates with their conservative values, or because he adopts "moderate" positions that they can find palatable, but rather because he can pierce through that reactionary conservative armor and show them in a convincing way that liberalism has value. He can say: "Here's the liberal way, and doesn't it make sense?" And some truly open-minded conservatives might find themselves, if not agreeing, perhaps at least blinking and wondering.

I think I have a fairly decent read on RWNReader2 from having engaged him numerous times in discussions at RWN. And I'm confident in saying that RWNReader2 is a smart person who knows how to fashion a convincing argument in defense of conservative principles. Because of this, I think the fact that he is asking Hawkins for some ammunition is indicative of the fact that he, himself, is somewhat at a loss as to how to respond honestly, and not in some conservative knee-jerk fashion, to the thinking of his acquaintaince and her tendency to find Obama an appealing candidate.

This is something that conservatives will have to deal with when it comes to Barack Obama. And right now, I find that they are struggling to deal with this. And they better find more substantive ways to tackle Obama than simply throwing out the dirty word "liberal" and hoping that this will be enough. People respond to what they see, hear, and understand. And Barack Obama, in his unabashed liberalism, is connecting to people in visceral ways that labels like "conservative," "moderate," or "liberal" just won't suffice as convincing arguments on their own either for or against him.


Schroeder said...

Ahhh ... you liberals are all the same ... thinkin' and stuff.

President Friedman said...

I think the "smooth and slick" label applies to any politician who won't come right out and say that their political agenda involves taking money away from some people and giving it to others. To the extent that conservatives are skeptical of Obama, it is because of this.

Politicians of any stripe generally don't just encourage Americans to be "selfless, other-oriented" citizens... they demand it, at the threat of force. Liberal politicians tend to support more of this type of behavior, which is why conservatives instictively distrust them.

The thing I respect about Hillary is that she is fairly up front with her attitude in this regard, making comments such as "We will have to take things away from you on behalf of the common good."

Obama is often mistaken for a moderate because his rhetoric is more muted when it comes to the means he would use to justify his political ends. In my opinion, it is ultimately duplicitous.

Obama would guarantee an insurance plan for every American. He would spend more money on the military. He would increase spending on welfare programs. His website lists more potential social programs than I care to count. He would raise the minimum wage even farther, and he would force employers to offer paid sick leave to all employees.
He doesn't mention any kind of reform to forestall our pending entitlement program crisis, but it is a safe bet that his answer will be to raise taxes in order to pay for them.

Obama wants to spend a lot of money at a time when we our government is already grossly underfunded... but he doesn't want to talk about how he's going to pay for it.

He does not make me feel like an individual. He makes me feel like a target, as does every Democratic candidate, and about half of the Republican ones.

Huck said...

President_Friedman - I think your claim to be a kind of target in the Obama-scope is a bit over-reactive. First off, Obama is a liberal, so an ideology of wealth and resource redistribution shouldn't come as a big surprise. I don't think Obama mutes this aspect of himself, I just think he presents a very well-conceived argument for the value and necessity of some measure of wealth and resource redistribution.

The fact is (and I'm pretty sure you'd agree) that almost all politicians, even the most conservative ones of them, simply by agreeing to head up a government, must exercise some kind of tax collection and resource allocation redistribution. Conservatives and liberals are not all that different in this regard: they all tax and spend lots and lots of money. The difference, perhaps, is how conservatives and liberals tax, and what they then spend this tax revenue on. So, if you do think that Obama sees you as a target, I think that fairness requires you to think that all of the candidates see you as a target. They're all going to tax you and then decide how to spend what they get from you. That is inevitable. Obama doesn't mute this aspect of how he would govern. He simply explains better than his opponents why his plan for taxing and spending, and at the levels he would propose, would be in the best interests of our country and our polity. Maybe, if I may suggest as much, you feel like a target with regard to Obama because you disagree with Obama's vision for government expenditures.

What you see as the muteness of Obama, I see as just the opposite: Obama's ability to mute his critics with the thoughtfulness and sincerity and clarity of his liberal positions.

President Friedman said...

"So, if you do think that Obama sees you as a target, I think that fairness requires you to think that all of the candidates see you as a target."

If you read my last sentence, I did effectively state as much. There are a few conservative candidates who share the goal of actually shrinking the federal government. They are the only ones who don't make me feel like a target.

I disagree with you regarding Obama's presentation. The typical liberal meme, when it comes to wealth redistribution, is that "some will have to sacrifice for the greater good".

Nevermind for a moment that sacrifice at the threat of force could also be called robbery (sorry, coudln't resist), the reason Obama is so appealing to so many people is because he glosses over the sacrifice part. Everybody will be insured! The poor will get more money! The blind will see and the deaf will hear!

He has taken a page out of the Book Of Reagan: Be optimistic, and don't be afraid to ask others to be optimistic. To the degree that conservatives are listening to him, it is because they hear faint echoes of Ronnie in his prose. That is a wonderful leadership quality, and we need more of it.

But at the end of the day, all the sunshine, glitter, and rainbows in the world can't cover up the fact that Obama has to come up with the money to pay for his political agenda. When he is eventually forced to talk more openly about how he intends to do that, you will see a bunch of people jumping ship.

Huck said...

President_Friedman - I did read your last sentence, but I think that every politician who seeks to govern is by nature of governing going to be a tax and spender. Even conservatives who want to shrink government, want to shrink only parts of government. And they still want to (nay, they have to) collect taxes and spend this money on things they believe are essential to the national interest. In that sense, we are all always targets by politicians, even the "shrink government" conservatives. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but what comes across in your comment is that the act of taxation itself makes you feel like a target -- and certainly, you are such a target! As are we all. But taxation is something that every politician must do, as well as spending such tax revenue. My guess is that it is not being the target of some politician that irks, but being the target of a politician whose ideas on how to spend the money he'll tax out of you disagree with.

In that sense, all of us are "forced" to pay for things that politicians decide we have to pay for, whether we like it or not. For instance, I feel targeted by politicians who want to force me to pay for bombs, guns, and ammunition that I don't think we need. And even though the Constitution gives politicians authority to tax for purposes of national defense, the constitution doesn't specify the amount and type of defense we need. For politicians to tell me that I need to be forced to pay for a Star Wars program is, in my mind, just as confiscatory as you might think politicians telling you that you have to pay for public school teacher salaries.

And, again, I don't think Obama has been mute on his fiscal platform. I think he has been more forthcoming than most on such matters. And, frankly, when the rubber hits the road in terms of Obama's developing more concrete plans for what his economic and fiscal plans would be, whatever they may be, I am sure that Obama will be able to explain the liberal rationale for his program with lucidity and clarity, and in ways that won't witness people jumping off the ship, but rather with people jumping on!