Forward! Without the Individual

by Michael Auslin

As Charles wrote on the homepage Friday, for Barack Obama, “nothing lies between the citizen and the state.” Perhaps the keynote of Obama’s second inaugural address, the Magna Carta of the new liberalism, is this line: “Preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action.”

The line was certainly banal, as well as Orwellian. But it would be a mistake to ignore it as a rhetorical weapon. What Obama hopes to achieve, above and beyond his policy goals, is to move American society to a point where he won’t even have to give lip service to concepts such as “individual freedom,” at least when talking about his statist agenda. Today, he must still use such traditional American concepts, must still appeal to what one hopes is deeply rooted in our national psyche. For the same reason, Obama completely obfuscated his plans during his first run for the presidency, back in 2008. Then, he had to promise a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans, when he fully knew that his policies would raise different types of taxes on all Americans, but that this was not politically palatable. While he was certainly more unbound in his second inaugural, as noted by many observers on both the left and right, one can see where he is still constrained, perhaps by an understanding (distasteful to him, no doubt) as to how far he can push without stirring some deeper unease among even those sympathetic to his less far-reaching goals.

But this is clearly a gambit to shift the country’s political philosophy (regardless of how well thought out or even understood by Obama) by utilizing the vital role of rhetoric. Changing how we talk is a prerequisite to changing how we think, shaping reality through our words. Over the next four years, how far will Obama, with the support of the media, universities, and popular culture, have succeeding in changing forever our national rhetoric, where the liberal statist conception of the American collectivity supplants our timeless appeal to individual freedom? Where the prudent concept of hedging government around with barriers, so as to protect the individual, is replaced by an ideological concept of “dignity” defined by the state? Where individualism is seen as selfish, while the government-defined “community” is seen as virtuous?

And, no, for those in the peanut gallery, I’m not claiming that Barack Obama wants to destroy all our individual freedom, or turn us into a totalitarian state. But his thrust to more subtly shift how we think of ourselves and our relation to the state is a necessary ingredient for softening current and future opposition to the expansion of government and the dependency society. Even more insidiously, it is a bid to redefine the American character, from which all else flows.

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