What Kind of Democrats are Obama and Clinton?

Robert Gooding-Williams has an interesting post on the new Gender, Race, and Philosophy blog. He makes a good case that candidate Clinton is a democrat in the old elite style, while candidate Obama is a deliberative democratic. I’d love it if the latter were true. Whether it is so will be seen in practice, by how truly interested he is in cultivating and incorporating reflective public will. I don’t need any persuasion to agree that Hillary Clinton’s style is anything but participatory or deliberative. Recall her 1994 health care initiative: it was crafted behind tightly locked closed doors. No public input or oversight was welcome. Perhaps she thought this would be better somehow, but the results were predictable: the proposals that emerged were roundly dashed and never got off the ground. The same thing had happened in 1988 when AARP met behind closed doors with members of Congress to hammer out a catastrophic health care plan. The bill was enacted shortly before winter recess. Members of Congress returned home to find seniors up in arms over the new bill. It called for sacrifices that those subject to the bill had had no hand in shaping. They hadn’t had the chance to work through (in the Freudian sense, and the sense that Dan Yankelovich discusses) the costs and trade-offs. So when Congress recovened, one of the first things it did was rescind the new law.

Yankelovich once told me in an interview, “Any public policy that is not built on public will is built on sand.” Sand is what met the AARP bill and the HRC proposal. But I doubt that either learned that lesson. Obama seems to know instinctively that politics calls for drawing on public wisdom, not trying to manufacture public support after policy has been crafted.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Well, Clinton says she’s learned from that mistake, and I fully believe her. As a bioethicist who was watching with interest the experiment in Oregon in the early 1990s to do grass-roots priority-setting for the folks on Medicaid, I gotta say this stuff is way more complicated than simply “what do the people want?” We live in a country where some people don’t want gays and lesbians to hold hands in public, remember? Good policy has to take people’s rights into consideration as well as their preferences. And at least Clinton knows (and Obama refuses to acknowledge) that if you don’t require everyone to be covered, you are going to have a HUGE free rider problem.

  2. It seems as if Clinton’s style of leadership follows the more traditional “great man” style of “I lead, you follow”. She doesn’t seem to understand that to enact good public policy requires a melding of the theoretical with the practical in a dynamic process of continual learning.

    Her own history on this front is why, while I think she has good ideas on universal health care, I have absolutely NO confidence that she can actually pass these great ideas if she is President., “free rider problem” or not. I don’t believe she has demonstrated that she has actually “learned” from her mistakes.

    As a feminist, I am disappointed that I cannot vote for Clinton in the primary because she has not demonstrated that she is the better of the two running. Ah that she were Shirley Chisholm or Patsy Mink or Bella Abzug.

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