Barack Obama won the White House promising a politics of change, yet he presides over an administration that has become a mortuary for dead ideas. In the year since his election, he has given the country not novelty, but the same old, same old, serving up policies that might have been arresting in the time of McKinley but have long since lost their luster.
From his administration’s profusion of “czars” and “special masters” to his party’s push to compel Americans to eat certain kinds of food and do certain kinds of exercise (that they might conform to whatever behavioral models are at present deemed good for them), from the drive to regulate the Internet to the proposal to require doctors to offer patients the latest refinements in “end-of-life counseling,” the president and his acolytes peddle the hoarier clichés of a now archaic politics of social regeneration.
It’s a “we know what’s good for you” philosophy that has come to grate on the nerves. Surely it is the inalienable right of every citizen to go to hell in his own way. President Obama has spoken of the moment in politics when “the perfection begins.” Sometimes one would just as soon the perfection ended. We are human beings, and deeply imperfect by nature. The last thing we need is a nosey, cajoling, and meddlesome state forcing a spurious gospel of betterment down our throats.
Once upon a time, social reform, with its ideal of government by enlightened administrators versed in the latest social technic, sounded like a good thing. It was hot stuff — in the 19th century, when Bismarck and Disraeli pioneered it. But what was exciting in the 1870s now seems not merely wrongheaded but old. Creaking.
By the 1950s, Hannah Arendt was warning that social reformers were drawing from a poisoned well. The social sciences to which they looked for inspiration were, she said, “behavioral sciences.” They aimed to “reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.”
Why has President Obama, a man who if anything has been a little too free with the word “change,” chosen a way of governing that was old hat half a century ago? It might be that he truly believes in the millennial promise of social-justice theology. Some go so far as to claim that the president has swallowed a secular version of the new-heaven-and-new-earth eschatology of the twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Floris.