Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What FDR Means

I want to add one more meta-item to my prior post's list of what’s substantive – and, by extension, the failure of our new president, so far, to rise to his moment in history.

I’m talking about the meta-historical meaning of FDR, what he most fundamentally signified – not just for economics or American politics, but for the human spirit. Yes, he coalesced the idea and the form of the modern welfare state. Yes, he created the model for leadership in the age of mass communications. Yes, he defined the normative political consensus for a generation. And yes, he was correct, in the judgment of history, on the two vast challenges with which the country was confronted in his time.

But deeper than that, FDR represented the capacity of human beings to tackle problems on a societal scale, in an age when “societal” meant huge, diverse, complex (in the complex-adaptive-systems sense), global. He was the modern world’s chief historical embodiment of hope – not just rhetorical hope, but functional hope. Whether you agreed with his place on the left-right spectrum or not, whether you saw him defending your interests or goring your ox, there was no gainsaying that he showed America and the world how to act. Not for action’s sake, but for posterity’s. He was an institution-builder. He acted at a scale that was adequate to the realities of life on Planet Earth in the 20th Century – not in the superficial, stage-set, literally fascistic way of Mussolini in “making the trains run on time,” but in a way that had legs in a democratizing, emergent reality.

A basic understanding of and reaction to that is what made people elect him four times. That’s what made my grandfather and my parents adore him. That’s what cemented his place in history. That’s what makes his accomplishment continue to resonate today – why it is still the model to emulate for any President of the United States.

FDR made it clear that the world had not become too vast and complex for human beings to handle. He understood that this engine the Founding Fathers had built had extra gears in it, that it could run safely at highway speeds. He saw an America and a world that others didn’t yet see – one that was just coming into its prime. And he actually built it – not only through his clear, tight and inspiring words and conceptual frames, but in actual forms and institutions that operationalized it for everyone. He saved capitalism and world-power-level democracy by imagining into existence a fuller, more grown-up America.

That’s what conservatives distrust, at a deep level – this remarkable confidence in the capacity of oneself and one’s fellow humans to get their arms around great big problems and make things better. It’s also what many on the Left distrust – and why they therefore hang onto archaic Marxist frames, with their teleological absolutism. FDR was the real exemplar of the audacity of hope. And that’s what Barack Obama is failing to live up to, so far.

The roadblocks have been cleared away. He’s got a mandate – a consensus (not just in the U.S., but truly global) on the need for massive change. His political opposition is a shadow of its former self, the disembodied spirit of the dying Saruman, hovering above the ground and about to be borne away by a passing breeze. The sheer size and direness of the present emergency clarifies the direction we must go, the nature of the actions we must take.

All that remains is the self-knowledge and the boldness to act. And yet, our new president quails before the prospect of such action. Instead, he dithers around with this silly post-partisan kabuki, instead of stepping up to the plate.

It's the substance, stupid.


David Berger said...

The Dems are cocking this up bigtime - support for the stimulus falls to 37%, according to Rasmussen. The perception of interest group payoffs has overwhelmed any sense that this launches an era of transformational investments.

Ironically, Obama's greatest gift is to frame things as Big Issues Full of Hope and Change, but he's not doing that when it's needed most. If you're reduced to saying that if you don't pass a bill it'll be an economic 'catastrophe,' you've lost the messaging war.

What a self-inflicted wound.

Falstaff said...

Of quite astonishing -- and consequential -- proportions.