If there is any doubt remaining that the slogan “change” had no content when it was proffered as a reason for electing a President, consider this: Barack Obama bid farewell to the nation without calibrating his calls for change to his assertions of having already achieved it.
President Obama’s farewell last night—delivered not in the traditional sedateness of the Oval Office but rather at the site and in the manner of a campaign rally—thus served as a primer on the shift from the liberal politics of amelioration to the Progressive politics of historical teleology.
It should be said that despite the setting, he delivered the speech as he has conducted himself in office: with grace and class, perhaps not the highest bars, but ones whose importance we may come to appreciate with renewed urgency.
But clocking in at more than 4,000 words and 50 minutes, interrupted by adoring throngs who cheered robustly enough for the troops but wildly when Obama checked the boxes of various identity groups, it was hard to match the scene with the moment.
Yet the scene served its own purpose. It was surely not that the famously Vulcan Obama needs the adoration of crowds. It was, rather, to illustrate the Progressivism at the core of his thought:
Change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it. . . . It’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea—our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is, in a sense, the Hallmark version of Lincoln’s apple-of-gold metaphor: a watery understanding of the Declaration whereby the entire political machinery is led from behind rather than the popular will being refined and enlarged.
But it still does not answer: Change to what, and for what? The answer is, of course, change for Progress, and therefore change always. “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.”
Here are the roots of a deep dispute between Progressivism—the assumption that history is unfolding forward—and conservatism, which holds that custom merits conservation. Edmund Burke said he would never exclude change, “but even when I changed, it should be to preserve.”
Note that in the latter case, change is not in itself a value. It is anchored in something substantive. In Progressivism, it is too. The problem is that the something—the future—is an open and undefined frontier. Often, the populist, power-to-the-people appeals notwithstanding, it is the province of experts.
There was some of that in Obama’s farewell. While he was certainly right to warn of the erosion of common standards of factual discourse, a trend in which neither party is innocent, he assumes most problems can be technocratically solved:
Politics is a battle of ideas; in the course of a healthy debate, we’ll prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible.
This is hard to quarrel with as far as it goes. The question is how far it goes. Some people are unreasonable and irrational in politics, but the great weapon of Progressivism has always been to stigmatize as unreasonable and irrational whoever was opposed to whatever is deemed to be Progress. Whatever happened to prudence—to the assumption that many political questions, and perhaps most of the important ones, lay in a murky realm of judgment somewhere beyond obvious rights and clear wrongs?
Significantly, then, the President proceeded to characterize this deference to reason as “born of the Enlightenment.” The idea that reason, at which the Greeks had a pretty good go, is born of the Enlightenment is an attitude born of Progressivism. Because, after all, what else has it produced but Progress? It gave us, Obama said, airplanes and iPhones.
The President’s closing call for participation to induce further change trapped him in his own suppositions.
Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power—with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
Set aside the ironies—the President has had a habit of not enforcing certain laws, for example—as well the underlying assumption that America is a “long journey” forward rather than an inheritance to be preserved. What is striking is that he seemed all but oblivious to the fact that nearly half the country had in fact just taken him up on this invitation to participate and delivered a stunning jolt to the electoral system by choosing to succeed him a man Obama had described as unfit for the office. Perhaps Obama’s predecessor James Madison had the better idea with that “refining and enlarging” business.
Such is the ultimate moral condescension of the Progressive ethos. When Obama says the coming generation—which, speaking of Progress, will apparently be the first in the history of the species to be, as a group, “unselfish” and “altruistic”—“know[s] that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace,” he is not trying to reassure them about the change induced by the President-elect’s supporters. Their change is not real change. It is regress, not Progress.
The lessons that might have been learned from all this are that Progress is not an inherent value. Change is not an inherent good. Instead, the sense conveyed, against all the President’s intentions, is that when real Americans participate, Progress will ensue. In that sense, among others—the messianic politics, the farewell as rally, the discounting of those who are not real Americans—this much must be said: The farewell address was another step in a smooth transition to his successor.