Day By Day

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Scholars, pundits and politicians have been casting about for a term that adequately describes President Obama's approach to governance, and especially to his economic policies.

Jonah Goldberg quite properly has pointed out that in its major features Obama's approach very closely resembles the American "Progressive" movement of the early Twentieth Century as well as features of European socialism and fascism, both of which movements were closely related to American progressivism [here]. Because of their specific historical references, however, using the terms "progressive", "fascist", or "socialist" to describe aspects of Obama's approach to government, no matter how technically accurate the designation, serves to divert attention away from the policies themselves and toward the popular image of those movements.

What has been missing from the political dialogue is a term that encompasses all of these related and recurring movements. Steve Malanga suggests "corporatism" which he defines as:

the notion that elite groups of individuals molded together into committees or public-private boards can guide society and coordinate the economy from the top town and manage change by evolution, not revolution. It is a turn-of-the 20th century philosophy, updated for the dawn of the 21st century, which positions itself as an antidote to the kind of messy capitalism that has transformed the Fortune 500 and every corner of our economy in the last half century. To do so corporatism seeks to substitute the wisdom of the few for the hundreds of millions of individual actions and transactions of the many that set the direction of the economy from the bottom up.
Read it here.

This seems to me to be a quite adequate formulation, one that carries little of the emotional baggage of the other terms currently in use, and one that focuses attention on the most pernicious common element of the various related ideologies of control -- the naive faith that credentialed elites can reliably render objective and effective judgment that can adequately substitute for individuals' own judgment of what is in their best interest. It is this, what Jean Francois Revel termed the "totalitarian temptation" that disturbs me most about the current trend in American political culture.