JOHN MCWHORTER JANUARY 13, 2011
The President’s speech last night was beautiful but ultimately, a magnificent punt. It was brave for Obama to crisply dismiss the idea that partisan rhetoric is what drove Jared Loughner to kill, given how much currency that idea now has among the bien-pensant kinds of people who elected him. But for the next thread to be that we must be more “civil” in our discourse because it’s what those killed on Saturday would have wanted represents a willfully Shirley Temple perspective on what political debate consists of.
The call for us all to just “get along” founders on two things Obama is surely aware of.
One is that when it comes to how to run a nation, disagreement may be profound, based on diametrically opposed philosophical visions. More to the point, those visions may be starkly distinct enough that opponents see one another as working counter to the very philosophical foundations of the republic itself – i.e. Republicans’ “socialist” charge or Democrats’ accusation that Republicans do not understand the Constitution as they claim to.
This is tough stuff. The quest for the good life, the quest for the best way to run a society – these are challenges that found the entire liberal arts tradition. And the idea that the conflict between different preferences will occasion no anger, impatience, misunderstanding, or name-calling is one proposing that we are a different species than we are.
Certainly some citizens seek to rise above this as much as possible, such as Phyliss Schneck, the Republican grandmother Obama mentioned who had come to hear Giffords out anyway. But for every Phyliss Schneck there are plenty of ordinary citizens who cheer along with Sarah Palin or Paul Krugman. Partisanship feels good – you get intellectual clarity, a sense of morality, and the warmth of fellowship all in one.
It was ever thus, and there is an element of ahistoricism in the idea that American politics is uniquely “broken” today. The period in our history in which politics was reflective, courteous and nuanced is elusive. Congressmen like Daniel Webster, enshrined as an august orator in portraits, was nakedly on the take. For most of the twentieth century, bigoted Southern senators essentially ran the country from their committee posts (Mississippi’s James Vardaman: “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched”).
The second fallacy in Obama’s counsel is that compromise über alles is an evident solution to all. I’m a great fan of compromise but hardly see it as something all of my fellow humans ought naturally cherish. Compromise comes hard when opponents see the other side’s vision not as just “a different view” but as antithetical to the general good, as Obama has discovered in grappling with the intransigence of the Republicans in Congress.
And besides, we are not always aware of what a glum, uninspiring thing compromise can be. It frustrates. Compromise was how things tended to go under those Vardaman sorts, when few thought of our government as especially gifted at getting serious things done. Or, the reason most of us have trouble naming the Presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln is that they were mostly compromise candidates chosen to mind the store as inoffensively as possible, not leaders or innovators.
Veteran Congress members ruefully recall when there was more cooperation across the aisle. This was, however, an unusual interregnum in the wake of the sixties, when Lyndon Johnson forged such cooperation by the force of his will to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. As shortly before this as the post-war forties, a political film like State of the Union depicts a norm familiar to us, where Democrats and Republicans treating one another as practically different species.
This is why for all of the calls for comity at this time, what Obama was elected for was revolution. Obama was elected with the hopes that he would forge a New New Deal or a Even Greater Society, for example. Too often we take this as how government is supposed to work, but in fact unusual ruptures such as these inevitably occasion lasting bitterness – again, because clashing philosophical visions inherently overflow the bounds of the pat-a-cake ideal we seek. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was lustily despised by many, and even recently we have seen Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man continuing the argument that the New Deal was a wrong turn. The Great Society is regarded by many as a great failure – and their arguments are by no means ignorant or hollow.
Obama’s speech, then, was lovely and appropriate for the occasion. But in the end, a call amidst controversy for people to simply come together – as if doing so were as A-B-C as it would have been to poor nine-year-old Christina Green who lost her life in the shooting – is disingenuous. It is based on the desperate hope, undergirding religion and so much else, that the answers to the grand questions of life will turn out to be easy.
A critical mass of pundits and other persons will continue to be angry, often recreationally. The internet will continue to focus and stoke this, and no amount of references to God or calls for cool-headedness will change that. The only way Obama could truly have risen above it would have been a teacherly, rather than pastorly, disquisition outlining the fallacy in casting various political positions as un-American, as opposed to just mistaken.
In our political culture, points like that seem to be made only in the higher-end magazines and websites, considered too “heavy” for the oral medium. That is one way in which today actually is different from the past, and it is regrettable in the extreme.