The following article, “The Empiricist Strikes Back,” by Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein ’78, was published in the September 10, 2008 issue of The New Republic.

In the last few weeks, a number of people on the left have expressed disappointment with Barack Obama. Obama has said that the death penalty may be appropriate for child rape. He has applauded the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to own guns. He has voted for wiretapping reform that includes retroactive immunity for telephone companies. Having raised doubts about NAFTA during the primary, Obama recently said that he does not want to reopen negotiations unilaterally.

Perhaps because of Obama’s strong and early opposition to the Iraq war, and because he has not been on the national scene long, some people on the left have projected their own views onto him. They think that his recent departures from left-wing orthodoxy are a form of flip-flopping or some kind of betrayal.

These objections miss the mark. Obama has not betrayed anyone. The real problem lies in the assumption, still widespread on both the left and the right, that Obama is a doctrinaire liberal whose positions can be deduced simply by asking what the left thinks.

Of course Obama is a progressive. From health care to assistance for low-income families to education to environmental protection, he emphasizes that Americans have duties to one another, and that government should be taking active steps to provide equal opportunity and to help those who need help. But, by nature, he is also an independent thinker, and he listens to all sides. One of his most distinctive features is that he is a minimalist, not in the sense that he always favors small steps (he doesn’t), but because he prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations.

When he offers visionary approaches, he does so as a visionary minimalist–that is, as someone who attempts to accommodate, rather than to repudiate, the defining beliefs of most Americans. His reluctance to challenge people’s deepest commitments might turn out to be what makes ambitious plans possible–notwithstanding the hopes of the far left and the cartoons of the far right.

Continue reading “The Empiricist Strikes Back.”