Friday, November 05, 2010

What Obama Doesn't Get

Wow. This is one of the strangest things I've heard this man say yet. Here he is explaining, in his upcoming 60 Minutes interview, how Tuesday's election-day catastrophe was partly his fault. He thinks that, just as he has the power to make legislation, he has a power to "bring people together" and get them to approve of it. The only reason he did not achieve this result was that he "forgot" to do it. He was just so busy! Still, he takes full responsibility for being so busy and forgetful.

I think there is more going on here than egregiously maladroit spin-doctoring. There's that, yes, but there is also an attitude that a lot of liberals have, including a lot of classical liberals (which is what at I used to be, until I finally gave up on the idea of good government). It's the notion that the great problems of politics are really technical problems, solvable by experts. All people of good will agree on what the goals are. Once the technical fix that will get us there has been figured out, you will be on board with it unless a) it hasn't been explained to you, b) you are too ignorant or stupid to understand the explanation, or c) you are too selfish and venal to care about getting there in the first place.

His remarks over the last two days also suggest another notion, which leads to the same conclusion: Americans are non-ideological and only care about how the system affects them. If they are well-off, they vote for incumbents. If they are badly off, they get mad and throw them out. In other words, precisely because they are selfish and venal, but not completely stupid, if you convince them that your policy will be good for them eventually, they won't worry their little heads about abstract notions like Liberty and Power, and they won't be bothered by a few nuts waving placards about the Constitution.

Both ideas are simply wrong. There are differences between people -- differences of principle -- that often make it impossible to "bring them together" with a technical fix. It is true that Americans are not very ideological, but they do tend to believe that the best society is one that offers freedom. They want the opportunity to improve their own lives, and if they make the wrong choices or have bad luck, well such is the price of freedom.

Obama on the other hand thinks the best society is a fair one, and fairness in this sense is a structural feature of the system that can only be brought about by government coercion.

There is a trade-off between freedom and fairness: you can only get more of one by giving up some of the other.

Obama is convinced that it is fair to force the young and healthy to buy lavish insurance policies they don't need, in order to pay for the care of the old and infirm. To a great many Americans, however, it makes no sense for the government to abridge their liberty by forcing them to buy health insurance they may not want, and another hundred or so speeches about it (no, he didn't "forget" to do that) will not convince them otherwise.

Speeches can change people's opinions about the facts, but they cannot change their principles. That is why, the more speeches he gives about it, the worse it gets.

Update: Here is Greg Gutfeld's satire on this sort of reaction to the elections:


The Uncredible Hallq said...

"Speeches can change people's opinions about the facts, but they cannot change their principles."

Surely that's false. Or, at least, hopefully that's false. People give speeches trying to get other people to accept or reject various principles all the time. Are these speeches always ineffective?

While people tend to resist being told they're wrong about the positions they already hold, they appear to me to be persuadable to a degree on most of the beliefs people bother to speechify about.

Lester Hunt said...

In my experience, people very seldom change their principles (in this sense) at all, beyond the age of about 23 or so, and when they do, it is not because they have heard an oration. The reasons why people do change in these ways, when they do, is of course immensely complex, but I think that interactive speech (conversations) is much more important that oratory, as is direct personal contact and influence.

It is true that charismatic leaders have changed masses of people in profound ways (Erich Hoffer wrote a great book about this) but there I would say it is the charisma of the leader as well as the peculiar vulnerabilities of the masses involved, and not simply an "explanation" (Obama's word) of the leader's program, that is the active ingredient. One thing that people are noticing is that Obama is completely lacking this sort of power.

I'm not sure where to find it, but I read a report recently that said that surprisingly few college students are converted to the liberal views of their professors -- and a college course has much, much more epistemic power than a political speech. They leave college with generally the same basic views they had when they came it.

So I think BHO's conviction that he and his teleprompter can put his program over on a public that knows what it is and does not like it cannot do without the assumption that the program is merely a technical fix, and not a shift of principles. Otherwise, he must believe he has powers that are literally magical.

Max Kuenkel said...

I appreciate very much your article explaining the Obama arrogance and examining assumptions like "the great problems of politics are really technical problems, solvable by experts", or "Americans are non-ideological", and explaining that "There is a trade-off between freedom and fairness: you can only get more of one by giving up some of the other": as I was reading all this, I could feel my insight and understanding increase by the minute. I have personal experience with liberals who demonstrate that they don't believe in conflicting ideologies (because that would force them to think of their own persuasion as an ideology, which they deny).

Anonymous said...
Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College and Mack Mariani of Xavier University. the author's concluded friends, not teachers influence their views. Who woulda of thunk?

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks! I haven't checked it out yet, but that sounds like the one I was thinking of.

Anonymous said...

I watched the 60 Mins interview Sunday night and what I found striking was his comment to the effect that when you campaign, you don't have to be specific about how you are going to bring about the things you're "promising" the voter.

Lester Hunt said...

... and if the things you are promising are just technical fixes, that makes perfect sense. Why would the customer have principled objections to the car (or the economy) being fixed in one way rather than another?