The Audacity of Mush

Barack Obama wants to move past the culture war--but perhaps not far enough.

The first time Barack Obama seized the country's attention, he was celebrating the shades that lie between the more distinctly defined colors of the spectrum. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states," he declared at the Democratic convention of 2004. "We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states....We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama was puncturing some obnoxious stereotypes, but there was something about his rhetoric that seemed empty and cloying to me. It might have been its pedigree. There are three standard stances in mainstream American politics: loyalty to the Red Team, loyalty to the Blue Team, and a can't-we-get-along centrism that claims to fuse the best of both sides. The third stance makes a fetish of political action; its partisans, from Michael Bloomberg to Bill Bradley, sometimes call more loudly for "reform" or for "change" than they do for any actual, specific reform or change. That posture's popularity last peaked during the election of 1992, when the media consensus held that our greatest affliction was "partisan gridlock." It might have been a nightmare brought on by overexposure to the Larry King Show, but I even seem to remember a reporter asking the president if it mattered which party controlled both Congress and the White House, as long as the government was united and able to get things done. The ease of passing a bill was apparently more important than the bill's content.

It's not hard to understand the appeal of bipartisanship, especially when you compare it to the blind fealty and dimwitted demonization that often characterize the alternatives. But the centrists' empty invocations of "unity" usually amount to an equally blind fealty to the conventional wisdom and the rule of experts. Ross Perot captured that spirit in the early months of '92, before his own unconventional views began to emerge, when he said he'd solve the country's most pressing problems by asking panels of specialists what to do. His idea of giving specifics was to say he'd take each of their proposals and "pilot-test it, de-bug it, optimize it."

The true alternative to the culture war is not to declare that we are, as one book put it, "one nation, after all." It is to recognize the near-infinite number of shades beyond red and blue: the authentic, sometimes eccentric combinations of opinions that emerge from people not named Hannity or Colmes. We can hope, perhaps a little audaciously, that there is something in Obama's biracial, globe-trotting identity that leaves him more open to those hidden hues, and thus to ideas outside the Washington consensus. To give the man his due, the senator sometimes offers more than centrist mush. He was against the invasion of Iraq when it was politically risky to say so, and he has criticized the Patriot Act and other assaults on the Bill of Rights. He is clearly more libertarian than his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton—in foreign policy, in issues of personal freedom, and at least arguably in economics. Not that that's a high bar to clear, or that Obama stands in any consistent way for liberty. To judge from the rhetoric that dominates his speeches, as opposed to the policy proposals tucked away on his website, he mostly stands for youth, "change," and platitudes; for "an insistence on small miracles" and "the audacity of hope," whatever the hell those are supposed to be.

You can catch a few more unfamiliar colors flickering behind Iowa's other victor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Protestant whose outlook mixes touches of anti-state populism (the Fair Tax, homeschoolers' rights) with thick lumps of center-left nannyism (smoking bans, sin taxes, a war on obesity). Huckabee's roots on the religious right give his nanny-state proposals a curious cast: If Democrats like Hillary Clinton have secularized what used to be moral issues, giving us public health arguments against video games and TV violence, then Huckabee has sanctified the public health agenda, turning weight loss and smoke-free living into moral crusades. I don't find that appealing at all, but it does reflect important elements in American culture—the megachurches, the self-help shelf—that are usually absent from Washington's red-blue shouting matches. It's healthy to have Huckabee in the debate, though it's a debate I hope he'll lose.

The candidate who has moved the farthest beyond red and blue is, of course, Ron Paul. The Republican congressman's antiwar, anti-Washington crusade has created a real rainbow coalition: leftists and paleocons, gold bugs and cyberpunks, a patchwork of political positions that do not fit on the familiar spectrum. Like Perot's Reform Party of the '90s, but with a leader who embraces the diversity rather than fearing it, the Paul movement represents a world where "Red America" and "Blue America" are near-meaningless abstractions. Better still, his live-and-let-live libertarianism and federalism offer a workable way for all those multicolored Americas to coexist.

If Paul finishes respectably in New Hampshire, it will be because he draws support from the state's independent voters. If he does poorly, it will be because those independents opt for one of the "safer" alternatives to the status quo: Obama, Huckabee, John McCain. Either way, it's the independents who will be making that choice: not the hard-core Democratic partisans, not the hard-core Republican partisans, and not the drab centrists who would erase even the distinctions between those dueling partners.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.

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  • JDH||

    Typo in subheader: Oabama

  • ||

    I know it makes you sad, Jesse, but wave "bye bye" to your friend, Ron Paul.

    Seriously, man, I know the whole Paul thing has been a tease to libertarians, but it was just one of those "blips" on the political radar. America eats mushy centrist souffle because that's what it likes. Oh, sure, they'll talk a good game looking at the menu, but when it's time to order it will be the blue plate special every time.

  • Mike M.||

    While there probably isn't very much that I agree with Obama on from a purely political standpoint, I have to admit that there is something about him that is remarkably refreshing. Perhaps it's that he legitimately seems to be outside the Clinton-Bush establishment that we've been locked into for 20 years, or that his message is positive and more about appealing to hope than fear. When you combine that with his interesting personal background and easygoing manner, it's pretty hard not to like and respect the man.

    Regarding Ron Paul, it's an absolute disgrace that he was excluded from the Fox New republican debate. No, he's not going to win, but it's sad how terrified the entrenched establishment is of him.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Typo in subheader: Oabama

    Thanks, fixed.

  • LarryA||

    There are three standard stances in mainstream American politics: loyalty to the Red Team, loyalty to the Blue Team, and a can't-we-get-along centrism that claims to fuse the best of both sides.

    I.e. the Republicans want to pass the Red agenda, the Democrats want to pass the Blue agenda, and the centerists want to really screw everything up by passing both agendas.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Paul/Kucinich 08!

    The most centrist ticket in town.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Larry A,

    the centerists want to really screw everything up by passing both agendas.

    Nope. NEITHER agenda.

    As a centrist I might pick and choose from the two sets of solutions presented by the two sides, but I don't like either agenda.

  • ||

    Bi-partisanship appeals to lots of folks...but the devil is in the details. Exactly what liberal principles is Obama willing to compromise in order to be bipartisan? E.G. will he urge Dems to allow some privatization of Social Security in return for getting, say,
    a $10 million minimum on the Estate Tax from the GOP? Will Ron Paul accept only a 25% rollback of the Dept. of Education in exchange for $50 billion more to fight AIDS?
    It seems that most compromises coming out of Washington or state capitals has always been to agree to give up slightly less liberty than the initial proposal requested.

  • ||

    Nope. NEITHER agenda.

    Sure. Like the famous Winston Churchill story where the Navy wanted 4 battleships, and Parliament only wanted to buy them 4.

    The compromise/centrist/bipartisan result?

    8 battleships.

  • ||

    Oops. Should be Parliament only wanted to buy them 2.

  • Elemenope||

    See, this is why I'd much prefer a guy like Obama as a legislator than a president: good (or at least innovative and fresh) ideas, isn't afraid of compromise, everybody can work with him. Spendthrifty, but hey! That's what legislators are for.

    What you need then is a man like Paul in the White House, wielding the veto pen like a scythe, cutting down all of Obama's ideas that can't muster a veto-proof majority. Size of government would shrink, but decent ideas and programs would still go through at a decent clip, winnowed by the process.

    That's the type of bipartisanship I could get behind...nobody's agenda survives intact, and government stays at a manageable size.

  • Douglas Gray||

    Fairly or not, Hillary is perceived as shrill, combative and ruthless. Obama has the JFK amiability. People are attracted to him because they would like to see a bit more civility and good manners in Washington. Jesse Walker and other political analyists have some good points, but the average voter is not so saavy; many are voting from the gut. Obama is just more likeable, centrist mush or not. I am so tired of an administration that devotes so much effort to attacking its opponents, rather than solving problems.

  • Edward||

    Geez, those stupid Democrats think a charismatic black guy will carry the day. Boring! We're putting our money on a kooky old fart who loves to drone on about monetary policy and gives what appears to be a tothless grin to the camras. Go Ron paul!

  • ||

    The compromise/centrist/bipartisan result?

    8 battleships.



    I have a recollection of a battle over an education bill back in the Reagan years.

    That evil miser Reagan only wanted to spend $17b or so while the enlightened Democratic Congress knew that nothing less than nineteen would do the job.

    Reagan ended up signing a bill for $23b.

    That's why they call it bipartisanSHIT. It always ends up being a big stinky pile.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    Obama has the JFK amiability. People are attracted to him because they would like to see a bit more civility and good manners in Washington.


    And because it would make the French choke on their snails to see America elect a president with dark skin.

  • Robert||

    There does seem to be a longstanding sense in much of the electorate in the USA that politics is about competence rather than policy. That's why experience is considered to be such an asset. It's like they're hiring managers, and that persons of good will always come to the same conclusion as to what needs to be done, and then it's just a matter of the ability to do it. Which means that partisanship must be a matter of ill will and egotism, because how else could they disagree and get in the way of what should be common sense?

    But it's also true that that sentiment waxes & wanes, and the period 1990-4 seemed to have been one which featured it very prominently.

    And I've also long been in agreement with Jesse's insight that the many who are interested (not just uninterested/apathetic) and commonly identified by default as "centrist", "moderate", "bipartisan", or whatever, could more accurately be described as "nonaligned". Ask them and you'll see that individually they usually have their own extreme ideas, but the vectors of those ideas don't sum to much because they're in various different directions and don't conform to identifiable (or at least identified) ideologies, nor do they seem to translate to a particular policy direction, tending to be sui generis. (That is, halfway to their pet policy makes no sense or is inconceivable.) It's like we have millions of LaRouches out there, each with their own idiosyncratic ideas, few in agreement with each other on many things. So..."they cancel".

  • Terry Michael||

    Jesse,
    You're missing the most important asset Obama's election will bring to changing the political discourse in a way favorable to libertarian thought. If he wins in November, which I am certain he will, his success will give lie to the left-liberal racist hallucination that we're all a bunch of bigots. He will put the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons, the diversity trainers, the "people of color" stereo-typers, the multi-culti segregationists, the feminist minority contractors, and all the other disgusting practitioners of identity politics out of business! That is REALLY good news for those of us who think we should have a political system built around individual liberty rather than tribal rights!

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    Terry Michael,

    I doubt it. I think they would say that the quota wasn't filled yet.

  • ||

    There are plenty of real criticisms one can toss at Obama. I am really, REALLY amused at "The Audacity of Mush" being one of them.

    But for a silly reason:
    http://www.drudgereportarchives.com/data/2007/11/26/20071126_175753_flash9.htm

    the candidates were asked their favorite shows, to a fault, they all took the mushy, politically correct routes. But Obama said the Wire.

    Interesting. Not an endorsement. Just a comment, and the suggestion that if "mush" were correct, the wire would have definitely not been what he would say.

    Like I said, plenty of real criticisms for the libertarians to toss at the Senator, but Mushy seems to describe everyone in the race but him.

  • stuartl||

    Maybe it is because I'm old enough to remember the real reason why Nixon was impeachable and cause of Jimmy Carter's malaise -- wage and price controls wreaking havoc on the economy -- but for me one of the few economic things Obama has supported, fair wages, is horrifying.

    The government setting wages, and making companies justify how they set wages, will do more to undermine freedom then Iraq and anti-obesity measures combined.

  • Robert BL||

    I think that Obama understands that Americans DO, in fact, share substantial common interests: i.e. to be safe and secure, to have opportunity to succeed and thrive, to live with respect and dignity, among many others.

    Partisans divide our common interests into polarizing positions, and Jesse, as a libertarian, is wading into the same swamp by assuming that "centrism" is just a third position that lies somewhere between left and right.

    "Obamism", as I see his appeal, is neither left, right, or center. It's a statement that it is time for our country to move on our common interests, goals, and yes, even dreams, and forget about which position is right or left.

  • adrian||

    ah charisma... the branch davidians never had a chance either.

  • Robert BL||

    EDIT:

    I think that Obama understands that Americans DO, in fact, share substantial common interests: i.e. to be safe and secure, to have opportunity to succeed and thrive, to live with respect and dignity, among many others.

    Partisans divide our common interests into polarizing positions, and Jesse, as a libertarian, is wading into the same swamp by COMPLAINING THAT "centrism" is just a third position that lies somewhere between left and right.

    "Obamism", as I see his appeal, is neither left, right, or center. It's a statement that it is time for our country to move on our common interests, goals, and yes, even dreams, and forget about which position is right or left.

  • Robert BL||

    @ Adrian:

    While it might be nice to live in a fantasy country where intellectuals like you could pick our leaders and policies based on shrewd analysis and informed judgments, that's not America.

    We are a collection of diverse, fallible humans, and divisive partisanship exploits our weaknesses. I think we're kidding ourselves if we think the answer is to weave together just the "right" set of positions on innumerable divisive issues.

    Trying to come up with the "answer", in fact, accepts that there is a legitimate question about which position is right.

    I would reject most positional questions and focus on what the underlying interests are.

  • adrian||

    Robert: I'm sorry but i think there are "right" and "wrong" positions on things. I would rather the government not provide "opportunity to succeed and thrive" and only protect us from one another. I am not afraid of terrorists and don't need 10,000 security cameras or a national ID or the patriot act. I am afraid of the government and that pisses me off.

    Also, you pretty much summed up why a pure democracy does not work. The founders knew this as well. People with average or less than average intelligence and/or information will always be taken advantage of.

  • Robert BL||

    Focusing on interests instead of positions is not the same as denying right and wrong.

    Exploiting our fears to justify military action to solidify political power is wrong, for example.

    The trick is in sorting out the questions. When a politician asks if we agree that "protecting the sanctity of marriage" is the answer, he's creating a false question in order to divide us.

    And I agree with you on democracy: we are fortunate that the U.S. is not, in our founding documents, a "pure democracy", but a democratic republic, with safeguards for the rights of everyone written into the constitution.

  • ||

    Red and blue partisans communicate amongst themselves,and yell at the opposition.Party affiliations become matters of identifying with a certain set of problems,and a corrolary set of accusations used to scapegoat the other side. WHile each side may have subsatantive issues,actually addressing them is no longer paryt of the turf war.The subsatnce in centrism is the attempt to erase the imaginary line so actuall civil dialogue and civic life might develop.Might seem likme mush ,but sometimes a good hot bowl of mush is really nourishing when the weather is so cold

  • Sean W. Malone||

    "we are fortunate that the U.S. is not, in our founding documents, a "pure democracy", but a democratic republic, with safeguards for the rights of everyone written into the constitution."

    We are fortunate indeed... if only those safeguards were still actually being followed... *sigh*

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