From Ideology to Competence

January 18, 2009

When Barack Obama strode out to the podium in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, the world thrilled, not just because of the election of a man of color, or a democrat, but because of a widespread belief that America had at last emerged from the long dark night of rigid, science-rejecting, dogmatic ideology. We would now move, we hoped, to embrace the more flexible counsel of competence. The tears in our eyes were because this could be a vote away from dogma and for skill, for analysis and for reason, a rejection of the cruel ideology that if the rich get richer, the poorer will get richer, too. It seemed to be at last a rejection of naked self interest as the final arbiter of American business and politics.

Ten ideologies seemed on that night to be consigned to the ash heap of history: (1) first, that the free market takes care of all problems, (2) second, that there is a need for unbridled presidential power in a time of war, (3) third, that we can accomplish the spread of democracy to the Middle East by military means, (4) fourth, that global warming is natural and cyclical, (5) fifth, that the world is divided into two parts, one good, the other evil, (6) sixth, that domestic law is made equally by the president with or without the aid of the congress, (7) seventh, that international law is a threat to American sovereignty, quaint and irrelevant, (8) eighth, that America is strong in the world if i t is strong militarily, (9) ninth, that in general the end justifies any means and therefore that moral authority is not power, only bombs are power, and finally, (10) tenth, that opposition, activists and democrats are a force to be decisively eliminated, extirpated from American politics forever.

These ten ideologies have dominated American politics for at least eight years and to a greater extent for nearly 30. We have disco vered, however, in the course of the last eight years that these doctrines were failing to produce their promised results. So in November, 2008, America voted instead for competence.

Put in another way, these ideologies do not any longer prevail because they do not solve problems on the ground. The idea that the government can stay out of the economy is an idealization of a principle from Adam Smith. It contains a grain of truth, but made absolute a free market without the restraints of the public interest produces horrific results, as it did this year in the financial and securities markets, the housing market, and in auto manufacture.

Mr. Cheney likes to point to Iraq as a success of militarism. We rid the world of a dictator and the Iraqis have held elections; they have a parliament. But the price of our so-called success has been ethnic cleansing in the cities, the deaths of several hundred thousand civilian Iraqis, a mass emigration of millions more Iraqis, and a paralysis of re-construction at the cost of billions of wasted dollars from the US.&nb sp; Seven years on, the lights and power, sewers and bridges of Iraq are not yet back to pre-war levels. If this is success one would hate to see the look of failure. In sum, the ideology of militarism has hit hard against the wall of reality: a free and prosperous society cannot be built at the point of a gun.

Most of these now-obsolete ideologies grew from the time of Ronald Reagan. They reached=2 0their apogees under George W. Bush, or more accurately, under Dick Cheney. November 4, showed them all, all ten of them, to have been at last found wanting.

From the appointments of Hilary Clinton at State, to Tom Daschle at Health and Human Services, to Susan Rice at the United Nations, to Steven Chu at the Department of Energy, Obama has selected persons of proven skill, intellectual power and experience. No longer are we likely to have the White House staffers delete conclusions from scientific reports for ideological reasons having nothing to do with science. No longer are we likely to have a rejection of the science of global warming or stem cell research or the contradiction of government meddling in the bedroom but being offended to intervene in board rooms. No longer are we likely to have an agenda to foster one fundamentalist religion and to exterminate from the planet another fundamentalist religion although both arise from the same fear of modern times.

‘Yes we can’ will mean moving from ridiculing government to empowering the great engine of public finance so as to provide care for our whole nation, from defiance of the law to a conscientious pursuit of the rule of law, from trust in the primary guidance of great wealth to trust in the common sense of millions. We are about to witness the inauguration of a man, his family, and our nation to a world of new hope.