In "The New Liberalism", The New Yorker's George Packer spends over 6,000 words searching for Barack Obama's intellectual identity. It's a tricky, slippery business journeying into the ideological heart of the next American President, yet Packer is a hardy explorer. In his travelogue, he quotes David Axelrod, who describes Obama's thinking as "very eclectic". But even though Packer makes the standard comparisons with FDR and Reagan, he struggles to come up with a coherent ideological identity:
Unlike Reagan, Obama has no clear, simple ideology. People who have observed him in meetings describe a politician who solicits advice and information from a variety of sources, puts a high value on empirical evidence, and has the self-assurance to reach his own conclusions. A word that comes up again and again, from Obama himself and from people who know him, is “pragmatic.”
I wonder if Obama's supposed pragmatism -- this refusal to be ideologically pigeon-holed, a hostility to traditional right-left distinctions, even a rejection of the two parties as the anchors of American politics -- is emblematic of a new individualism in American political thinking. That Obama doesn't fit into tradition categories suggests, then, the appearance of a key new ideological category in American politics -- the uncategorizable. So can Obama's pragmatism -- which Packer believes is sometimes post-partisan and sometime progressive -- transform America? Packer believes that it can. But for Obama to reinvent America, Packer argues, he'll need a highly mobilized public that can help drive his agenda:
Transformative Presidents—those who changed the country’s sense of itself in some fundamental way—have usually had great social movements supporting and pushing them. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Roosevelt the labor unions, Johnson the civil-rights leaders, Reagan the conservative movement.
Here, of course, is where the Internet comes in. Packer believes that, to be a transformative figure of the stature of Lincoln or FDR, Obama needs a movement that can challenge Washington. The challenge, Packer argues, is to convert the "breadth", "organization" and "generational energy" of his grass-roots organization. Obama, therefore, could use his vast Internet following to put pressure on Washington to change its archaic ways:
The Internet could be used to insure transparency; almost every activity of the federal government could be documented online, as some state governments have begun to do. The White House could use the vast Obama e-mail list to convey information about key issues and bills, and to mobilize pressure on Congress. Just as F.D.R. used radio and Reagan television to speak to the public without going through the press, Obama could do the same with the Web.
And this is where Packer's 6,000 word odyssey seems to conclude -- with an "electronic social-network platform" that could usher in a new era built around the "public good" rather than "private goods". But I'm not convinced by this communitarian conclusion. Just as Obama is an uncategorizable, so I suspect that his followers represent an electronic mass movement of uncategorizables. What unites them all is the Internet. That's the new liberalism. As Packer acknowledges, the Obama revolution will "look more like Google than like the Tennessee Valley Authority."