Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Niebuhrian Nightmare

Why President Obama needs to re-read his favorite political philosopher

Way back in April 2007, long-shot Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama was the subject of a fawning David Brooks piece. Brooks asked Obama “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama replied, “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” So I asked, What do you take away from him? “I take away . . . the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."
If you don't know who Reinhold Niebuhr is, you should. He's one of the most important Christian theologians and political philosophers of the 20th Century, irrespective of President Obama's admiration of his work.

As President, Obama has governed according to a superficial reading of Niebuhr, called "the patron saint of liberal moderation." This week's tax cut compromise fits the mold. Plotting a third way, rejecting idealism in favor of pragmatism, these are the hallmarks of Obama's preferred style. The talk has been about how the midterm election results will force Obama into a Clinton-style triangulation strategy. The fact is that Obama has always already been practicing that approach, much to the chagrin of his supporters on the left.

But there's more to Niebuhr than shallow notions of compromise and pragmatism. Niebuhr's real insight is about democracy and human nature. It's his 1944 book "Children of Light, Children of Darkness" that Obama needs to re-read. One key insight he needs to glean is that his messaging needs to account for self-interest far better than he has so far. His Republican opponents are certainly better at it than he has been.

The distinction between “children of light” and “children of darkness” is essential to understand Niebuhr. It springs from Luke 16:8, “[t]he children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”

Niebuhr uses this quote to develop a distinction between the children of light who believe that self-interest should be subordinated to the discipline of a higher law, and the children of darkness who “know no law beyond their will and interest." The children of light are sentimental democratic idealists who believe that human egotism and self-interest can be restrained by institutions, ideologies and ideas. The tyrannical children of darkness are cynical, believing that only self-interest matters and that it cannot be restrained by anything other than power and the exercise of self-interest by others. As the scripture that opens the book states, the children of darkness are in their own ways wiser than the children of light. While the children of darkness are evil, they at least understand the power and corrupting potential of self-love and self-interest.

Niebuhr describes the arc of human history as a battle between these children of light and children darkness. The children of light rely on the construction of more perfect schemes of social organization to fight evil. The children of darkness take a pessimistic view of human nature, and see society as a battle between self-interested individuals. Niebuhr’s assertion is that if democracy is to succeed, the naive children of light need to learn from the self-interested wisdom of the children of this world.

So far, Obama has behaved much like the naive children of light. Assuming that traditions about the sparing use of the filibuster or holds in the Senate would restrain the self-interest of Republican leaders is one example. Belief in the restraining influence of the desire for bipartisanship has proven to be an illusion. The collapse of these systems in the face of the self-interest of Obama's political opponents has caught him flat-footed.

One aspect of Niebuhr's theology that Obama has clearly internalized is the notion of humility. But even then he gets it wrong.

Niebuhr returns repeatedly to the notion of Christian humility as the antidote to both the cynicism of the children of darkness and the excessive sentimentality of the children of light. The roots of this humility are in the doctrine of original sin, which infects all human achievement. “Without it we are driven to alternate moods of sentimentality and despair; trusting human powers too much in one moment and losing all faith in the meaning of life when we discover the limits of human possibilities." If there's a quote that better captures the swing from the rapturous feelings at Obama's inauguration to the cynicism in the wake of the midterm election, I haven't seen it.

Niebuhr reminds us that those children of light who seek to govern are infected by the same inclination toward self-interest that they see themselves fighting against. Internally, those who govern need to be humble. In one sense, he means that government can only do so much to solve problems. But Niebuhr also names humility as an essential antidote to the hubris that one stands above the fray of self-interest. In too many cases, Obama's approach to leadership resembles that version of hubris. It's as though he's waiting for his political opponents to reject self-interest the way he has. Obama's third way framing relies far too much on this positioning, so much so that it's worth asking whether he really believes himself to be above the squabbling between the left and the right. The result: those on the right mock "The One" and "The Messiah" while those on the left fear being used as a foil for his moderate image.

Externally, those who govern need to incorporate the inherent self-interest of people in shaping and framing policy and action. Political change occurs when the populace is attracted to your position, that attraction is in large part gained by appealing to self-interest. In this political climate the most apparent form that self-interest takes is jobs and wages, jobs and wages. Too often, the White House has allowed their Republican opponents to seize self-interest as their ground and been relegated to grousing about selfishness.

As the quote in Brooks' piece demonstrates, President Obama clearly fashions himself in the mold of Niebuhr. But overly simplistic analysis of the Obama-Niebuhr connection that begins and ends with “moderation” obscures the lesson of Children of Light that Obama needs to grasp at this crucial point in his presidency. Niebuhr's prescription is not simply to moderate and triangulate, but to re-center the message around the self-interest of those children of the world who elected you.

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