I Still Believe in Transformative Politics

I have a lot of warm things to say about David Brooks. As a moderate conservative who isn’t shy about embracing either of those descriptors, his commentary is not always popular. Conservatives think he’s a squish, while liberals don’t necessarily want to hear from a conservative voice. But, all in all, Brooks seems genuinely cerebral, measured, and earnest. A man after my own heart.

With that out of the way, David Brooks has a penchant for doing and saying some wonderfully ironic things. For example, Brooks is teaching a class at Yale entitled “Humility”, which rather predictably has produced jeers from his detractors. Maybe a follow up course, one person suggested, could be entitled Hubris 101. Whomp, whomp.

Here’s another one: Brooks just published a piece where he asked, with an apparently straight face, “How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?” His conclusion? About a tenth.

Yes, a man who spends all of his time talking about, writing about, and commenting on politics just told us that we shouldn’t spend more than 10 percent of our time doing the same. Don’t worry, though. He explains that this rule doesn’t apply to people who think about politics professionally (like him), just the rest of us. No hypocrisy here – just a tad bit of elitism.

So maybe you’ll invest today’s allotment of political thought to ponder another point from the same column: is looking to politics for transformation a forlorn hope? Brooks says that it is. Politics is too clumsy, government too ineffective: “Government can set the stage, but it can’t be the play.” If you look to government to transform society, you’ll just become disillusioned. Just ask, he implies, an Obama supporter. Or maybe, he goes on, ask a JFK supporter from decades past.

Well, how about that. I’m an Obama supporter, in the sense that I voted for him twice. I hoped for transformative change and I’m not getting it. Am I disillusioned?

I’m going to go ahead and let you guess whether this heroic portrait of President Obama was for 2008 or 2012.

I’m going to go ahead and let you guess whether this heroic portrait of President Obama was for 2008 or 2012.

Not really. I’m disappointed. In truth, no one, regardless of their politics, who has lived through the last half decade of American politics, doesn’t have cause to be disappointed.

But before we give up the game and go home, I’d like to ask a slightly different question. Not can politics and government play a transformative role in society? – which seems to be at the heart of Brooks’ column – but rather, can society be transformed? Does it make sense to speak of social transformation at all?

Asked that way, I hope you’d agree that the obvious answer is yes. Society has been transformed over and over again: just think of the Protestant Reformation, the Civil Rights Movement, the fall of apartheid, or the advent of the mini-skirt. So now let’s ask: when society is transformed, does government play a role?

Again, the only answer is yes. Sometimes the change comes from within government and plays itself out in society and sometimes – more often – the change comes from outside of government and plays itself out by changing government. But either way, government is implicated in the change. Why? Is it because government is us and we are the government? Perhaps partly. But it’s also because government doesn’t exist above, beneath, or outside of society; government is an integral part of the societies we live in. When you change society, government is part of that change in much the same way that the family is part of that change: all the pieces are bound together and all the pieces tug on each other. Truthfully, I feel a little sheepish even pointing this out, but when people seem content to argue that government isn’t a transformative venture, then maybe the reminder is necessary after all.

Of course, governing isn’t only about transforming society; it’s also a technocratic function of the modern state. Brooks points this out, and in this regard he is absolutely correct: it is to everyone’s peril to forget that much of politics and government needs to be oriented towards the quotidian and the mundane.

But unless you think we’re living at the end of history – that the process of change is over – then you should expect government to continue to play a role in transforming society. That doesn’t seem like a live question. What does seem like a live question – and what I think is really at the heart of conservative/progressive arguments – is not whether government can play the role of social catalyst but whether we’re reaching the end of positive social change.

It is the lot of conservatives to argue that there are more ways for things to get worse than there are ways for them to get better, while progressives argue the opposite. One irony of this debate is that while conservatives like to take on the role of hard-nosed realists and deride progressives as utopian, it is conservatives who are the true optimists: whatever age they live in, they seem capable of looking around and seeing the glass as better than half full. Why rock the boat? You won’t make things better. It isn’t always clear whether conservatives view progressives as naive idealists or as simply ungrateful for how good things are.

And here’s where that old adage, “Where you stand depends on where you sit”, comes into play. The privileged segments of society have always had more to lose than gain from change, per se. If, on the other hand, the social compact isn’t serving you as well, then change might look a little better. This isn’t new.

So back to JFK and Obama. They promised transformative change – in the words of JFK: “Man holds in his mortal hands the possibility to abolish all forms of human poverty.” Kennedy promised that our country would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”


Have we lived up to those lofty ideals? Hardly. Is that a cause for disillusionment? Not at all. Those of us who believe in the transformative power of what people can accomplish together through government have never felt the need to bound that optimism with the naive trust that change is easily won or that it comes quickly. But change does come. Will it or not, the future arrives different than today. The only question is how we will meet that future – together or alone, prepared or unawares, forcefully willing to shape events or merely capable of responding to them.

Personally, I don’t have any qualms about saying that I still believe in transformative politics. I’m not blind to the many pitfalls of attempting bold projects as a nation, but I’m not shy about our ability to pull things off either.

It is, in so many ways, a remarkable conversation to have in America – the birthplace of the modern idea that society can be transformed through democratic politics. During the American Revolution, that was a radical idea. It remains so today.

The Fog of Policy will return after the New Year. Enjoy the holidays!

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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