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January 12, 2010

Beware Our Rousseauian Imaginer in Chief

By

President Obama is sometimes called the “community organizer-in-chief.” But I’ve come to believe that he’s the “imaginer-in-chief,” master of what I would call “imagined communities.” By this I mean communities that exist as a figment of his imagination. When the president talks about the America he wants to create, he envisions some futuristic ideal community in which all good things exist, but only if the people -- in John Lennon-esque fashion -- first imagine it will be so and then act to make it happen regardless of whether it is possible.

This kind of utopian thinking is not merely political hyperbole, but the main sales routine for the president’s political program.

When he promises a world with “no nuclear weapons,” he invites you to suspend belief regarding whether it is even possible. The real agenda may be as mundane as simply reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but that limited goal is presented as a step toward fulfilling some future dream which will never be tested by reality. When he promises an America in which “no one will die because they don’t have health care” or no one is poor, he is invoking an image of a world that simply cannot exist. But this matters little because in the world of imagination, anything is possible, and truth and reality spoil the mood.

This is a time-worn practice of liberal politicians. Obama is not the first nor will he be the last to promise the end of poverty, a world without nuclear weapons, or some other hopelessly unachievable goal.

But Obama raises the politics of liberal imagination to a whole new level. Much of his rhetoric about “hope and change” expresses hyperbolic expectations of an imaginary world. To get people to suspend rational thinking to buy into it, he must engage their emotions. And to engage their emotions he must pretend to appeal to our better natures as idealists.

But “real” idealists are not utopians.

All good people hope the world will be and can be made a better place in which to live. But not all people believe it is possible for the U.S. government to guarantee that no one will die because they don’t have health care, or that every rogue nuclear state will give up its weapons, or that poverty can be eliminated by government fiat. The difference in these two propositions is more than that between the idealist and the realist.

It is rather between imagination and the truth.

All of this is why the president is not content to tinker or merely reform the American system; he believes he must fundamentally transform it. Along the way, he may have to make compromises out of political necessity, but it is his imaginary vision of a different America that drives him forward and, in his mind at least, ultimately will persuade people to follow him. Thus is Barack Obama an heir to the old progressive idea of creating a communitarian America.

His particular twist on this age-old idea is his charisma. He appears to transcend ideology, even though he is fiercely committed to one, because of his personal story. As the very first African-American president, he transcends mere liberalism and ascends into the realm of potential redemption for all of America’s past sins.

This is powerful stuff. It mixes the futuristic agenda of leftist idealism with the emotional power of national redemption, which is apolitical (or at least nonpartisan). We can, the narrative goes, redeem American history from the sins of slavery and other evil things by making sure this man succeeds as a president. Obama integrates the old progressive agenda with his personal story of redemption, supposedly rising above partisanship and thereby cleansing leftist politics of its sectarian and divisive agendas.

Yes, this is powerful symbolism. But it is still as empty and imaginary as Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. It is new wine in old leftist bottles, and thus suffers from the same confusion and fantasies as the old left.

It all starts with a fundamental intellectual error -- namely, that one’s notion of an ideal society as created by government somehow encompasses mankind’s most inner and precious purpose. Once you assume, as philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once did with his idea of the “general will,” that you have discovered the ultimate end-all of social life, you naturally become less concerned about limiting your means in trying to reach this ideal. All that messy business about checks and balances on government from Montesquieu and James Madison gets thrown out the window because, after all, you have embarked on a path much loftier and nobler than merely preserving freedom.

Trying simply to grow the economy or to give people more freedom and opportunity is way too mundane for a visionary leader of this ilk. The old-fashioned view of the good life in which as many people as possible can live as free and happily as the government will let them has given way to a vision of society in which no one is happy unless all are. The fact that this is an impossible goal makes no difference, because if you object you not only are accused of lacking imagination, but of callously depriving people of their happiness.

This is no small matter. How else could you justify “transforming” America’s constitutional order as President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi have promised to do if not for some great transcendent purpose? Pelosi famously responded to a question about whether her health care bill was constitutional with an incredulous “are you serious?” She could not even imagine health care being a question for the Constitution because, in her imagined world, everyone having health care trumps all other possible considerations.

The old cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions obviously applies here. But so too does “be careful what you wish for.” Any state that can acquire the power to try to create these imagined communities is one that can and will eventually bring the hard cold reality of deprivation and misery. A government that promises health care to everyone at lower cost will inevitably acquire so much control that it will make no difference if it doesn’t deliver. The power will belong to the government regardless, and despite all complaints, there will not be anything anybody can do if the reality falls short of the imagined outcome.

We are talking about statism here. Only the state (by mobilizing coercive power in government supposedly on behalf of the people) can make promises that, if broken, will lead to more state power, not less. The perverse logic is to prevent accountability for failure. Failure brings more government power, not less, because more power is supposedly the only way to fix a problem that government created in the first place. So, for example, if health care reform fails, the president or his liberal successors will not repeal the health care bill, but simply demand that more money is poured into the failing system -- and the government be given even more control.

Moreover, only the state can promise something which otherwise would make people collapse into heaps of derisive laughter. Those who believe that you can get much more health care for less cost obviously are on a different emotional and intellectual plane than those of us who balance our own checkbooks. They may imagine that the same government that can win world wars can and will deliver their wildest social dreams as well. But beware of pat comparisons of the brutal force used by armies in war and the power of government to remake society. Therein lies the road to tyranny.

President Obama is practicing the politics of imagination all right, just like countless other liberals, progressives, and leftists before him. But we should remember one thing: Imagination in this sense is fundamentally irrational. Its opposite is not thoughtlessness and stupidity, but rather reality.

In other words, the truth.

Kim R. Holmes is the Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, as well as Director of the think tank's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.

First Appeared in Pajamas Media

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