It’s hard to imagine a place for a white-haired philosopher in the hectic, policy-focused environment of the White House. But Brookings Senior Fellow William Galston did just that when he served as a domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton.
Galston spoke earlier this week at the first session of the Center for American Progress Progressive Studies Program’s fall Progressivism on Tap series. Galston discussed philosophy’s role in shaping public policy and politics, and explained that fundamental progressive values and thought have shaped policy creation for decades.
Galston became involved in politics at a critical intellectual moment in the Democratic Party. He had the opportunity from 1989 to 1992 to help reformulate the Democratic message to include fundamental progressive values such as equal opportunity for all; justly rewarding and not exploiting all Americans; and promoting private and public sector responsibility. Galston also opened the door to grassroots engagement in public policy.
Galston acknowledged that President Barack Obama is having a difficult time connecting his “high altitude rhetoric” with his myriad “reasonably coherent policy positions.” Galston called Obama “a classic Progressive with a big P” in terms of his overall philosophical approach to politics, which matches the brand of politician that came to prominence in both parties at the beginning of the 20th century. Galston defined a “Progressive” as someone who believes in a national purpose, has an enormous regard for expertise, emphasizes honesty and transparency, and understands the importance of rhetoric in defining the country’s principal goals.
The question is whether Obama’s fundamental progressive values will lead to major progressive policy victories. Galston believes that it will ultimately be pragmatic arguments rather than values that will win progressive victory for health care reform if it passes. But while pragmatism may help in the short term, President Obama will need to convince Americans that progressive values are what keeps this nation moving forward in the long term.