Politics & Policy

Co-sponsoring Your Success

Obama seeks to restore the assumptions and priorities of the Progressive Era.

“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. . . . If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

— Barack Obama, Roanoke, Va., July 13

The president’s defenders have claimed he either misspoke last week at a Roanoke, Va., campaign event or that what he said is true. Both defenses have merit. Obama surely didn’t mean to say something that politically idiotic so plainly. And it’s true that no man’s accomplishments are entirely his own. We’re all indebted to others, and we all rely on government to provide some basic things. Only the straw-men conservatives of Obama’s imagination yearn for an America with no roads and bridges.

At best, Obama’s “gaffe” is a banal truism, and if the president’s praetorians want to defend him on grounds of platitudinous banality, fine. But even they have to know in their hearts that this is a pathetic maneuver, given that the reason they’re rushing to defend Obama in the first place is his commitment to the very philosophy they deny he’s espousing. 

This is the great irony of Obama and his defenders. He is a progressive ideologue and a passionate believer in “social justice,” and that’s a large reason why his fans love him so. But if you ever say that he is what he is — if you take his words seriously — they ridicule you for believing he’s anything other than a pragmatist and a moderate.

#ad#Meanwhile, what many conservatives don’t appreciate is that Obama is not some otherworldly radical, importing foreign ideas, but that he in fact fits within an old American intellectual tradition. Indeed, you might even call him a reactionary progressive; he seeks to restore the assumptions and priorities of the Progressive Era.

Herbert Croly, the godfather of American progressivism, spoke for a generation of progressive intellectuals when he wrote that the “individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed.” For the progressives, society and government were almost interchangeable terms. John Dewey, the seminal progressive philosopher, believed that “organized social control” via a “socialized economy” was the only means to create “free” individuals. For the progressives, freedom wasn’t the absence of government coercion, it was a pile of gifts from the state.

Progressives invented the idea of the “moral equivalent of war” as a means of inciting citizens to drop their personal priorities and rally around the state for a government-defined “cause larger than themselves.” Obama came into office under the motto “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and has been looking for “Sputnik moments” ever since in a search for a way to rationalize his agenda. 

To the extent Obama ever speaks the language of religion, it is to justify, even sanctify, the works of government. He often invokes the Hallmark-ized biblical teaching that “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” as a means to rationalize not personal action but government action. (Obama’s own half-siblings have received little attention from their very wealthy and famous relative.)

Progressive minister Walter Rauschenbusch famously declared that only the “God that answereth by low food prices” should be God. You might say that under the Obamacare vision, only the God that answereth with free birth control should be God.

In the slideshow “The Life of Julia,” the Obama campaign celebrates a progressive vision of citizenship where all of a hypothetical young woman’s accomplishments are co-produced by the state: “Under President Obama, Julia decides to have a child.”

It’s all of a piece with Obama’s conviction that “a problem facing any American is a problem facing all Americans.” 

The problem facing Obama is that there’s a reason the American people never fully embraced the progressive vision. The idea driving America is the individual pursuit of happiness. Just because the word “individual” appears in there doesn’t make it a selfish ideal; it means it’s a vision of liberty. We each find our happiness where we seek it. For some that’s in business, for others the arts, or religion or family or a mix of them all. And very often our happiness depends upon the satisfaction we feel at having conquered problems on our own.

Under President Obama, that sense of happiness is a mirage, because everything is a co-production of the state.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of  National Review Online , a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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