Politics is the art of the possible, Otto Von Bismark, the famous practitioner of realpolitik, once counseled. And judging by the ex-rivals and old Washington hands that Barack Obama has been proposing for his cabinet, the president-elect has taken the old Iron Chancellors advice. Theres a certain political wisdom in this. If Obama hopes to implement the change he promised during his campaign hes going to need to neutralize potential sites of opposition and employ the experience of insiders to move from ideas to legislation to law. Our next president and his advisers learned a valuable lesson from the last Democratic presidents less-than-glorious first hundred days.
But Obama should not forget what got him elected. The electorate wasnt energized by the promise of deft political maneuverings and pragmatic policy; they were moved by dreams of hope and change. (Otherwise, Hillary Clinton would now be assembling her cabinet.) Obamas lofty appeals were, in part, grounded in cynical political strategy. It worked like this: Obama and his campaign conjure up a large, and largely empty, symbol like change. The restof us then attach our particular, and passionate, desires for specific change (better economy, end to the Iraq war, or gay rights) to the general symbol.This symbol, in turn, is integrally connected back to the candidate. By owning the symbol, you own peoples dreams, and if you own their dreams then you ownt heir support. Political writer and frequent presidential adviser Walter Lippmann described this process back in 1922 as the manufacture of consent.
There is political power in dreams. And while dreams can be exploited cynically as merely a means to the end of control, they can also be mobilized to open up and imagine the potential future. I was reminded of this recently by the ersatz NewYork Times distributed by politically-minded pranksters on the streets of this city a few weeks ago. In addition to declaring the end of the war in Iraq, the editors of this special edition of the paper informed their readers that the oil reserves of the United States had been nationalized to fund climate change efforts, all public universities were to be free, and a maximum wage law had been passed. A front page article reported that popular pressure had pushed Obama to enact aprogressive agenda that genuinely spread the wealth around. None of this is currently true, Steve Lambert, one of the coordinators of the paper explained, but its all possible.
Throughout his campaign Obama returned again and again to the trope that the seemingly impossible is possible; that what are todays dreams could be future realities. This politics of the improbable carried through to the very night of his election, when he began his victory speech to the nation by saying, If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all thingsare possible tonight is your answer. In doing this, Barack Obama drew upon along progressive history of what might be called dreampolitik.
Those of us on the Left often like to think of ourselves as inheritors of the Enlightenment, devoted to reason and rationality, judiciously weighing evidence to arrive at sober conclusions; the reality-based community, as Karl Rove disparagingly described us. But theres another line of the Left: that of the dreamers. What were democracy, socialism, womens equality, and civil rights if not improbable fantasies at one time? Who, after all, is remembered for proclaiming, I have a dream? Dreaming is essential for progressives as it allows us to see beyond the inherently conservative limits of the present. Dreams are what motivate people, they get you up in the morning and get you walking. Like the horizon, we may never reach our idealized destinations, but dreams of what could be provide a loadstone for our political compass, a direction to walk toward.
Thereis an important place in politics for the practitioners of realpolitik, the sober experts and hard-headed politicians ofthe reality-based community. These people take impossible dreams and bring them down to earth, transforming them into something possible. But you cannot start with the possible or there is nothing to move toward and nothing to compromise with. To bring about change you need to practice dreampolitik. Conventional wisdom may insist that politics is the art of the possible, but what Barack Obama demonstrated during his campaign, and needs to remind himself of regularly, is that politics is also the art of the impossible.