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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

BULLETIN- Obama, McCain and Napoleonic Conciliation

Barak Obama and McCain in the footsteps of Napoleon? Don't laugh. We're not talking about delusions of grandeur here. Or megalomania or authoritarianism. On the other hand, we're not talking about democracy either. We're talking about politics and ideology. When Napoleon launched his coup and took over France in November, 1799, his first speech to the French was one of reconciliation. He envisioned a France that was neither Royalist nor Jacobin, right nor left. France had come through a rough post-revolutionary period of violence and conspiracy from the extremes of the political spectrum. Napoleon told his country, let's hold on to the best of what we have from both sides and move forward; the politics of radical ideology is only a step back. A Democrat, Obama is reaching out to moderate Republicans, just as Napoleon the Jacobin reached out to former aristocrats. Without the militarism or the use of force, Obama is offering the United States what Napoleon offered France- progress rather than partisanship. And dare I say it? Grandeur- something that hasn't been around for a long time. Where he might trump Napoleon is in ending an unnecessary war --rather than confusing war with personal conquest- as George Bush seems to have tried to do- finishing a war that daddy didn't.
And John McCain? Well, he's not quite as Napoleonic, but he's offering his party something that Napoleon offered France- something new, which is needed but not yet recognized: a less ideological, less Neo-Conservative kind of conservatism. Bush Republicans don't trust him but hard-line former aristocrats didn't trust Napoleon either.
How about Hilary Clinton? She could have been a Napoleon but isn't. She has advertised herself as a veteran of the system, while Barak and Napoleon can be described as newcomers. In fact, she's a little bit like Emmanuel Sieyes, the grand veteran of the French Revolution, a moderate Jacobin policy wonk, cool, big in stature yet hard to know. And, like Sieyes, she's part of the old order (he had been an abbot of the second estate, the clergy). In 1799, Sieyes tried to recruit Napoleon for his own agenda and they made an alliance. Napoleon used Sieyes, turned the tables, got rid of him and took power. But in October-November, 1799, everything hung in the balance as it does today on Super-Duper Tuesday.
What everyone's fighting for (except Romney, perhaps) is the political center. The political center has always been a bit of a philosopher's stone. Ever since political left and right were coined during the French Revolution, everyone, even those with radical agendas, has found, sooner or later, that they had to capture that big, shifting no-man's land between right and left. Some, like Barak and Napoleon, have even claimed it as their own.
There's something to be said for the political center being the road to true accomplishment, to greatness. A place where realism combined with idealism has made more progress than pure idealism. For one thing, I would argue, it has history on its side. It was a Republican, a man of the party of business and privilege, who freed America's slaves. Lincoln had a vision which went far beyond the sectarian scope of his party. Nor did Augustus make Rome great by turning back the clock- or, on the other hand, by doling out free grain to the poor. He deliberately destroyed the corrupt old senatorial Republic while preserving the virtues for which it had stood (is Obama trying to do the same thing?). Kennedy took a partisan stand against Communism in the Cold War while winning the war against segregation in his own country. Trudeau put Canada on the map and forged an independent foreign policy without alienating business or placating Quebec separatism. Roosevelt too, combined left and right: he saved American capitalism by fighting the Depression with massive public works and welfare projects. Even Lenin saved whatever promise the Russian Revolution might then have held by instituting the National Economic Plan- an injection of capitalism to preserve socialism. In China, Chairman Deng saved his country from the nihilism of Maoism, by introducing a 'capitalist' Communism. General Omar Torrillos of Panama showed a new way forward in Latin America by improving the conditions of his country's poor and providing free health care while remaining politically non-aligned in the Cold War- Panama's only legacy of greatness (which was sadly squandered by General Noriega and others).
The long view of history favours people like Obama and McCain rather than Hilary Clinton or Romney. Even if Obama and McCain lose, I think time and history will prove them right.
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