I listened to Obama’s first presidential radio address yesterday. The presidential radio address hasn’t changed much since Roosevelt’s fireside chats, but as I sat listening to it, I felt like many of Roosevelt’s listeners must have done: though many things are out of my control, my role as a citizen has been exhausted in electing the best person to lead the recovery, and now I can listen to his obvious competence and superior reasonableness with the comfort that pubic matters are proceeding apace. My role is simply to find work as a productive private citizen, digging out the (largely financial) hole the Bush administration and a generation of debt has dug for us.
I’ve been very pleased by most of our new president’s moves and decisions, but increasingly I’m beginning to wonder what role political theorists will play in the coming ‘post-ideological’ age, the one inaugurated last Tuesday in which the “stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” With few concrete policies to discuss, one serious question emerges: what role is there for critique? By critique I mean something like Kant’s description of public reason, famously summarized (critically, of course) by Foucault as: “…a means for a future or a truth that it will not know nor happen to be[….] It oversees a domain it would not want to police and is unable to regulate.” Critique, for Foucault, was ultimately the “practice of liberty” that teaches us “how not to be governed.”
Though I’m highly skeptical of executive power no matter what party is in power, President Obama has already taken steps to reign in his own branch of government, sacrificing powers that his predecessor had claimed for himself. As an initial step, that’s quite promising. Yet I’m no anarchist: because critique has such negative, anti-statist connotations, it’s important to note here the role of critique in positive normative theory. It’s hard to see how a thinker can lead the cheers of acclamation and approval from a critical stance, but indeed I think the ‘practice of not being governed’ involves some praise on occasion. After all, a normative theory always has the option to respond to a contemporary institution or practice through a simple affirmation, a “Don’t change a thing, keep it up! You’re on the right track!”
On the other hand, perhaps that is premature. Even the most enthusiastically idyllic reading of our contemporary situation must admit some basic facts: Obama needs the support of Congress to accomplish some of his goals. He lacks a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the Republican loyal opposition will force him to make compromises at some point, since they hope someday to regain the majority. Obama may be resetting some of the traditional factions and boundaries, but when the perceived threat of Republican super-majorities and the utter devastation of the ranks of the civil service and the administrative state by incompetent managers has been rectified, there will be fewer sources of unifying frustration. In short, things may currently seem swell, but we can have faith that they’ll find a way to fuck it up.
By offering us an opportunity to forgo partisan ideological confrontation, however, Obama seems to be offering us a post-factional world. And here my skepticism emerges again: factions coalesce around interests, and while I do believe that some things are in the common interest, we still live in a world of scarce resources and we must still determine who gets what when. We can probably agree that much of what was treated as controversial in the last few decades ought not to have really been so: torture is wrong and ineffective; disagreement is not treason; taxes are a necessary evil and ought to be born primarily by the top 20%, who benefit most from the structure of the economy; immigrants are guests and not criminals and ought to be treated as such; a person’s right to marry his or her love cannot be limited on the basis of faith-based public policy; nor can science be suppressed to make room for faith.
Not all of Obama’s goals are even in the hands of the federal government alone, and the two most important goals (peace in Iraq/Afghanistan and ending the economic downturn) aren’t really subject to anyone’s control. Then too, there are global justice troubles beyond the current downturn. The least advantaged will continue to suffer while the rest of us try to get the basic political institutions to return real estate prices to their former heights.
That said, I think that political theorists must continue to champion at least one thing alongside the Obama administration:
1. Restore the Middle Class: The middle class has lost much of its former power as inequalities have grown. We increasingly inhabit a society where class is determined by the number of wage-earners in the family. (For clarity, the middle class describes those whose household income is in the the third and fourth quintiles: neither the least advantaged nor the richest. This translates into a household income of approximately 35,000 to 90,000 a year, though it’s highly variable based on geography.) The great divider has become the number of incomes per household: now that both men and women work, any family that is hit by illness, divorce, or death faces bankruptcy and a slide from the middle class.
We are divided into an Upper-class of dual wage families and a Lower-class of singles, divorcees, and the traditional poor. Discovering the formula of education, taxation, bankruptcy law, and health care options that can transform our society into a three-class society again is paramount. This will largely involve making the second quintile sustainable: the people who today earn between 18,000 and 35,000 must be able to feel confident that they are not one serious illness away from becoming homeless.
So what is role of political theory in the age of hope? When progressive politicians gain power, what role does critique still have to play? What is to be done, if Obama’s already doing it?
Personally, I think there are three areas that even a progressive administration cannot be expected to address adequately. The Obama administration shows no signs of prioritizing any of these lasting problems, so critique can still serve to address the underlying failings in our society. These ought to be the focus of political theory during the next term.
2. Make War on War: The project for perpetual peace is as old as the Enlightenment that inspired Kant to write his famous essay on public reason. Our failures thus far just have shown us that the war has only costs, no rewards, and that those costs are born predominantly by innocents and civilians, and by women, children, and the elderly. We have to build the international institutions of legitimate global governance that will eventually replace militant conflict resoluion, and that means hard, boring, normative work empowering reasons and words to clash with tempers and weapons. It would be nice if more politicians would recognize peace as a laudable goal rather than constantly invoking war and armed conflict in their rhetoric.
3. Shrink the Penitentiary (Until It’s Small Enough to Drown in a Bathtub): We incarcerate far too many citizens in this country, and it’s time to stop. Here, more than anywhere else, social science must be allowed to trump the victim’s resentment and communal retribution. There’s a growing movement among scholars to treat criminal justice issues in terms of the familiar conflict between reason and revelation. Revenge and righteous indignation are the last vestiges of revelatory anti-rationality. The single largest step we could take in this direction? Legalize marijuana and treat non-trafficking drug offenders rather than punishing them. Step two? Turn prisons into universities. Dollars spent on educating prisoners translate into a two-to-one savings over the reincarcerations costs of recidivism. “Books not bars.”
That said, we must also accept that not everyone can be rehabilitated. We will always need a few prisons to contain those with whom we cannot safely share the world.
4. Reduce Global Inequality: More than 1.5 billion people on this planet live on less than a dollar a day. Between 26,500 and 30,000 children die each day due to poverty-related diseases and malnutrition. 1.6 billion people live without electricity. 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to clean water. We have a moral obligation to these people, since the same system that grants me the capacity to write in peace and safety denies basic survival to so many. We must continue to target and amend the aspects of the global economic system that have exacerbated extreme poverty, especially when we discover that we are being enriched by that suffering.
Since freedom, peace, and prosperity are usually closely aligned, each of these seemingly utopian goals is related to the others. Precisely because we cannot currently imagine a world without prisons, war, and extreme poverty, we know that critique still has work to do, undermining our self-justifications for the evil our institutions do, emptying the pool of reasons they depend upon for their legitimacy. Nor are we free of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or authoritarianism. That said, I think we can occasionally pat ourselves on the back or savor a victory before getting back to work in the public sphere on the constitution of our shared world.