Obama and Herbert Croly

President Obama, in his quest for victory on health care, has striven mightily to do everything the progressive believes that the socially conscious leader ought to do. He has fired the zeal of grassroots activists by providing them with a right to be wronged and demons to oppose. He has given an articulate and seemingly authoritative face to a favored program of social justice-oriented pressure groups. Through Obama and health care, The New York Times provides for a nationwide audience the imagery of progressivism as the enlightened and compassionate interest of the poor and ordinary people, and of the American national community as a whole. Finally, Obama has tied the Democratic Party closer to the progressive Cause and made its vision, players, and tactics the business of the Party.

In short, Obama carried on in the spirit of Herbert Croly, one of modern progressivism's founders; in him and his health care vision, what Croly called the "Promise of American Life" can be seen striding toward its grand fulfillment.

Through Croly and Obama, progressivism as a movement actualizes into progressivism as governance. Croly the theoretician says that progressivism as governance means government that has reinterpreted the meaning of "Democracy." In order to govern, he says, the people must be shown how forces of "special interest" have trumped the communal will. They have to be shown how the quest for individual profit has allowed the privileged Haves to usurp the true meaning of democracy, which equates to the welfare of "the people" over the powerful. In Obama, the progressive sees the man who embodies Croly's definition of democracy and is trying valiantly to operationalize it. In Obama is a leader who runs the progressive banner up the flagpole and is not deterred if opponents -- or even the public -- don't salute it. If opponents don't salute the flag, they are to be overcome. If the public doesn't salute the flag, it is because the public is misinformed and must be shown by the president that the cause is worthy.

"I have said this is an ugly process," Obama said in his remarks about legislative procedure. He went on: "It was ugly when Republicans were in charge. It was ugly when Democrats were in charge." The statements were remarkable for Obama to say, since he is the man who campaigned on a promise to bring a new forthrightness to representative democracy. They were even more remarkable for a president to say, since the president is tasked with upholding the law and the traditions of constitutional government.

Any progressive will tell you that he is committed to democratic government. It is change, and not revolution, that he wants. Scholars like Arthur Schlesinger and C. Wright Mills, cognitive strategists like Noam Chomsky and George Lakoff, and activists like Saul Alinsky all make a point of saying that what they want is a return to what democracy should be as it was promised by the Founding Fathers. What today's progressives don't do, at least publicly, is consider that in his actions, it is revolution that Barak Obama seems committed to -- peaceable revolution, to be sure, but revolution nevertheless. The progressive, of course, is not alone in this refusal to see Obama as a revolutionary. But refusing to respect the established institutions and procedures of democracy -- interpreting progressive frame-making about reality as though it is real and enacting ill-thought-out solutions to issues on the basis of unconventional political weapons -- amounts to revolution rather than reform.

In The Promise of American Life, Croly tells progressives that the leader needs to be "peculiarly competent, energetic and responsible" and "perform the peculiarly difficult and exacting parts in a socially constructive drama." He is a person who must "do something effectual both to obtain individual emancipation and to accelerate the desirable process of social reconstruction." He needs to imbue his audiences with the progressive consciousness and be expert at stating its principles and employing its tactics, which Croly refers to as "weapons." The progressive leader, Croly says, is an architect whose purpose is to design a more just society, and who in the building of it must "mold [his] followers after [his] own likeness -- as all aspirants after the higher individual eminence have always been obliged to do." "American nationality," he writes, "will never be fulfilled except under the leadership of such men."

The Promise of American Life is seminal in the literature of progressivism, and any leader worth his salt will have read it. Barack Obama no doubt has digested it. It is a dry book, and few conservatives (and even few activist foot soldiers themselves) will have read it. But maybe they should. In one brutally honest moment, Croly writes that in the schema he describes, both followers and the leader need to watch over each other. They need to be on guard against each other because this leadership style "is liable to become perverse." It is a moment that surprises when the reader comes upon it. The awareness that their power may abuse is not an observation that progressives in the entertainment industry tell their audiences, or that leaders in the unions and the pressure groups tell foot soldier activists, or that professors in academia tell students. It is not something the editors of The New York Times tell their readers.

When we tread the path of revolution, we tread in waters that are unknown, containing dangerous shoals, and everyone who is gullible to this risks ruin. This is true of any kind of revolution, including progressive revolution, whose myth of equality, because it is among the most beautiful of ideals, presents an overpowering temptation to abuse.

And those who may be hurt in progressive revolution include progressives themselves.

John B. Parrott, Ph.D. is a former Air Force officer and college professor. He is the author of Being Like God: How American Elites Abuse Power and Politics, University Press of America, 2003.
President Obama, in his quest for victory on health care, has striven mightily to do everything the progressive believes that the socially conscious leader ought to do. He has fired the zeal of grassroots activists by providing them with a right to be wronged and demons to oppose. He has given an articulate and seemingly authoritative face to a favored program of social justice-oriented pressure groups. Through Obama and health care, The New York Times provides for a nationwide audience the imagery of progressivism as the enlightened and compassionate interest of the poor and ordinary people, and of the American national community as a whole. Finally, Obama has tied the Democratic Party closer to the progressive Cause and made its vision, players, and tactics the business of the Party.

In short, Obama carried on in the spirit of Herbert Croly, one of modern progressivism's founders; in him and his health care vision, what Croly called the "Promise of American Life" can be seen striding toward its grand fulfillment.

Through Croly and Obama, progressivism as a movement actualizes into progressivism as governance. Croly the theoretician says that progressivism as governance means government that has reinterpreted the meaning of "Democracy." In order to govern, he says, the people must be shown how forces of "special interest" have trumped the communal will. They have to be shown how the quest for individual profit has allowed the privileged Haves to usurp the true meaning of democracy, which equates to the welfare of "the people" over the powerful. In Obama, the progressive sees the man who embodies Croly's definition of democracy and is trying valiantly to operationalize it. In Obama is a leader who runs the progressive banner up the flagpole and is not deterred if opponents -- or even the public -- don't salute it. If opponents don't salute the flag, they are to be overcome. If the public doesn't salute the flag, it is because the public is misinformed and must be shown by the president that the cause is worthy.

"I have said this is an ugly process," Obama said in his remarks about legislative procedure. He went on: "It was ugly when Republicans were in charge. It was ugly when Democrats were in charge." The statements were remarkable for Obama to say, since he is the man who campaigned on a promise to bring a new forthrightness to representative democracy. They were even more remarkable for a president to say, since the president is tasked with upholding the law and the traditions of constitutional government.

Any progressive will tell you that he is committed to democratic government. It is change, and not revolution, that he wants. Scholars like Arthur Schlesinger and C. Wright Mills, cognitive strategists like Noam Chomsky and George Lakoff, and activists like Saul Alinsky all make a point of saying that what they want is a return to what democracy should be as it was promised by the Founding Fathers. What today's progressives don't do, at least publicly, is consider that in his actions, it is revolution that Barak Obama seems committed to -- peaceable revolution, to be sure, but revolution nevertheless. The progressive, of course, is not alone in this refusal to see Obama as a revolutionary. But refusing to respect the established institutions and procedures of democracy -- interpreting progressive frame-making about reality as though it is real and enacting ill-thought-out solutions to issues on the basis of unconventional political weapons -- amounts to revolution rather than reform.

In The Promise of American Life, Croly tells progressives that the leader needs to be "peculiarly competent, energetic and responsible" and "perform the peculiarly difficult and exacting parts in a socially constructive drama." He is a person who must "do something effectual both to obtain individual emancipation and to accelerate the desirable process of social reconstruction." He needs to imbue his audiences with the progressive consciousness and be expert at stating its principles and employing its tactics, which Croly refers to as "weapons." The progressive leader, Croly says, is an architect whose purpose is to design a more just society, and who in the building of it must "mold [his] followers after [his] own likeness -- as all aspirants after the higher individual eminence have always been obliged to do." "American nationality," he writes, "will never be fulfilled except under the leadership of such men."

The Promise of American Life is seminal in the literature of progressivism, and any leader worth his salt will have read it. Barack Obama no doubt has digested it. It is a dry book, and few conservatives (and even few activist foot soldiers themselves) will have read it. But maybe they should. In one brutally honest moment, Croly writes that in the schema he describes, both followers and the leader need to watch over each other. They need to be on guard against each other because this leadership style "is liable to become perverse." It is a moment that surprises when the reader comes upon it. The awareness that their power may abuse is not an observation that progressives in the entertainment industry tell their audiences, or that leaders in the unions and the pressure groups tell foot soldier activists, or that professors in academia tell students. It is not something the editors of The New York Times tell their readers.

When we tread the path of revolution, we tread in waters that are unknown, containing dangerous shoals, and everyone who is gullible to this risks ruin. This is true of any kind of revolution, including progressive revolution, whose myth of equality, because it is among the most beautiful of ideals, presents an overpowering temptation to abuse.

And those who may be hurt in progressive revolution include progressives themselves.

John B. Parrott, Ph.D. is a former Air Force officer and college professor. He is the author of Being Like God: How American Elites Abuse Power and Politics, University Press of America, 2003.