"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. ... If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
-- Barack Obama
The president's defenders have claimed he either misspoke last week at a Roanoke, Va., campaign event or that what he said is true. Both defenses have merit. Obama surely didn't mean to say something that politically idiotic so plainly. And it's true that no man's accomplishments are entirely his own. We're all indebted to others, and we all rely on government to provide some basic things. Only the straw-men conservatives of Obama's imagination yearn for an America with no roads and bridges.
At best, Obama's "gaffe" is a banal truism, and if the president's praetorians want to defend him on grounds of platitudinous banality, fine. But even they have to know in their hearts that this is a pathetic maneuver, given that the reason they're rushing to defend Obama in the first place is his commitment to the very philosophy they deny he's espousing.
This is the great irony of Obama and his defenders. He is a progressive ideologue and a passionate believer in "social justice," and that's a large reason why his fans love him so. But if you ever say that he is what he is -- if you take his words seriously -- they ridicule you for believing he's anything other than a pragmatist and moderate.
Meanwhile, what many conservatives don't appreciate is that Obama is not some otherworldly radical, importing foreign ideas, but that he in fact fits within an old American intellectual tradition. Indeed, you might even call him a reactionary progressive; he seeks to restore the assumptions and priorities of the Progressive Era.
Herbert Croly, the godfather of American progressivism, spoke for a generation of progressive intellectuals when he wrote that the "individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed." For the progressives, society and government were almost interchangeable terms. John Dewey, the seminal progressive philosopher, believed that "organized social control" via a "socialized economy" was the only means to create "free" individuals. For the progressives, freedom wasn't the absence of government coercion, it was a pile of gifts from the state.