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February 20, 2008

Obama and the Politics of Meaning
Posted by Shadi Hamid

What is driving the adulation over Obama? David Brooks, Joe Klein, and others have sensed a hint of messianism among his raucous supporters. It is, of course, worrying when people project so much of their hopes on one person, particularly when that person happens (we think) to be human. This is a recipe for disappointment. And they are right to notice something messianic about the Obama campaign. However, this "messianism" isn’t necessarily a bad thing, assuming that it is harnessed effectively and takes on a non-ideological, inclusive character. 

Obama is offering what I would describe as a “transcendent politics.” It is of a fundamentally different kind than politics as it is currently practiced (and perhaps that is why Paul Krugman is hyperventilating and embarrassing himself on a regular basis). There’s politics as usual, and then there’s politics as unusual. There is no doubt that Obama represents the latter. There is politics for the sake of politics (prescriptive, specific solutions to problems that are generally considered within the scope of government’s prerogatives). Then there is politics as a means to nonpolitical ends. Call it, if you like, a politics of meaning. It is interventionist in nature – again a pejorative word which need not be. A politics of meaning is meant to reconfigure the boundaries of political and even social-moral discourse. It is meant to inject greater meaning into what we do and how we do it. Perhaps, then, it shares some common traits with “national greatness” conservatism, except “national greatness” liberalism recognizes that what makes our nation great is our capacity for self-doubt and self-criticism, our willingness to acknowledge that, in the words of Peter Beinart, "we are not angels."

Again, for some, this kind of thing is frightening, and why shouldn’t it be? Grand projects have tended to fail in the past (i.e. the 1960s). However, grand projects have also led to great, towering successes (i.e. the 1960s). Here’s another way of looking at it. Foreign policy has tended to be about preserving the national interest. That’s the way most states practice it. It is also how we practice it, but U.S. foreign policy has aspired to something greater. This aspiration - even though it only occasionally becomes anything more than that - is about a recognition that we are different, that the normal limitations of policy are not things to be bound by, but, rather, to be freed from. We may have failed to meet our own lofty expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should stop believing that the conduct of foreign policy is about more than just the traditional maneuverings of a nation-state in search of its interests; it is also about “meaning.” It is about knowing who we are, knowing what we believe in, and employing that knowledge toward larger, transformative goals. At it's best, politics is about a shared sense of mission, again a pejorative word, but why should it be?

If, in our politics abroad, we aspire to transcend cultural and religious specificities in the service of ideals we hold to be both universal and timeless, then why shouldn’t we aspire to something similar at home – a re-imagination of what it means to be American that takes our founding ideals as a starting point and begins to bridge the vast gulf between what we do and what believe we should do, between what is and what should be.