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The Philosophy Behind the Words

09/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Political conventions are not occasions for philosophy. You'll be hearing mostly cheerleading from Denver -- more about change and hope, more Yes-we-cans, more about renewing the American dream, more about McCain's seven houses, Bush's third term, and policy. There's nothing wrong with this; it's what we expect.

But there is a guiding philosophy behind the words, and you should be looking out for it.

The Guiding Philosophy

Hope and change are not the fundamental ideas behind the Obama campaign; they make sense only if you know the content of the hope and the change. The fundamental ideas are empathy, responsibility, and aspiration.

Obama summed up his Saddleback appearance with a riff on empathy as the main impetus behind his run for the presidency, and he has spoken about it repeatedly, though pundits don't seem to have noticed. Responsibility is taken not just as personal responsibility but also social and community responsibility--action, not just thoughts and feelings.. And aspiration looks to making things better (as defined by empathy) via imagination on the one hand and pragmatism, a sense of what works, on the other.

In the Selma speech he spoke repeatedly of the empathy deficit. In the More Perfect Union speech, he spoke of the need for "more caring" right along with more freedom, fairness, and opportunity. On Anderson Cooper's 360 he defined patriotism as starting with people caring about one another--the reason for our values of freedom and equality. He spoke of all three in the Father's Day speech, as what values parents should have and teach their children. And he told Ann Curry that empathy is the most important thing he learned from his mother.

As I argued in Moral Politics, these values are at the heart of progressive politics. But, as historian Lynn Hunt of UCLA has shown, these values are, more importantly, at the heart of American democracy. Obama never says these are progressive values; he says, correctly, that they are American values. They are the basis on which he intends to unite the country.

These values define the role of government in terms of freedom: protection (freedom from harm) and empowerment (freedom to fulfill your dreams). Protection is not just military or police protection, but consumer protection, worker protection, environmental protection, safety nets, health care, and disaster protection, and protections from the government itself. Empowerment is building infrastructure: roads, communications systems, scientific laboratories, public buildings; public education; upholding the banking system, regulating the stock market, supporting courts for corporate law and settling contract disputes. No company can make a dime in America without government empowerment. That what taxes are for: to live in a country with all these forms of protection and empowerment. There are no self-made men or women in America. And the more money you make from government protection and empowerment, the more responsibility you have to maintain them through the tax system.

I suspect that every Democrat knows all this implicitly. It is hardly controversial. But it's not said, and you won't hear much philosophy at this convention -- though program after program will be based on these ideas. Taxes will be discussed nonstop. But not our understanding of what taxes are.

These principles make sense of Obama's foreign policy. The Obama Doctrine was thoroughly aired by Spencer Ackerman in The American Prospect. The Doctrine is this: Foreign policy is not just at the level of the state, though state-level diplomacy is essential. The biggest foreign policy problems are the level of the person: hunger, poverty, public health, the global environment, women's issues, contemporary slavery. The Obama Doctrine says that these are all matters of human dignity and that human dignity throughout the world should be at the heart of our foreign policy. Empathy, responsibility, aspiration.

On economics, the same principles hold: Empathy requires that the economy work for everyone, especially those in the lower and middle classes. Markets are constructed to serve people's needs, and regulations, tax policy, and the courts are there for protection and empowerment, especially for those most in need of them. Responsibility means both social and fiscal responsibility, keeping deficits as small as possible while serving real social needs, for example, green jobs that cannot be shipped abroad. Aspiration requires the imagination to seek a bold energy and global warming policy. Cap and trade will not be a corporate giveaway; hence 100% auctions, with significant returns to the people.

In education, empathy requires ditching No Child Left Behind and designing an education policy that starts earlier, works for everyone, rewards and provides incentives for teachers, offers college for all. Responsibility will require teacher skills to be upgraded. And aspiration means using the bully pulpit to move parents to become much more involved in their children's education and for children to seek to achieve more.

In short, Obama is working from a principled base, although it may not always be obvious. Responsibility requires that the principles work as well as possible, and in most that means pragmatism, that is, maximizing principle while not being perfect, and looking for a slippery slope solution that slips in the right direction -- though in the right cases, there is a moral line to be drawn. Responsibility is not just governmental responsibility, but also individual and community responsibility. Looks for good doses of both from Obama.

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