The mighty Shelby Steele returns to the pages of the Wall Street Journal with another provocative essay on the Barack Obama Phenomenon. Although Steele slips into amateur psychoanalysis in places (and stumbles, in my view), he’s at his best when he argues the political theory at the bottom of Obama’s policies.
Here’s the crux:
A historic figure making history, this is emerging as an over-arching theme—if not obsession—in the Obama presidency. In Iowa, a day after signing health care into law, he put himself into competition with history. If history shapes men, “We still have the power to shape history.” But this adds up to one thing: He is likely to be the most liberal president in American history. And, oddly, he may be a more effective liberal precisely because his liberalism is something he uses more than he believes in. As the far left constantly reminds us, he is not really a true believer. Rather liberalism is his ticket to grandiosity and to historical significance.
Of the two great societal goals—freedom and “the good”—freedom requires a conservatism, a discipline of principles over the good, limited government, and so on. No way to grandiosity here. But today’s liberalism is focused on “the good” more than on freedom. And ideas of “the good” are often a license to transgress democratic principles in order to reach social justice or to achieve more equality or to lessen suffering. The great political advantage of modern liberalism is its offer of license on the one hand and moral innocence—if not superiority—on the other. Liberalism lets you force people to buy health insurance and feel morally superior as you do it. Power and innocence at the same time.
It’s not just about Obama, then. It’s about what Obama’s America will look like after the man is out of office. But is freedom really in tension with the “good” society? Or is this a narrow understanding of what is “good” and just? Steele in passing mentions what’s really going on here, I think: It’s a continuation of the ancient struggle not between freedom and “the good,” but rather liberty and equality. An egalitarian society and a “good” society are not the same thing.