#19 Danielle Allen

On February 14, 2008

Hello Everyone,

I’m passing along another superb piece by Professor Danielle Allen from the University of Chicago and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, whose other observations I have forwarded previously.

Professor Allen’s deeply-incisive analysis is attached. Here are just a few excerpts from it:

You will have noticed that Senator Obama is beginning the delicate adjustment into general election mode. He has turned his attention to John McCain and he has begun to bring his long list of policy specifics (which he has had from the beginning) into his campaign speeches themselves, instead of leaving the work of conveying these to his website and townhall meetings. At this point of transition, then, it is worth noting the difference between the conversation that we have had for the primary and the conversation that we can expect to have for the general election. This shift is beginning a little earlier than I for one had anticipated because the Republican nominating process reached clarity sooner than people expected. As a consequence, the primary conversation and general election conversation will blur for a few weeks. It is nonetheless useful, I think, to spell out what the stakes have been for the primary conversation and what they are likely to be for the general election conversation. In my view, a candidate for President needs a vision in
at least three areas:

(1) A candidate needs a vision of what kind of person he or she wishes to be; call it the character vision. This is the one that tells people what kind of judgment a person has when they have to decide on particular actions fast.

(2) A candidate needs a vision of how political processes do and can work. This is the vision for how change can be brought about. Call this the citizenship vision.

(3) A candidate needs a vision of the core principles that will guide his or her policy choices. Call this one the policy vision…

With respect to the character vision, Obama has argued for leadership that recognizes that words matter; this means both that we should attend to the principles we articulate and that we should be able to stick by what we say. As he uses them, words are not strategic markers to be placed largely with a view to political expedience. Senator Clinton, for instance, has explicitly argued that one needs to decide what to say up front based on an assessment of where one wants to conclude the conversation in the expectation that one will have to give ground in the political battles over policy outcomes. One should, in her account, start with a position different, stronger, or more extreme than where one actually hopes to end up. She has, for instance, said, with respect to health care, that the reason for beginning by talking about “universal health care,” is because if you don’t start there, you won’t end up with anything. But this approach to language has led to an odd reconfiguration of the meaning of “universal health care” from the colloquially understood meaning of “universal provision” to the new and jarring meaning of “universally required.” Because she is using language to set up a political game, her words lose their grip on reality. This, I believe, is her fundamental problem vis `a vis the perception that she is
not trustworthy.

Obama, in contrast, believes that words should be used to present a genuine goal and then to organize the conversations and processes that can move people toward that goal. Obama’s strong commitments to open, conversational political processes and to personal trustworthiness are deeply related to each other. They depend on each other. His commitment to a politics of respectfulness toward opponents is equally important here. His policy of respectfulness requires that one start by taking people at their word. In contrast, people who stake out positions strategically have difficult taking others at their word and thereby inject habits and patterns of distrustfulness into their interactions. These habits and patterns of distrustfulness then have their own ramifying, negative effects…

With respect to the “citizenship vision,” Senator Obama has been truly brilliant. He has made a clear case for individual agency, personal responsibility, organization, and collective action and then his campaign has made the lofty ideals of hope and change real by teaching tens of thousands of Americans how to participate in grass-roots politics. His methods for effecting change are doing just that. He who was originally the underdog has upset the politics of the Democratic Party by virtue of developing and operationalizing a vigorously democratic idea of how change can be brought about through political processes. In other words, on this point above all, he has not only spoken but also executed.

I hope these excerpts give you a flavor for Professor Allen’s fascinating analysis.

Please pass it along.


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