The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Technocracy, Populism, and the New Ideology
Ivan Kenneally - 03/06/09

Part three of a symposium on the cultural impact of Obama and the New Progressivism. Read part one on economics and part two on education.

By now, the professional pundits are largely done investigating the causes of Obama’s election victory and are satisfied with the results of the many and competing autopsies performed on McCain’s necrotic campaign. Setting aside the obvious circumstantial reasons that account for the preference of the American public, including weariness from an unpopular war and impatience with an even more unpopular incumbent, the choice of Obama over McCain signified a striking prioritization of competence and populist rhetoric over political experience and military honor. In this sense, the most significant shift in the election was from a focus on the prosecution of the war to the management of the economy—Obama successfully persuaded the American people that what they needed most was not a battle hardened general but an optimistic administrator.

Moreover, Obama convinced a majority that he was the most qualified to steward them through turbulent economic times and the most likely, since he most sincerely feels their pain. McCain could never quite pull off the role of economic policy wonk and it’s too theatrically challenging for a former POW to artfully affect empathy over home foreclosures and dwindling capital gains. In short, the technocratic therapist triumphed over the honor loving soldier. During a time of economic anxiety the bureaucratic supervision of competing interests is bound to present itself as the central task of executive statesmanship just as periods of war diminish the significance of our material pursuits by highlighting the security they presuppose and the sense of mortality they distract us from. The stark brutality of war makes a mockery of the superficial comfort that comes from any mawkishly demagogic displays of empathy and the unpredictability of conflict repudiates the techno-political pretence that human affairs can be scientifically managed. War reminds us of the intractability of our deepest political problems but economic depression strikes us as technical difficulty that demands an administrative solution—it is a puzzle to be solved rather than a reminder of the permanent imperfection of human affairs. Obama appealed to an electorate that was more anxious than fearful and therefore more responsive to a therapeutic campaign than a bellicose one.

Ironically, the extraordinary success of the military surge in Iraq made Obama’s victory possible—for all his talk of revolutionary change, his electoral success depended upon some assurances of a return to political normality, the welcome expectation that the typical news cycle would once again be dominated by chatter about healthcare and retirement rather than terrorists and torture. Obama’s rousing (and even romantic) promises of hope and change belie how anticlimactic that change really is-his revolution culminates in the peaceful, administrative regulation of our more quotidian pursuits.

While the time for another post-election analysis has passed, the key ingredients in Obama’s victory, technocratic competence and therapeutic populism, provide the most illuminating portals into understanding the general orientation of our new administration. Nevertheless, it’s not at all clear that the undergirding premises of each are theoretically compatible. Obama’s populism is based on the hypertrophic satisfaction of the will of the people—he decries, however sincerely or consistently, the undermining of general consent by the overrepresentation of special interests or of the wealthy. In other words, Obama’s populism is about the protection of the ordinary man’s participation in civic life against the extraordinary advantages of minority factions armed with superior material and political resources. However, Obama’s conception of techno-politics is based on the embrace of a kind of techno-aristocracy—the hyper-educated elite with specialized politico-scientific expertise are singled out for the management of the benighted rest of us. The conspicuous contradiction embedded within Obama’s political program is between his populist lionization of consent and his technocratic diminution of it: the former presumes the prudence of ordinary common sense and the latter rejects the same common sense as radically unscientific.

It’s worth starting with Obama’s Inaugural speech to plumb the meaning of the new technocracy. One of the most telling but least commented upon lines in the speech was his promise to “restore science to its proper place.” Since he doesn’t expand upon this restoration in the remainder of the address it’s not immediately obvious what this amounts to. Of course, this at least assumes that science has been unjustly abused or neglected by the previous administration. Still, even if one concedes that now familiar straw man it still wouldn’t settle the much thornier issue of how precisely we should understand the relation between science and politics. It has been clear, though, that at least rhetorically Obama is taking his cues from the likes of Al Gore, spinning any objections to his policies as an “assault on reason” against the grain of what is scientifically demonstrable. Surely, his detractors are entitled to their views but the unambiguous authority of science itself will be the final arbiter of all political disputes.

It’s instructive to consider Obama’s defense of science in light of his more developed attack on the enervating effects of partisan politics–Obama promises to transcend the political differences between us for the sake of realizing a previously elusive common good. It’s not clear how Obama will achieve this or even if he’s capable–neither his primary nor national campaign captured the whole of American support. This is not a criticism of Obama but an observation of the stubborn recalcitrance of partisan dispute. He has consistently advocated a kind of post-political brand of governance that assumes partisan conflicts are never reflections of genuine versus spurious disagreement, are always based upon miscommunication or ideological dogmatism, and are never the result of competing worldviews that are held with deep, thoughtful conviction—of course, they are therefore never resistant to facile revision. In other words, if politics is reducible to technocratic competence then there is something peculiarly unenlightened about a clash of interests–our unshared interests seem to be little more than idiosyncratic expressions of rationally indefensible attachments. We all have rational interests and political science can unambiguously distinguish these from our irrational demands—a “special” interest is one that can’t be justified before the tribunal of scientific reason.

Obama’s populism is superficially presented as Madisonian—he doesn’t reject factions per se but only those that, to use the language of Federalist 10, are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” His impoverished view of political dispute, though, is quite a departure from Madison: Obama blithely assumes an easily won harmony of interests since their rationality makes for easily identifiable common ground; in a world of homogenous beings with purely rational desires political gridlock between adversaries is an abrogation of practical logic. Radically autonomous beings animated by nothing other than rational interest can live like socially gregarious and dependent beings if their highly particular and erotic longings are replaced by highly uniform and domesticated wants. Moreover, at least from the perspective of consent and a share in governance, Obama’s own favored special interest is the one that effectively monopolizes the market of reason, the technocratic class.

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