A couple follow-ups to my post about Lincoln and Obama are in order, given the comments. First, Corey Robin makes a good point:
Scott, you refer to “people who think that Barack Obama is precisely comparable to Abraham Lincoln and the PPACA precisely comparable to the 13th Amendment.” And you say, “Granted, I don’t believe these people exist (and this includes, I’m guessing, Speilberg and Kushner.)” Kushner has in fact made exactly those comparisons. Twice. Here on the Colbert Report (start 2:00): http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/421268/november-14-2012/tony-kushner-pt–2
And here on the Chris Hayes show: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46979738/#49947351
I agree that Kushner brought up the comparison in the general sense. What I meant by “precise equivalent” is that I don’t read Kushner as saying that Obama has had the same historical impact as Lincoln or that the PPACA has the same impact on American history as emancipation. I read Kushner and Speilberg as merely saying that Lincoln, like Obama, was a moderate and a pragmatist. On this point, Kushner and Speilberg are clearly correct and Kilpatrick is clearly wrong. It’s also perfectly accurate to point out that even the Civil War amendments represented compromises in which Republican moderates generally got more than radical Republicans. As described ,to the extent that I object to Kushner/Speilberg my objections would be the same as Robin’s — they seem to downplay the extent to which the unique conditions that allowed moderate pragmatism to have radical effects was created by the actions of the slaves themselves. But Kilpatrick specifically rejects this critique.
Now, precisely because 1861 was such an unusual context I don’t think Kushner’s comparison of Lincoln and Obama is very useful. Because changes that involve killing hundreds of thousands of people don’t provide a meaningful template for progressive change in ordinary political times, I don’t think a positive comparison is much more instructive than a negative comparison. Compare Obama to Clinton, Carter, LBJ, FDR — fine, but Lincoln isn’t going to be particularly helpful. But while the comparison is problematic I don’t think Kushner is saying that the PPACA is just as radical as emancipation.
In addition, a commenter has asked me to elaborate on my argument that “I’m not sure when the litmus test for being a Real Leftist became having a view of American political institutions that makes the complacent pluralists of the 50s look like Gramsci.” What I’m referring to is the increasingly familiar argument that Democratic “spinelessness” is the primary variable explaining why the development of the American welfare state lags behind other liberal democracies. On this view, there are no real institutional barriers to progressive change that the unfettered will of Democratic presidents couldn’t solve if they just wanted to, and because of this we can infer that they don’t want to. Kilpatrick’s sneering about how Obama “dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes” is a classic illustration: the implication is that having to deal with conservative Senate Democrats is a choice Obama is making, and if he were a Real Man of Manly Will he could just raise the green lantern and make them do his bidding.
The main problems with this line of reasoning are that 1)it’s wrong and 2)whatever it is, it’s not any kind of left analysis. Left analysis doesn’t ignore structural barriers. The brute fact about American politics is that legislative enactments require passing an unusual number of veto points, and the malapportionment of the Senate means that having people like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh as the pivot votes, amazingly enough, counts as an unusually favorable context. For this reason, progressive reform, in the relatively rare cases where it’s even possible, requires buying off entrenched interests. The Lincoln administration was a half-exception to these rules of American politics because of the context of the Civil War, not because Lincoln was a radical or a man of extraordinary will. And even so, the Civil War amendments were all compromised, and partly as a result of this even the emancipation of slaves by forces did not prevent the confederate states from forestalling democracy for another century. The idea that Obama could be Lincoln, or more than Lincoln, if he just wanted to is an unproductive fantasy that also rests on an inherently reactionary, bad-civics-textbook conception of American government.