(Centennial Institute Fellow) Lots of pundits are trying to figure out why President Obama is facing disaster this midterm election, but few have said it better than Michael Oakeshott despite his disadvantage of having been dead for 20 years.
Oakeshott was an English philosopher. His specialty was politics and his disposition was to prefer “fact to mystery,” “the limited to the unbounded” and “present laughter to Utopian bliss.” He said all this in an essay titled, “On Being Conservative,” in which he also trenchantly described politicians of the opposite sort, what I would call the Obama sort.
Such people, he said, see government “as a vast reservoir of power,” and that power “inspires them to dream,” to come up with “favorite projects” that “they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind.” So they grab for the power, maybe increase it, and then use it to impose these projects on everyone else. To them, government is “an instrument of passion” and “the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire.”
That’s not Obama? Of course it is. He spent 2008 stirring up as much emotion as he could, telling voters how awful things were for them and how he would make it all better. His favorite project has been a health-care remake that would leave no stethoscope untouched, or nearly none as government intrudes massively in the requirements and changes it plans to enforce when it more productively could have addressed certain particulars with nonabrasive, inexpensive prudence.
Back during the presidential campaign two years ago, voters fell for this charismatic orator, some literally swooning during his speeches. Oakeshott gives some reasons this could happen. The wants of some are “so vague” that they will reach out for whatever is proffered, he said. And that word—”vague”—aptly describes Obama’s promises of “hope and change” that some of us felt obscure to the point of inanity.
Oakeshott tells us something else is also at work, namely that some “prefer the promise of a provided abundance to the opportunity of choice and activity on their own account.,” which is to say, some will shrug at liberty losses as they cheer pledges of income redistribution and extension of the welfare state.
But as our philosopher also notes in this essay, the sailing may not be smooth for adventurous politicians. Elsewhere in his writings, he spells out a major reason this is so. There are lots of nifty theories cooked up by academics and embraced by politicians who don’t get it that theory is one thing, practicality another—that there are all kinds of perfectly tidy, well-researched, uplifting dreams that ought to stay dreams. Convert them into real-world programs and they produce nightmarish results.
As so it is with Obama’s self-declared triumphs. Even though it won’t fully kick in for some years, the health plan is already stymieing business expansion and raising premiums. And the $862 billion stimulus that was supposed to create millions of jobs as America leaped from recession? Facts caught up with this mystery, as even Obama had to admit to some degree in discussing all those “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects he had promised. There were no such things, he has now said, apparently having learned what was perfectly obvious from the start in this world of environmental impact statements.
When things like this go amiss, says Oakeshott, “we become aware of what the camel thinks of the camel driver,” and that is what’s happening in the midterm elections. A public plagued with Obama’s version of plenty is turning on him and his abettors. It’s not because voters have been rendered idiots by hard economic circumstances, as Obama put it somewhat more circumspectly in one of his talks, but because we see a truth he seems utterly incapable of accepting.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.