Beware Our Rousseauian Imaginer-in-Chief
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.