The Visionary Minimalist


By Joe Campbell
January 30th, 2008

Responding to Floria again:

I’m not one for big change though, because I think it can be damaging at the outset. I believe if one is to attempt to change the entire process of our government, then there would be several unforeseen consequences at the outset.

I agree with you that “slow and steady” change is more lasting and more desirable than sudden or forced change.  That is actually one of the major things that attracted me to Barack Obama’s candidacy and that convinced me of the danger of a Hillary presidency.  When Obama first announced, I doubted he was ready, and I tentatively supported Hillary because I wanted a Democrat to win and I believed she would be ruthless in making sure she won.  But gradually, little by little, I came to embrace Obama’s candidacy.

There were two key factors – and I think I wrote about this previously in slightly different terms.  The first was that I came to believe that America was in a worse condition than I had previously thought – that Bush had fundamentally altered the balance of power in Washington and severely diminished the legislative and judicial branches of government; that partisan polarization was a major problem because it fostered a “team” mentality, in which no matter what the underlying consensus was on the issue, each party sought electoral gain by playing to the extremes.  (For me, the Republican advocacy of torture and skepticism of climate change made this clear.)  The second factor was that as I began to learn more about Obama and his thought, the more I came to admire him.  Specifically, this New Yorker piece called “The Conciliator” (which is long, but well worth it) first introduced me to the aspect of Obama that I admire most, what Cass Sunstein calls in a recent New Republic piece, “visionary minimalism.”  What Sunstein describes is the paradox of Barack Obama’s thought (as opposed to the paradox of his campaign).  Sunstein describes two differing approaches to the world: minimalist and visionary.  As he describes it, “minimalists are fearful of those who are gripped by abstractions, simple ideologies, and large-scale theories” and “visionaries have a large-scale understanding of where the nation should be heading…[and] call for wholesale rejection of the views of “the other side.”  Sunstein sees Obama bridging these two conflicting tendencies:

“Visionary minimalist” may sound like an oxymoron, but in fact–and this is the key point–Obama’s promise of change is credible in part because of his brand of minimalism. He is unifying, and therefore able to think ambitiously, because he insists that Americans are not different “types” who should see each other as adversaries engaged in some kind of culture war. Above all, Obama rejects identity politics. He participates in, and helps create, anti-identity politics. He does so by emphasizing that most people have diverse roles, loyalties, positions, and concerns, and that the familiar divisions are hopelessly inadequate ways of capturing people’s self-understandings, or their hopes for their nation. Insisting that ordinary Americans “don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal,” Obama asks politicians “to catch up with them.” Many independents and Republicans have shown a keen interest in him precisely because he always sees, almost always respects, and not infrequently accepts their deepest commitments.

To the extent that Obama is able to call simultaneously for change and reconciliation, it is in significant part for this reason. And to the extent that Obama’s candidacy is producing a kind of national exhilaration not seen in many decades, his practice of anti-identity politics is a key factor. For him, reconciliation is change, and it is also what makes change possible. Recall that minimalists are willing to endorse large shifts from the status quo–after diverse people have been heard, learned from, and brought on board.

Obama’s minimalism thus has a clear pragmatic purpose. The challenges of health care reform, Iraq, economic growth, climate change, and energy independence cannot possibly be met well, and perhaps cannot be met at all, without cross-cutting coalitions. Real transformations require a degree of consensus. Obama’s point also has intrinsic and not merely instrumental importance, and for one simple reason: It says something deeply true, and long neglected, about how Americans actually understand themselves. If Obama’s visionary minimalism turns out to have enduring power, it will be for that reason.

It is well worth reading Sunstein’s entire article.  Sunstein is an informal adviser to Obama – which makes his analysis both more interesting, and forces you to think about the issue skeptically.  Several months earlier, Larissa MacFarquhar writing a profile for the New Yorker though wrote something very similar:

In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example. “If you’re starting from scratch,” he says, “then a single-payer system”—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment—“would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

Obama’s voting record is one of the most liberal in the Senate, but he has always appealed to Republicans, perhaps because he speaks about liberal goals in conservative language. When he talks about poverty, he tends not to talk about gorging plutocrats and unjust tax breaks; he says that we are our brother’s keeper, that caring for the poor is one of our traditions. Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, “I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem.”

By focusing on the ends, and using every means at her disposal to achieve those ends, Hillary Clinton both ensures maximal polarization and maximal resistance.  The amount of change she will be able to bring about will be determined by what she is able to force through.  By focusing on improving the processes – without attempting a radical overhaul, and while bringing in all stakeholders – Obama minimizes polarization, minimizes resistance, and maximizes change over the long-term.  In other words – if you believe America is facing serious strategic challenges and that our polity is not in shape to tackle them – Obama is the only candidate which a chance of tackling them.  If you are wary of dramatic change, Hillary’s current approach to achieving change may very well prevent her from achieving much.  But her focus on ends rather than means would bring about more sudden and drastic change – the kind you presumably fear.

It was these two “realizations” on my part that lead me to embrace Barack Obama’s candidacy: one, seeing the moment we are in; two, understanding more about the Hillary’s and Barack’s thought.  This is why I was a fan of Obama before he seemed like he had a chance.  This is why I thought he was the best person for the job of president even when Hillary was considered inevitable.  The paradox of Obama’s campaign is that even if you believe Obama should be president, many still need to be convinced that he can be elected.  Obama as a head of government, a head of state would be a visionary minimalist; but he will only become a great president if a movement is able to coalesce that pushes for meaningful change.  Obama, being a minimalist, would then have to channel it, focus it, hold it back where prudent.  This dynamic could make Obama one of our greatest presidents.  But even as the situation now stands, without such a movement, I still believe he is the best choice.

Postscript: Regarding Obama’s tendency to over-dramatize: I don’t know anything of the example you gave.  But in general, I have found that Obama plays down dramatic moments; that in his speeches, he avoids applause lines, preferring to build a gradual narrative.  And Obama is the only candidate to have lived in a Third World country for any extended period of time – Indonesia in his youth.   If you read Dreams of My Father, he writes about the exact difference in attitude you describe – between living in the midst of a country, and living out of a hotel.