I posted this piece at What I Saw In America on Friday last; for any readers of both these sites, I apologize for the redundancy.  However, I think this posting is highly relevant to the discussions here on the porch…


Alexandria, VA In a column published last week, David Brooks writes of the remarkably conservative nature of President Obama’s recent pronouncements on the economy. Rather than sounding like and “economic liberal” – concerned above all with the equalization of wealth – President Obama “sounded like a cultural conservative.”

America once had a responsible economic culture, Obama argued. People used to save their pennies to buy their dream houses. Banks used to lend by ‘traditional standards.’ Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to stick to their ‘traditional mandate.’ Companies like AIG used to limit themselves to the ‘traditional insurance business.’

But these traditions broke down, Obama continued. They were swamped by irresponsibility. Businesspeople chased ‘short-term profits’ over long-term investments. Smart people spent more time manipulating numbers and symbols rather than actually making things. Americans consumed too much and saved too little. America became corrupted by ‘excessive debt,’ ‘reckless speculation’ and ‘fleeting profits.’

Brooks continues that “if Republicans aren’t nervous, they should be. Obama is arguing for his activist agenda not on the basis of class-consciousness, which is alien to America, but as a defense of middle-class morality, which is central to it. Obama is positioning the Democrats as the party of order, responsibility and small-town values. If he pulls this mantle away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics.”

Tut tut, David. We are now coming out of a period when the central message of the Republican Party – which was regnant in the Presidency during twenty of the past twenty-nine years – was a that of “individual responsibility,” “family values,” and the valorization of the traditional virtues over forms of liberal irresponsibility. Over that same time period what we have decisively witnessed is the overall decline of all of these desiderata. Whether in the economy, the role of the family, adherence to traditional religious belief, or the health of “small towns,” we have witnessed a steady and breathtakingly rapid decline of every measure of “traditional” ways of life. Relying on the virtues purportedly generated by the “Free Market” rather than “Big Government,” Republicans were willing to accommodate themselves to the myriad ways that the expansion of the particular market system they generally supported actively undermined the very virtues to which they were simultaneously paying lip service. Now we are being told that it is in fact Big Government that can supply the necessary underpinnings for shoring up “traditional values.” Really? Given this woeful disconnect between the rhetoric of a regnant Party and the actual facts on the ground in the world, why should we credit for a moment the extolling of “traditional values” in one speech, now by a Democrat? Yes, Brooks is right that Republicans have reason to be fearful, inasmuch as his “traditionalist” rhetoric represents a serious political threat. But, should conservatives be heartened? At the very least we might be curious whether there seems to be evidence of “money” where the President’s mouth is. And, by this test, I see as little evidence of an actual commitment to the realization of a traditional culture that actually supports traditional values of the sort commended by President Obama as I have in the past thirty years dominated by “conservatives.”

In his Georgetown speech, President Obama argued that the new rock-solid foundation of the economy would be built on five pillars: increased regulation of the financial industry; increased investment in education emphasizing science and technology; policies that will encourage alternative “renewable” energy; a plan that will move toward universal health care; and savings in the budget to bring down the national debt. Where in this list do we see firm and striking evidence of a turn to “traditional values” and greater “responsibility?” In every case – certainly in the particulars – what we are actually being offered is further expansion of the existing order, an order that fosters the opposite of the kind of culture that cultivates and reinforces “order, responsibility and small-town values.” For starters, where is the recommendation here that will encourage the preservation of small towns? Where are the commendations of policies that will reverse the tendencies toward abstraction, generational neglect, short-term thinking and the meritocratic race for material markers of success that have been so instrumental in fostering a culture of disorder, irresponsibility and values of itinerancy and placelessness?

To take just a few examples, increased regulation of the financial industry will not in itself promote more “responsibility.” Many have observed that even before the crisis that the financial industry was one of the most regulated industries in the country: in part what was lacking was the political desire or will to enforce the regulation in the midst of what appeared to be a financial boom, but more fundamentally it is the very structure of the current financial and broader economic system that encourages the very opposite of responsibility. The abstraction of the financial markets – the separation of “producers” from “consumers” and the geographical separation between production and consumption – induces a profound ignorance about the actual effects of our activities as “consumers” or “investors,” and is the very precondition for the most profound form of ignorance and irresponsibility. Where in the President’s policy proposals do we see efforts to reconnect products with the localities from which they are derived – for instance, an effort to encourage banks to retain mortgages based within their localities and for which they will be responsible for the lives of those loans?  Where is a call to break up any businesses that are “too big to fail,” that hold national policy over a barrel and obligate American taxpayers to bail out bad actors and companies that shouldn’t still be in business?  How about policies that gave advantages to smaller firms and made it far more difficult for bigger firms to operate?  These are the kinds of policies that might encourage “small-town values” of thrift and responsibility – precisely because those activities are lodged in a place – and it is just these kinds of values that the President is in no way whatsoever interested in promoting, that would in fact go against his deepest inclinations to promote separation and placelessness.

Or, take the commendation of a policy encouraging investments in renewable energies. The background assumption in this proposal is to “incentivize” the market to come up with energy solutions that will allow us to continue to live and act in precisely the way we have been living. Encouraging the expansion of our highly mobile and disassociated lives is at its heart the very source of the evisceration of small towns that are the source of “small town values.” Moreover, Obama encourages the creation of “home-grown” alternatives, which has meant for him the promotion of further increases in corn-based ethanol (after all, he was a Senator from Illinois…). This form of energy production is demonstrably inefficient and destructive of the farmland on which it is practiced. What is above all missing in the various proposals relating to energy is even the passing suggestion that we should consider policies that encourage us to change our behavior – living closer to the places where we work and shop, driving less, being more invested in our particular places and communities. Effectively Obama is suggesting – just as much as George Bush the First – that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”

Or, consider his argument on behalf of investments in education in science and technology. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Obama framed this discussion as an appeal for Americans to begin “making things” again – to become makers rather than manipulators of numbers. However, what this proposal effectively commends is the actual relief from an emphasis on “making things.” It is another form of manipulation – in this case, the manipulation of nature – that is aimed at liberating us in many of its forms from responsibility to the consequences of our actions. Science is actually a replacement for responsibility: rather than being called upon to change our activities where they prove destructive, we aspire to the creation of technologies that will relieve the worst effects of our damaging actions. Obama’s endorsement of an abortion regime is one major indicator of this fact: our ability to clinically end a child’s life is the desirable means by which we escape responsibility for consequences of sexual decisions. If Obama were serious about “responsibility” in this domain, he would encourage ways and patterns of life that encourage courtship and marriage. At the very least, he might roll out a serious program in which the resources of the Federal government would be devoted to making it possible for every mother who carried an unwanted baby to give that child up for adoption, cost free. But that would be to ask people to act responsibly and accept the consequences of their actions. Similarly, in many other instances – whether global warming, oil depletion, the consequences of industrial farming, a bad financial system (one go on almost indefinitely) – the preferred solution of this government lies always in devising some mechanism (technological or regulatory) that will manage the effects our irresponsibility, not call on us to change our actions in ways that encourage responsibility. There is remarkable consistency in the willful desire to avoid considering the meaning and consequences of our actions, and of calling for the fostering (or even outright new creation) of those culturally sound conditions that foster traditional values.

Where is there a commendation for “investments” in education that promote responsibility and stewardship? That encourage students to return to their places of origin and give back to their home communities? That discourage careerism based on the prospects of outsized financial rewards, and the willingness to cut moral corners that was so evident among our best and brightest who were working for the discredited and bankrupt Wall Street firms? Laws and regulations won’t foster these sorts of “values”: at best, in a morally bankrupt environment, all they will do is foster extensive efforts to get around regulation.

In looking more closely at the disconnect between words and actions, there is essentially NO difference between the Republican presidencies of the past thirty years and Obama’s administration of “change.” Indeed, there is no fundamental difference in the masterful effort to obfuscate the expansion of a society of disconnection and abstraction with the rhetoric of “traditional values.” There IS a cynical effort to marshal political support by means of widespread sympathy with, even longing for, a society that generates and reinforces those political values, even as proposed policies are designed at every turn to undermine the conditions that might actually foster the sorts of values that are being rhetorically valorized. “Conservatives” are rightly frustrated and stymied because President Obama has indeed stolen from their own playbook. However, Obama stole not only a page, but the entire book, including the part of the manual that lays out not only the tactic, but the endgame. A case in point:  even as Obama won the nomination in part because he spoke the anxieties of the ordinary working classes by suggesting that he would seek renegotiation of existing Free Trade agreements – even that he would reassess the entire Free Trade regime – more recently he has signaled his desire to continue business as usual, further increasing the separation of production from consumption and further eviscerating the stability of small towns that embody the values that he purportedly cherishes. No different from Reagan or Bush I or Clinton or Bush II before him: say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

The economic policy speech at Georgetown embodied exactly the same tactic as his earlier speech there (delivered without the Presidential prerogative of covering up the name of the Messiah) – to which he referred at the outset of his most recent speech. In that earlier speech – which I wrote about at the time, and in which I even had a minor role to play – Senator Obama began by criticizing then President Bush’s woeful failure to call for civic sacrifice after the attacks of 9/11. Instead, he pointed out, President Bush encouraged us to go shopping. Senator Obama spoke with rhetorical brilliance of the central need for a new civic ethic, one devoted the pursuit of the common good. And then – he gave us his proposals in the areas of energy reform. First, he said, there should be legislation to increase CAFE standards – that is, increase the minimum miles per gallon of automobiles. Second (and familiarly), he called for the increased production of ethanol. At the conclusion of the speech, I had the opportunity to pose a question to Senator Obama, in which I challenged him to articulate in what way his policies would result in any actual achievement of sacrifice and common good that he had so eloquently extolled in the first part of his speech. And, revealingly, Senator Obama at first hemmed and hawed, and finally answered that it wouldn’t be possible to ask people who were struggling so mightily with the high price of gas to change their behaviors – such as consider ways to live closer to work. The entire game was there in his answer – and smart folks like David Brooks should be in the forefront of demanding better answers than this sort. Yet, we can little expect those sorts of follow-up questions, since most of the President’s “conservative” critics essentially agree with the game, and are angry more than anything else that Obama stole their mojo. Thus they are shut out, even as they know he’s really one of them. Different crooner, same lyrics – the song remains the same.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Here, at last, is the sort of piece I’ve been waiting for from Front Porch Republic and Deneen. It’s great work, Patrick, and just in time to help me conclude my class on various American understandings of liberty.

    Now Deneen is too hard on President Obama suggesting that “the American way of life is non-negociatable.” From my ‘lil seat within the Republican big tent, I’d have to say that’s a sin my side is much more inclined to commit. Obama did have the guts to make his (infamous among many conservatives) remark about Americans assuming they can keep their thermoters at 68 degrees year-round.

    And I roll my eyes at these predictable “same as the old boss” “not a dime’s worth of difference” Front Porch Republic rhetorical tropes as hyperbolic and silly. Slogans perhaps somewhat excusable if ever a serious political movement could get afoot…but otherwise…

    But I quibble. Because here I see the Front Porch Republic getting down to brass tacks. Against ethanol. For a modern version of “trust busting,” especialy in financial markets. Incentives for localized mortage holding. Even incentives for smaller businesses and penalties for larger ones! And, in some undefined way, against Free Trade. That is, against an unqualified commitment to Free Trade. Probably for a gas tax, or at least for other incentives to those who don’t commute far. Some politicallly bold stuff there, but sounding quite good at this moment.

    Here, Deneen’s theoretical and practical sides are working together quite well. Again, kudos!

    I really think the time has come to think more movement-wise. I stand loyal to the Republicans, because my Tocquevillian realism about modern commerce won’t allow me to make the sort of sweeping condemnations of corporate capitalism and liberalism that many of you here are way too ready to indulge in. But, man, we need the Front Porch Republic type voice out there. Make the Republican and Democratic candidates/parties have to compete for Front Porch Support, as they once upon a time had to do for Progressive support.

  2. Carl,
    Would that there were enough folks here on the Front Porch that we’d Gummint types begging to be invited up for a sip of some bourbon. Maybe there’d be someone worth talking to. Thanks for the words.

    And, yes, I do exaggerate when I state “the song remains the same” if that’s taken to understand that there are not important differences in many respects between the respective parties. I wouldn’t argue with that. But when it comes to certain fundamental commitments having to do with an embrace of the modern regime – with its emphasis on economic growth, expansion, centralization of power, consolidation, mobility, meritocracy, bigger is beautiful, a “culture of choice” – then I say, a pox on both their houses.

  3. When I read David Brook’s comment that if the Democrat Party absconds with the Gouty Old Party’s hold on order and small town “Family Values” then it would be the “greatest train robbery in American Politics”, I choked, spewed and began to laugh more than I normally do when reading Mr. Brooks boosterish flights into close-but-no-cigar populist sophistry. One cannot call it a “train robbery” if said train already blew off the rails and into a swamp, leaving the passengers running from gators and a strongbox already plundered. It might be a salvage job but it aint robbery because the crime was already committed in the brazen Bait and Switch of the George W. Bush years.

    Good for you Deneen, for pushing the new President on his rhetorical flights. This is the M.O. of a Washington averse to cause and effect. They lay out a romantic premise or some manic scream of “Boo!” and then craft a policy that contradicts the earlier claim …and then pervert that policy further in execution. The camel becomes a three-legged land beast with fins instead of humps. By all accounts, President Obama is fast appearing to be a real player in this tired Beltway Bait and Switch. Really, the hoary denizens of Foggy Bottom have no choice now because the imperial over-reach and feral policies of the lapsed-Republic run square up against the prevailing mythology and it aint a pretty sight. Cognitive Dissonance can only be carried on at a fever pitch for so long before the civic body swoons. The only hope is that the public’s somnolence and gullibility remains the same. So far, so good for Washington D.C., that Multi-Cultural Cosa Nostra with the most talkative Omerta in the history of organized Bunko.

    Generally, it is best to add all statements, average them and then assume the opposite of what is said. This is the chief bi-partisan initiative of our two erstwhile political parties.

    Mr. Scott is perhaps right, maybe there is a dimes worth of difference between parties…but it’s only a dime and with the bi-partisan budget busting going on now, that dime will be two penny soon enough, hence the phrase “give you my two-cents worth”.

  4. Alan Greenspan, pondering why the fall of communism did not automatically result in “free market capitalism” in the former Soviet Union.

    “Over the last seven years, with the Soviet bloc books now open, we of course have learned much about how communist economics worked, or, more to the point, did not. But the biggest surprise is what the aftermath of the four-decade experiment has been teaching us about how and why our own Western economies and societies function, or, perhaps more exactly, refreshing our own long-dormant memories of the process.

    Economists have had considerable experience this century in observing how market economies converted to centrally planned ones but until recently have had virtually no exposure in the opposite direction. Ironically, in aiding in the process of implementing the latter, we are being forced to more fully understand the roots of our own system.

    Much of what we took for granted in our free market system and assumed to be human nature was not nature at all, but culture. The dismantling of the central planning function in an economy does not, as some had supposed, automatically establish a free market entrepreneurial system. There is a vast amount of capitalist culture and infrastructure
    underpinning market economies that has evolved over generations: laws, conventions, behaviors, and a wide variety of business professions and practices that have no important functions in a centrally planned economy.”

    There’s a kernel of an important thought there, if the libertarians could throw off their self-imposed intellectual shackles long enough to see it.

  5. “Do small towns pay for themselves? Are they responsible to and for themselves?”

    Not if the national goverments have anything to do with things. Which they do.

  6. So you state that financial regulation hasn’t worked because people will just find loopholes and then you suggest that the government….should regulate to ensure localized businesses? I think theres a fair point to be made that the trustbusting aspect of the FTC has languished for years, preferring to encourage consolidation with minimal interference, instead of its original mission of busting up monopolies, in fact or spirit.

    “What is above all missing in the various proposals relating to energy is even the passing suggestion that we should consider policies that encourage us to change our behavior – living closer to the places where we work and shop, driving less, being more invested in our particular places and communities.”

    That sounds a wee-bit ridiculous as Obama and Biden are the first two presidents in years to come from urban areas, and there seems to be some initiative on their part to encourage a change in how urban space is designed. Of course, that would be cold comfort for those who consider rural, small towns as the only center of community, and theres been rumbling that the much touted Office of Urban Policy hasn’t gotten off to the greatest start. Either way, the general move seems to be towards constructing better designed, community-oriented cities by changing regulations and zoning problems that have discouraged urban planning that actually takes people into consideration i.e. the rise of people like Robert Moses, who bulldozed NYC’s once bustling ethnic communities with super-highways.

    I don’t know if urban community will get stronger or weaker in the coming years, but from my vantage point of living in a modestly sized south-eastern capital (Columbia, S.C.), it seems to be heading in the direction of stronger. Hell, I can’t walk around the city, shop, or eat without running into someone I know, or having additional guests at dinner as people walk in. And the move towards a greater mix of housing, both class-wise and racially, has improved that sense.

  7. Excellent article, Patrick. And flenser, thanks for telling us about that Greenspan quote. I didn’t know he was wise enough to say those things.

    Btw, those CAFE standards are one of the worst culprits in encouraging sprawling, disconnected communities. They make it possible for people to buy gas-guzzling cars and live far from work. As long as the car manufacturer meets the fleet standards, the person who can afford a gas-guzzler (or even a gas-efficient car) has no particular motivation to reduce the amount of time the vehicle spends traveling. A gas-tax, preferably a net-zero gas tax, would be different. It would motivate people to live and work in communities.

  8. I visit your site frequently because it’s so different from other politically oriented venues. It’s wonderfully eclectic in interests and peculiar in the angles you take to the issues. And I loved the article posted very early on about the history of front porches versus back patios. So perceptive. But there’s also a naive idealism that’s threaded through your posts. A kind of academic distance from reality. It provides fascinatingly fresh perspective, but it’s also frustrating because it ignores hard realities of the world. It also has a moralizing tone that’s not appealing.

    Take your discussion of local production for local consumption. If I can get a loan from someone far away at a better rate, I would be an idiot not to. As a businessman, I can tell you I will seek the lowest cost all over the world for my purchases and will ship my products anywhere in the world where the price is highest. If I don’t, my competitor will and drive me out of business. My uncle in the apparel business buys from a wholesaler in LA who in turn buys from Vietnamese and Indian garment producers. The apparel is then retailed to mostly Latinos in New Jersey. You make all this sound immoral. If not impose huge tariffs, would you want Obama to publicly classify these local “global” businessmen as morally unworthy?

    Can you clarify what your views are on cities versus small towns? On the one hand, you seem to be saying you think small town values are superior to city values. But on the other hand, you seem to want policies that will lead to further urbanization. Maybe cities with small town values? As much as I too am nostalgic for the small town where I grew up, I left for the cities for college and then for work. Cities small, medium, and large are where people gather and meet and live and exchange ideas and create things. Cities are centers of learning and human flourishing as well as a lot of bad things that come with a mass of humanity coming together to live, love, inspire, compete, fight, and all the other things men and women always do. I love cities. I love small towns. But most of all, I love the quintessentially American mobility that you think should be discouraged that allows me to choose where I want to live at any given time.

    By the way, Obama returned to Chicago to work in the community that he lived in before he went off to law school. His wife also returned to her hometown and worked in the community after quitting her job as a corporate lawyer. They seem to have lived your ideal. Except it was Chicago, and not Attica Michigan. And I find your pining for traditional religions odd. Wasn’t America all about self-made religions and sects? Hasn’t there been a consistent history of new doctrines and “cults” popping up every couple of decades throughout our history to renew the vibrancy of our community’s religious lives?

    I do love your publication. It’s truly unique.

  9. Many thanks to Aubrey Maturin for the kind words about this site. I am as much in awe at the range and insight of the authors here (not to mention the commentators), and share the sense that here something quite unique and hopeful is taking shape.

    Still, one quality that I think perhaps could be ascribed to all the various authors on this site is a one or another form of “a naive idealism” which Aubrey attributes in my case to “a kind of academic distance from reality.” Now, I won’t discount that any “naive idealism” on my part arises from “academic distance from reality,” though I would at least point out two factors to consider: 1. The numerous non-academics among the authors on the Front Porch perhaps also share some variants of a sort of “naive idealism,” suggesting that our idealism is not solely or merely academic; and, 2. I know of VERY FEW academics who share anything resembling my views on many of these matters – if anything, I am an apostate within the academic priesthood – suggesting that my naive idealism, if it arises from any source, is far less likely to be an academic in nature.

    But, more specifically: I am a “political theorist,” and a particular kind of that odd species. I study the history of political philosophy, that is, a wide range of ideas that various human beings throughout the ages have thought how we ought to organize our society and our polity in accordance with a particular and often varying visions of what each regarded to constitute the good life. It’s true, then, that this backdrop induces a certain distance from “hard realities of the world,” but that’s in part because my approach doesn’t necessarily accept as given that what we regard as “the hard realities” are necessarily or permanently part of the organization of our human world. Now, at the same time I write that, I also acknowledge that a number of (particularly modern) political philosophers (e.g., Karl Marx) proved to be catastrophic because not only did they refuse to accept the reality of the human world as “given,” but they sought its radical transformation in the name of an ideal alternative vision (not to mention a severely “moralizing tone”!). So, part of the difficulty of anyone seeking to negotiate between what is and what ought to be is an awareness of what Vaclav Havel called “the art of the possible” in both senses – what real and live political possibilities exist which our current age may be incapable of seeing, and what limits are imposed by both circumstance and human nature itself that ought to point to the outer limits of what is deemed to be “possible.”

    I strive – doubtlessly often deficiently or excessively – to undertake this negotiation in thinking about what might be possible, in the effort to argue on behalf of what I think would be a better way than the course on which we are now embarked. A great portion of my effort is to engage in a fairly sustained argument against what are now regarded as contemporary orthodoxies. You name several of those orthodoxies here: the orthodoxy of economic efficiency and comparative advantage trumping any other considerations (yes, it’s true what you say about modern business, but it does not have to be conducted always and everywhere in this way); the orthodoxy that cosmopolitan cities are the best loci of our “creative classes”; the orthodoxy that religion is and should be something that we make up and choose for ourselves in ways that best comport with our own inclinations at any given time. Often I invoke some older “orthodoxies” against these (admittedly, quite unfashionable, but no less “real” in their own time): the subordination of economic considerations (and, particularly narrowly conceived ones which stress efficiency and growth) to broader considerations of the common good (these were arguments made long ago by Aristotle, and were also incorporated in Catholic teaching, for instance, banning usury); the centrality of place – with accompanying stress upon memory, obligation, generational inheritance, as well as generational duty, in considerations of what constituted a good human life (This means that there is always likely to be a tension between cities and towns, but that each has a legitimate and honored place in the human built environment, even that there is logical relationship between them that has been captured and described best by Philip Bess in his arguments on behalf of “the Urban Transect.” See his book, _Til We Have Built Jerusalem_ for particulars); or, the older “orthodoxy” that religion is itself a cultural system to which we owe reverence and deference, based upon the transcendent but embodied deeply in the ongoing temporal unfolding of human communities, that teaches us at once the aspiration for knowledge of the divine as well as the central truth of certain prohibitions (the Bible begins with praise of human resemblance to the divine – the _imago dei_ and shortly thereafter, the prohibition against aspiring to become gods). The very idea that we simply “choose” a religion, or change it at will, goes against this older “orthodoxy” that we are called to conform our own will to the teachings of our religion, especially when we are confronted with prohibitions that we may find personally inconvenient or culturally “unprogressed.”

    Are my “orthodoxies” (these are just a few, anyway, in response to your query) based in unreality? According to our modern orthodoxies, yes, they are. But they are not outside the range of possible human realities – indeed, they have been and may yet be ideas that deeply shaped human reality for many centuries. I don’t gainsay that my arguments now may strike many as deeply impracticable, and they are not intended to be action programs for the next 100 days of Obama’s presidency. Rather, they are intended to be arguments that seek to promote a different way of thinking about our current reality – that may even suggest the “unreality” of our reality, particularly to the extent that our current reality seems to contradict, even pose itself as antithetical and hostile toward, a deeper reality that the natural world and human nature reflect and reveal. Our contemporary assault upon the natural world and human nature suggests to me that we are living in deeply “unreal” times, and lest reality bite us in the ass – as I think it’s now doing in the economic realm, has been doing in the environmental realm, and will be continuing to do in the realm of resource depletion and moral depletion – then we had better reassess how “real” we think our current way of life really is. So – I hope you will forgive me an occasional or even frequent foray into “unreality,” but it’s intended not to depart the shores of sensibleness, and even aspires to the notion that need to get real.

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