synthetic zero

January 30th, 2009

Susanna was telling me today that she was really struck by how much of a shift it is that Obama is a president from or close to our generation. I’ve been remarking on that, too; friends of mine talk about Obama as though he were someone they knew personally. I notice people wondering what it “must be like” for Obama to be doing this or that Presidential activity for the first time; and I have to admit, I have the same thoughts. Oh, it must be cool to live right upstairs from where you work, or what must it be like to sit in the Oval Office?  I don’t remember thinking this about any previous President.

But there’s more to this change, I think, than just being able to relate to the President — it’s a shift to a new, post-partisan, pragmatic way of thinking about the world. To some, this may remind them of the DNC’s style of triangulation politics — but I believe it’s actually a much more interesting, radical change in policy thinking, one which is long overdue, and one which, I believe, does represent a current in thinking in our generation which is less ideological but not merely an averaging of opinions from the left and the right.  To the contrary, the idea is to recognize that any given principle is just one aspect of a multidimensional reality that must be respected in all its complexity.  Rather than attempt to achieve ideological purity (the market is infallible! the market is the root of all evil!), one looks at the situation and sees context — in certain contexts (trying to find a reasonable short-term price equilibrium) the market is better, faster, more flexible than the government, yet in other contexts (looking out for longer-term concerns, the environment, damping down market bubbles, looking out for fraud and abuse), the government is indispensable.  It’s not a politics of just one side or the other, nor is it simply a bland averaging of political views — rather, it’s a recognition that the political spectrum encodes principles which all must be taken into account, depending on context.  For example, on the use of the military: yes, we can and should fight to defend ourselves against those who are trying to kill us; but at the same time, we should do so while remaining true to our principles, without torture, while also attempting to negotiate whenever possible.

It all sounds so obvious, and so sensible, and most of my peers think this way naturally.  Yet for so long this sort of multifaceted, principled, but also sophisticated thinking has been absent from mainstream political discourse; even those who were themselves quite intelligent (say, Bill Clinton) found it necessary to dumb down their public image and message.  Obama does this much less than any national politician we’ve seen in a long time; and he does more than this, he tried to elevate the discourse whenever he can, through rousing rhetoric which is nevertheless frequently far more sophisticated than we’ve been exposed to in recent decades.

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