Then there is Thomas Sowell, the economist and political philosopher. He prefers an older way of looking at American politics--a much older way. In his classic 1987 work, A Conflict of Visions, Sowell identifies two competing worldviews, or visions, that have underlain the Western political tradition for centuries.
Sowell calls one worldview the "constrained vision." It sees human nature as flawed or fallen, seeking to make the best of the possibilities that exist within that constraint. The competing worldview, which Sowell terms the "unconstrained vision," instead sees human nature as capable of continual improvement.
You can trace the constrained vision back to Aristotle; the unconstrained vision to Plato. But the neatest illustration of the two visions occurred during the great upheavals of the 18th century, the American and French revolutions.
The American Revolution embodied the constrained vision. "In the United States," Sowell says, "it was assumed from the outset that what you needed to do above all was minimize [the damage that could be done by] the flaws in human nature." The founders did so by composing a constitution of checks and balances. More than two centuries later, their work remains in place.
The French Revolution, by contrast, embodied the unconstrained vision. "In France," Sowell says, "the idea was that if you put the right people in charge--if you had a political Messiah--then problems would just go away." The result? The Terror, Napoleon and so many decades of instability that France finally sorted itself out only when Charles de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic.
What role have the two visions played in the campaign? Sen. John McCain, who is trailing, has by and large embraced the constrained vision; Sen. Barack Obama, who is leading, the unconstrained vision. Asked if Obama represents the purest expression of the unconstrained vision since Franklin Roosevelt, Sowell, himself an African-American, replies: "No. Since the beginning of American politics. This man [Obama] has been a left ideologue for 20 years."
Sowell, whom the playwright David Mamet recently called "our greatest contemporary philosopher," talked in some detail this week about what Obama's unconstrained vision could mean for the country.
It ends with this sobering thought:
"There is such a thing as a point of no return," he says. If Obama wins the White House and Democrats expand their majorities in the House and Senate, they will intervene in the economy and redistribute wealth. Yet their economic policies "will pale by comparison to what they will do in permitting countries to acquire nuclear weapons and turn them over to terrorists. Once that happens, we're at the point of no return. The next generation will live under that threat as far out as the eye can see."
"The unconstrained vision is really an elitist vision," Sowell explains. "This man [Obama] really does believe that he can change the world. And people like that are infinitely more dangerous than mere crooked politicians."