Is Barack Obama just another high-toned liberal doomed to failure?

The history behind current events.
Nov. 16 2007 1:05 PM

Too Good for Politics

Is Barack Obama just another high-toned liberal doomed to failure?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

All presidential candidates have their signature rhetorical moves, and Barack Obama's has been to make a virtue of defying pressure groups. In a recent debate, he boasted of telling a crowd of automakers—rather than "some environmental group," as he put it—that we need to raise the fuel efficiency standards of cars. He has also hyped his frankness in urging merit pay on teachers and in lecturing African-American groups that unwed fathers need to act more responsibly.

Never mind that none of these positions is terribly controversial, even among liberal Democrats. In touting these acts of supposed rebellion, Obama isn't really seeking to stake out dangerous ground; he's trying to score points for appearing to brave powerful constituencies on behalf of a larger common good. Telling Detroit to go green may (or may not) bruise him in the Michigan primary, but overall it will help him much more by buffing his aura as a truth-teller and healer. 

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Pundits call these gestures "Sister Souljah" moments, in honor of Bill Clinton's 1992 speech before the Rainbow Coalition blasting the rapper for seeming to advocate black-on-white violence. But that label doesn't really apply to Obama's gestures. Clinton's comments were tied closely to a specific subject matter—racial politics. Though arguably opportunistic, they were aimed squarely at Reagan Democrats who felt their party had become too tolerant of black radicalism. The particular objects of Obama's attacks, in contrast, are irrelevant. It's the larger image of candor on behalf of the general interest that he's after. A more apt precedent, then, is the rhetoric of a different Democratic standard-bearer from the past—Adlai Stevenson—who, not coincidentally, also embodies the strain of high-minded reformism that, of all liberal traditions, influences Obama most.

Stevenson, the famously virtuous Illinois governor who nobly went down to defeat against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, remains the model Democratic loser. He was the sensible champion of civility who gallantly upheld the liberal banner in a conservative age, even while getting drubbed at the polls. One of his favorite tactics was to proclaim his ability to flout his audiences and instead act on behalf of the whole public. "I remember the night in Dallas when I spoke to Texans of my views of tidelands oil," he said in a televised speech on election eve, 1952. "I remember the crowd in Detroit when I said I would be the captive of all of the American people and no one else. I remember the evening in the railroad station in New Haven when I identified a powerful Democratic leader as not my kind of Democrat. ... I have done my best frankly and forthrightly." The same theme marked TV commercials like this one—an ad that also lends some insight into why Stevenson had so much trouble that year.

The appeal to the greater good, as opposed to sectarian interest, was typical of Stevenson—and of a persistent persuasion within liberalism that has now given rise to Obama's candidacy. It's an appeal that aims not only to create an image of principled candor, but, equally important, to distinguish the candidate from the familiar Democratic interest-group pluralism. Whereas most Democratic politicians have succeeded by building alliances of disparate groups, each with its own pet issues, Stevenson's approach tended to deny or elide the fact that the demands of particular groups often conflict. Instead, he was partial to language about "the common good" and "the public interest" and spoke loftily to "all Americans." This sensibility wasn't inherently hostile to Democratic constituencies like blacks, blue-collar workers, or immigrants whose interests often fell outside conventional notions of the "common" interest, but it did tend to marginalize their concerns. Conversely, it resonated most with intellectuals and well-educated upscale professionals.

Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It's a style—an ideology, really—that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest.

This tradition, of course, predates Stevenson. Its roots go back to the classical or civic republicanism that permeated American thought in the revolutionary era. But the real precursors of Obama and Stevenson are the educated, middle-class reformers of the Gilded Age known as the Mugwumps. (George Packer and Casey Nelson Blake have both cited the Mugwumps, in passing, as influences on Obama.)

The Mugwumps were liberal professionals and gentlemen of the late 19th century who tried to transform both the economic arrangements of the industrial age, with their deepening social inequities, and the machine-dominated political system, with its patronage and corruption. They were the forebears of the Progressives of the next generation with whom they shared many qualities—both generations were, in the main, comfortable, noble-minded, often moralistic, usually sensible in their policy prescriptions (the civil service system, clean elections), but also elitist, given to condescension toward lower classes and minorities, and often blind to those virtues that the parties and their machines did possess.

Mugwump-style reformism went into eclipse during the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt and his circle preferred a strategy of coalition building that had roots in Democratic urban machine politics. In their policies, they focused unsentimentally on economics—passing programs that would put food on people's tables. They dispensed with the Mugwumps' and Progressives' moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach.

With Stevenson, though, Mugwump liberalism reasserted itself—launching an era in which it would reside almost exclusively within the Democratic Party. The original Mugwumps had been Republicans, and the Progressives included at least as many Republicans as Democrats; even Calvin Coolidge displayed Mugwump tendencies. But after Stevenson, the Democratic Party furnished most of the presidential candidates and national figures who spoke the language of civic obligation, of suppressing group interest for the common good, of restoring an elevated political discourse. From Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Paul Tsongas in 1992 to Bill Bradley in 2000, these figures typically commanded strong followings among students and upscale liberals, while generating comparatively less enthusiasm among labor and African-Americans, among other core Democratic voters. (John Anderson, the moderate Republican congressman who ran for president as an independent in 1980, might also fit the tradition.)

No one would deny the admirable side of the Mugwump inheritance: the policies it helped to implement, the idealism it represents, the commitment to principles like clean campaigning and good government that lie at its core. Yet the failures of Stevenson and his heirs pose a warning as well to those like Obama who would adopt this ideology, rhetoric, and style. For it was no coincidence that Stevenson and others failed as campaigners; his failure was rooted in his attitude toward politics. In 1952 and again in 1956, Stevenson tried to avoid negative campaigning at first, considering it undignified and an insult to voters. (He felt the same way about TV ads.) And so when he finally, of necessity, resorted to attacking Eisenhower—mainly by going after his running mate, Richard Nixon—Stevenson came off as desperate and hypocritical. The same was true for Tsongas and Bradley when they flailed haplessly at Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Today, Barack Obama finds himself in a similar bind to those men. If he continues to heed the advice of friendly pundits to attack Hillary Clinton more forcefully, he risks undermining the very premise of his campaign, tainting his image as a new kind of politician while failing to land his punches, because in the end he's not really a street fighter. What he doesn't seem to understand—as Stevenson did not—is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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