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Column Wed Jan 21 2009
Contrarians are going to have a rough go of it for a while. That's OK, though; skepticism is easy when everybody agrees with you. It only counts when nobody wants to hear you.
I was moved by President Obama's words:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
Here our 44th president was talking directly to the soul of our revolution — another phrase he employed — that we have tried with varying degrees of success to sustain for now 232 years. President Obama was making an allusion to violations of civil liberties and the Constitution that have become the ornamentation of an evermore powerful executive. Torture, warrantless surveillance, habeas corpus and scandals that are yet to be discovered, but the sentiment was deeper. He was reminding us that America is an idea more than it is a "homeland."
Obama gets compared most often to Kennedy, Lincoln and Reagan, but his political technique and instinct bear enormous similarities to Franklin Roosevelt's. Roosevelt was savvy enough to promise sweeping change while being careful to avoid specifics or technocratic detail — Herbert Hoover's bailiwick — earning him rebuke from the right as an empty suit orator, and from the left as a secret centrist who refused to commit to real change. Sounds familiar. Roosevelt knew better than all his advisers and all the Democratic Party operators that his job was to inspire the populace and then educate them, not vice versa. In that way he knew he could "sell" the right thing to do to the voting public. In his book Electing FDR, Donald Ritchie describes how:
The candidate showed a great capacity for absorbing attractive ideas and a knack for avoiding political pitfalls. He patiently explained to his academic collaborators that a political campaign was a fight for office, not a program for adult education. Once elected, he could try to enlighten the public, but as a candidate, he "had to accept people's prejudices and turn them to good use."
But partly, it wasn't an act. Roosevelt didn't have a crystal ball or some kind of sixth sense that allowed him to know what would work or what wouldn't. Roosevelt's political skills, like Obama's, allowed him to capitalize on an extant atmosphere of voter rage and a generational shift of leadership — not to mention a climate of crisis.
Roosevelt was reacting to enormous pressure for radical change, and inspiring Americans to take part in those reforms. Obama seems to have made a similar calculation. His book is unwritten, and he can write it himself, but its contents will be a reflection of the demands he hears.
That's where the case for contrarians comes in. There is a role for an organized opposition, and better that that organized opposition comes from the left than the right. Roosevelt's Democratic Party also had huge majorities, but it utilized a considerable liberal Republican minority-within-a-minority to hold off the reactionary forces of both parties. Remember that powerful Democrat Al Smith of New York actively opposed the New Deal.
Being contrarian doesn't mean opposition for obstruction's sake; I think it means indifference to political necessity. Sometimes it's smart to hold off on some issue or other, but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a choir of voices reminding everybody what should be done.
Christopher Hitchens helped bring the word contrarian back into vogue as a more positive but also snobbier term to mask the stench of the word "radical." To be contrarian just means to always challenge power, even if the power seems well-intentioned. It's a sentiment that has an esteemed lineage in American history — Thomas Jefferson advocated occasional rebellion, saying in one instance, "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion... what signify a few lives lost in a century or two?" Kind of extreme, but these guys lived in a much rougher time.
President Obama was trained in the school of community organizing that takes as an unspoken premise that the challenging of power is necessary for a democratic society, so the power should be challenged for its own sake. But while he's now The Man, he's not The Man. The forces that defend the status quo are strong, and the president has no choice but to deal with them. The status quo being the contrarian's natural enemy, it's theirs to resist the president when he accommodates the status quo; otherwise that position could get too comfortable.
It's an exciting time. The possibilities, with a popular and brilliant president and a deceptively progressive House are many. The country's national leadership is going to need support and optimism, but it's going to need disputatiousness, too — the president has said so himself — so let's start on day one. Disagreement and dispute make for better solutions. The President may deserve the benefit of the doubt, but he isn't owed it.
His inspiring quotation of one of the great contrarians of all history, Thomas Paine, was fitting, and in the light of the conflagrations of this passing era, it brought to mind a passage from Paine's Rights of Man:
Conquest and tyranny, at some earlier period, dispossessed man of his rights, and he is now recovering them. And as the tide of all human affairs has its ebb and flow in directions contrary to each other, so also is it in this.
Paine and company faced down decimation by the British Empire, so let's not get crazy. But it's fair to be as excited as Thomas Paine must've been, writing those words.