Monthly Archives: December 2007

the Obama “theory of change”

Mark Schmitt’s essay on Senator Obama has been very widely cited (and should be applied to politicians other than Obama himself). Schmitt argues that, as president, Obama might win legislative victories by treating conservatism as a legitimate philosophy and presuming that his opponents honor the same basic values that he does–e.g., health care for all. This assumption would put Republicans in a difficult position if the evidence favored progressive proposals. Obama’s conciliatory and deliberative style might win over a few Republican senators, Schmitt says, and that is essential if Democrats want to pass legislation.

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notes on “genre fiction”

I’m going to try a little light blogging again, although I’m still very emotionally preoccupied. Throughout this difficult period, I have been trying to use novels as a distraction–reading works by Alan Furst, Patrick O’Brien, and Ward Just that could be classified as “genre fiction.” It struck me yesterday that that disparaging phrase is a solecism. Should we call Hamlet “genre fiction” because tragedy is a “genre”?

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(Syracuse, NY) I didn’t go on the Oxfordshire “research” mission described in my last post. Instead, I’m in my home town with my very sick father and my family. I don’t want to write about that–this isn’t a personal diary–but I can’t blog about other topics right now. I expect to return to regular blogging next week.

to Oxfordshire

Tonight I’m flying to Heathrow and then traveling to a conference on “How Young People Form Political Views.” I’m looking forward to learning from international colleagues. I’m then staying in Oxfordshire for about 48 hours after the conference ends. My purpose is “research,” but not on youth or civic engagement. In the mid-nineties, I published a novel, Something to Hide. A few years later, I started to develop the outline of another book of fiction–much more intricate and complex–which I have recently started to write. It’s set in Oxfordshire during the renaissance. I am familiar with that territory from my childhood and then graduate school. Nowadays, there are amazing webcams, Google Earth, and other online tools that let you see parts of the City of Oxford from your desk in Washington. Nevertheless, I have a list of places I want to see for myself. On Sunday and Monday, I will be doing things like trying to determine whether one could see the Oxford Castle from a scaffold erected at St. Giles around 1590.

I’m not sure I will be able to post again until Tuesday or Wednesday.

Obama’s service plan

As I write, Barack Obama is at Cornell College in Iowa unveiling his national service plan, along with Senator Harris Wofford. The text of the plan is here (pdf) and here’s the speech. It’s ambitious in that it envisions dramatically expanding the number of slots in federal programs such as the Peace Corps; creating new corps especially devoted to various important public issues (such as clean energy and health); changing financial incentives so that colleges and universities will fund more student service; integrating service better into k-12 education; and funding “social entrepreneurship” in the nonprofit sector. It is a $3.5 billion/year plan, which is a serious investment.

I think national service programs represent an important aspect of civic renewal. They create opportunities for people to work on public problems without having to enter bureaucracies or obtain credentials–that’s how I’d define “social entrepreneurship.” They express respect for ordinary Americans’ potential to contribute. (For instance, Obama would enlist Americans who speak foreign languages to go overseas and represent us.) And good service programs provide an education in citizenship for participants of all ages.

I do not believe, however, that national and community service exhaust our options for civic renewal. Other major goals include: promoting effective public deliberation about policy, reforming the political system to make it more responsive and deliberative, and revising substantive policies in areas like health and education so that they encourage public participation. Senator Edwards has advanced important ideas regarding public deliberation and political reform. The November Fifth Coalition is showing what it would mean to reform substantive policies. There is still room, clearly, for Senator Obama and other candidates to propose more ideas to renew democratic participation.

I’ll be interested in the degree to which the press reports the new Obama service agenda. Most of the coverage of Edwards’ “democracy agenda” was generated by colleagues and associates of mine who deliberately wrote supportive op-ed pieces (collected here). Their message was: Edwards has good ideas, but there is plenty of room for other candidates to stake out civic ground. I’d say that remains the case even after today’s excellent speech by Senator Obama.