"boardroom liberalism"

In his recent piece on Valerie Jarrett for The New Republic, Noam Scheiber investigates the somewhat mysterious nature of the president's top confidante's role and her specific responsibilities in the Obama White House. He concludes his findings by trying to explain the ambivalence felt by many progressives toward the president himself. Despite significant advances in health care, the environment, and the rights of gays and lesbians, they consider "the victories...muddled, the errors unforced, the ambitions preemptively scaled back." Scheiber's explains this mixed message by reference to a philosophy that he attributes to both Obama and Jarrett.

Call it "boardroom liberalism." It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on high—one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.

This is, in my view, an astute analysis. Moreover, I think that the concept of boardroom liberalism helps to explain a lot about the contemporary Democratic Party, more than just the Obama administration. (Scheiber contrasts Obama and Bill Clinton on this point, but to me very few prominent Democratic politicians of the last couple of decades do not fit this mold.) It's fundamentally a "third way" approach, one that can square progressive priorities on many issues with impulses toward such things as privatization and deregulation. And it also explains the progressive disillusion, because boardroom liberals really are liberals. They sound to activists as though they share their priorities, because they actually do.

But there is a point where the style of boardroom liberalism affects its content. The desire not to antagonize business on many issues is, in its essence, a tactical one: people with similar goals can disagree about that. But when the issue is the regulation of business itself, the government will nearly always be at odds with the business community. The desire to work with business interests will significantly curtail the desire to position government as a counterweight to the excesses of corporate behavior. On those issues, boardroom liberalism is not really liberalism at all.


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