Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Obama on polarization: I failed, we will succeed

I found the first half or so of Obama's final SOTU pretty anodyne, and I did not like the scalp-waving -- 'just ask Osama,' etc.  But there were two points on which I thought he got intensely real -- both involving the dangers of what we as a country might do to ourselves.

The first was putting the threat from ISIS and other terrorist networks (current and future) in its place:
But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.  Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped.  But they do not threaten our national existence.  That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.  We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, nor do we need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is representative of one of the world’s largest religions.  We just need to call them what they are – killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.
In effect: this is the Barbary Pirates, not World War III.

The second was an extended warning about the road to oligarchy -- paved with polarization, campaign finance gone wild, voter suppression and demagoguery. There were two parts to it: the emotion of dysfunction, and the machinery of it. First, the emotion:

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.
Then, the broken machinery fueling the rancor (and the demagogic fear-mongering he countered in the discussion of ISIS):
But, my fellow Americans, this cannot be my task – or any President’s – alone.  There are a whole lot of folks in this chamber who would like to see more cooperation, a more elevated debate in Washington, but feel trapped by the demands of getting elected.  I know; you’ve told me.  And if we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves.

We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.  We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections – and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.  We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.  And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.
 And finally, a warning that perhaps will resonate across decades as Eisenhower's about the military-industrial complex did: the road to oligarchy, democracy self-cancelling:
We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.  We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections – and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution.  We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now.  And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do.
That warning was preceded by a plea that in its way illustrates the paradox of trying to deploy that broken machinery:
But I can’t do these things on my own.  Changes in our political process – in not just who gets elected but how they get elected – that will only happen when the American people demand it.  It will depend on you.  That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people. 
Well yes,but as the grip of oligarchy tightens by the means Obama outlined, the capacity of the people to make those demands diminishes.  Obama expressed both a faith in the country's ability to break the cycle even as he confessed that he had not been able to do it:
 It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.  There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.
Obama is a very confident man. His faith in the ability of the country to "ma[k]e change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people" is -- or was -- matched by faith in his own ability to listen to his opposition, make them feel heard, and find common ground. Tonight he confessed that he was not able to do that -- whether through his own failing, as he suggested with perhaps semi-sincere modesty or because structural polarization did not allow it. ((Lincoln, whose rooted opposition went to war with him, was an odd choice of counter-example, as was FDR, who had enormous majorities to work with.)  On this front, he said in effect, I failed, but we will succeed. I'm not sure the optimism was grounded convincingly.


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