Saturday, February 2, 2008

Explaining Obama's youth appeal

(Polprint's stab at op-ed writing)

One of Barack Obama’s favourite lines on the campaign trail is that we are one America, as opposed to a collection of “red states and blue states”. He holds out the promise of “bringing Democrats and Republicans together to get the job done.”

His critics on the left fear that he really means it. Republicans are so wrong, they say, that a politics of inclusion only courts disaster. Obama got a verbal pounding in Nevada for the simple observation that Ronald Reagan “changed the trajectory of America”. Hillary Clinton piled it on, berating Obama for crediting Republicans as the “party of ideas” in recent history--an obvious slight to her husband.

But Obama is tapping into a belief as old as America: that partisanship is a dubious foundation on which to rest our political system. Parties were not written into our Constitution. They were not even envisaged, and stirred abhorrence when they began forming during George Washington’s first term. Before the Constitution was even drafted, John Adams wrote in 1780, “There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties.”

In his 1796 farewell address, Washington warned, vainly to be sure, that political parties serve to “make the public administration the mirror of ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction.”

The trouble with parties is as follows: Much as they claim to have ideological coherence—small government and states’ rights on the Republican side, workers’ rights on the Democratic side--they are simply an agglomeration of positions on issues.

Why should someone who opposes gay marriage necessarily agree with the notion of pre-emptive war—or the dilution of environmental regulation? What does support for universal health insurance have in common with opposition to the Patriot Act?

If nothing else, George Bush’s ham-fisted presidency has exposed the arbitrary nature of partisan politics. Republicans stuck by him as he pushed through an expensive war in Iraq as well as giant federal mandates—think of the Medicare prescription drug bill, and No Child Left Behind. These clearly undercut his party’s nominal “small government” agenda, and his supporters retreated only when the failures of these policies became clear.

Obama’s candidacy—and to an extent John McCain’s--is premised on a radical idea: Why not cherry-pick the best ideas from both sides of the aisle? Parties may not go away, but why not marry the (union-opposed) concept of merit pay for teachers with more federal funding for schools? Why not show hawkishness on Iran and Pakistan, even while energetically working the world’s diplomatic levers?

In “Audacity of Hope”, Obama writes of an email he received from a doctor opposed to abortion, who was upset by inflammatory pro-choice language put up by Obama's staff on the campaign website, criticizing “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose”. Obama thanked the doctor, paid heed to his concerns even while explaining his own view, and toned it down.

Such modifications will not salve critics on the right (and these will become more vocal as the general election nears). They will argue, reasonably, that Obama’s soothing rhetoric cloaks an impeccably liberal voting record. But listening to both sides, and making modifications when a valid point is made, is an approach that our current president has notably lacked.

Commentators have been amazed by how college students across the country have flocked to Obama’s campaign. The explanation is simple. At their core, universities in America teach the virtue of questioning authority (though they may not phrase it as such). Surveys show that young people disproportionately categorize themselves as independents, and reject the strictures labelled Democrat or Republican. The allure of Obama to youth is not merely his ability to inspire. It is his openness to good ideas, no matter where they come from.


Jean said...

I am going to enjoy this! And frequent posts will ensure (my) loyal readership.

On this post, though -- I don't see how Obama is cherry-picking from left and right in his policies. They all seem pretty standard Dem-platform to me.

Kate said...

For the most part. But he does deviate, in merit pay for example and a few aspects of his health plan. And I do think that listening to both sides, which he certainly does, is key.

Thank you for your comment!