I didn’t get to watch the SOTU last night, so I’ve been catching up by reading reviews. I like something Nancy LeTourneau said at Washington Monthly. She is responding to this part of the President’s speech:
The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates…
A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
On this, LeTourneau remarked,
That is quintessential Obama. If you don’t understand the basics of what he is saying here, almost nothing he does will make sense to you. In his quest to forge an identity out of the the divergent forces of his own personal background, Barack Obama crafted a world view that values those differences and the wisdom that comes from the democratic process of respectful – if sometimes heated – dialogue. Even more than any one particular policy position, President Obama elevates that process as the priority for the survival of our democracy.
The reason the Republicans have adopted a strategy of spreading fear, anger, cynicism and distrust is because that form of engaged democracy is the biggest threat to their interests.
“If you don’t understand the basics of what he is saying here, almost nothing he does will make sense to you.” I could expand that to say, if you don’t understand the basics of what he is saying here, almost nothing proposed by genuine progressives will make sense to you.
Go back to the first sentence in the SOTU quote above – The future we want – opportunity and security for our families; a rising standard of living and a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids – all that is within our reach. This is the liberal/progressive vision in a nutshell. This has been true since Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech. It was clearly expressed in another State of the Union speech, delivered by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941:
For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.
Truly, these ideals have never been fully realized. But working toward this is what the United States is about — to liberals.
I don’t think the Right wants that stuff. They may say they do, but their votes say otherwise. All they seem to want is wealth and power for themselves, and if that’s at the expense of others (including fellow Americans), so be it. And because they don’t understand what we lefties hope to achieve, nothing we do or say makes sense to them. All they understand is power and privilege.
Le Tourneau writes, “Even more than any one particular policy position, President Obama elevates that process as the priority for the survival of our democracy.” These days, this is is a liberal-progressive way of seeing things. I know I’ve written in the past that righties have no respect for the importance of process, although I can’t find that post now. And this is turning the norms of political science on its head. It used to be the “conservative” impulse to protect and preserve process, the traditional wheels and levers that make things work, and “progressives” who wanted to smash the old way of doing things to try something new. Today’s Right cares about nothing but outcome. If they have to smash through tradition and established procedure to get where they want, no problem.
I noticed that some right-wing commenters though last night’s SOTU was “boring.” Righties tend to claim boredom when confronted with an argument they can’t easily refute. Opportunity, fairness, equality, sustainability, peace — yeah, boring stuff. Never mind that these things would benefit them as well; somehow, such things feel like a diminishment to them. Let’s hate! Let’s drop bombs! Let’s tweak the economy so that we can all we rich! Let’s drill for oil until the sun don’t shine! That’s the ticket!
Elsewhere — responding to a Peter Baker column, Steve M writes that President Obama’s optimism is not really anything like Ronald Reagan’s “sunny disposition” back in 1980. Reagan projected cheerfulness, but his words warned of doom and promoted divisiveness. And it’s that stuff that got him elected.
Right now, half the country looks out its windows and sees a Mad Max movie, Steve M says. Well, maybe we all see a Mad Max movie. The difference is that liberals/progressives think we have everything we need to make it better, to make it more like the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. We just need the will to do it. The Right thinks itself helpless without big guns to shoot the bad guys (everybody who isn’t Them) and big bombs to wipe out the scary foreign people. And the things progressives propose that would make things better make absolutely no sense to them.
And so we are at an impasse.