Tuesday, January 25, 2011

State of the Union

Tonight President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address before Congress. It will be followed, as always, by responses from the opposing party (two this year, evidently, since Michelle Bachman has tossed her Tea Party hat into the ring of replies). It will also be followed by millions of words of reportage and analysis in the media, in the blogs, and around the water cooler. The unfortunate thing is that none of these -- the address, the responses, the commentaries -- will really assess the state of the union today.

The bulk of the verbiage surrounding the president's address will be focused on various policy considerations: health care, cutting the budget, the ongoing wars. These are important topics and should be the focus of a major policy speech. And it makes all the sense in the world for the opposing party to make its own statement on these policy issues. But note that I refer to these topics as appropriate in a "policy speech." Over the years, the State of the Union address has become just that -- a speech in which the president outlines his preferred policies and tries to sell them to the viewers. I am not an expert on the history of the address, so I do not know when what the Framers described as "Information on the State of the Union" morphed into the advocacy of "Measures he shall judge necessary and expedient" -- probably very early in our history. For quite some time now the State of the Union has been much less about the condition of the country and much, much more about the administration's policy agenda. Worse, it has turned into a free opportunity for the president to play host to "guests," usually seated next to the president's wife, who reflect the priorities of the administration. The guests are not just invited to attend; they have a function -- they are used to make a point. They are props for the president's dramatic performance, shuttled forth to lend policy a human touch in an effort to sway not by the power of reasoning but by the strength of the tugs on the heart strings.

So what we will see tonight will be a political speech, one not out of place on the hustings, followed by two even more political speeches suitable for the editorial pages of conservative journals. The opportunity to enter into a serious conversation about the real state of the union will be lost once again.

That is too bad, for our nation is not in good shape. Only part of the problem lies with the slumbering economy, with its frighteningly high jobless rate and its foreclosure crisis. Some of the problem lies in the disastrous state of our health care system, something the ongoing battle over health care reform only serves to cover up. Some of the problem lies in the bill that will inevitably come due from all those expenses we have deferred over the years, and all those borrowings from the resources available to future generations.

The problem is much deeper. It lies in the amazingly widespread lack of knowledge about the principles upon which the nation was founded. Very few in our nation understand what prompted the creation of our nation, or its reconfiguration through the Constitution. Very few voters and an equally small percentage of politicians share a sense that government exists to foster the common good, not the good of particular groups, parties, industries, or leaders. Many people have a sense that we are subjects of government not governors -- that government is something done to us rather than something we do together. Most lack the knowledge, skills, and dispositions essential to become active participants in the debate, deliberation, and action necessary for a truly constitutional republic to thrive. Most think of a citizen as simply a voter and a patriot as simply someone who cheers for the home team, waving his flag, sporting her flag pin, decorating with flag decals, filling the air with nationalistic bluster.

Our problem lies in the twisting of our founding documents (the Declaration, the Constitution) into justifications for partisan political positions -- an activity engaged in by many on both sides of the political fence, from Supreme Court justices to talk show hosts. This style of twisting has a long tradition, to be sure, but at least some consideration should be given to the possibility that other, more fruitful and more justifiable approaches to these documents have been undermined,  if not lost altogether in recent decades. And it cannot help that many of our citizens (not to mention our politicos and even many of our judges) believe that the fundamental documents of a constitutional republic should be subjected to simplistic, even silly, modes of analysis. Such a predilection cannot adequately help us wend our way through the vicissitudes of the ongoing project of governing ourselves in a constitutional manner.

Part of the problem, too, lies in the incivility of life in general, and of politics in particular. It lies in what seems to be an increasing tendency to glorify ignorance and stupidity and to belittle intelligence, education, and thoughtfulness -- in the rise of fools and the disappearance of real statesmen, in the prominence of bluster, nonsense, and nastiness and the absence of real thought and reasoned discussion, let alone deliberation. It lies in the quick reliance on self-defensiveness when suggestions are made that discourse could stand to be more civil, and the quick assertion of rights in the face of ethical critique.

Some of our problem lies in what literary scholar Rochelle Gurstein calls "the repeal of reticence," as all limits are dropped, all sense of propriety is pooh-poohed, all words and images are allowed no matter what the context -- as if liberty means nothing more than challenging boundaries so as to free us up to gratify our natural (formerly called "baser") instincts and desires. Don't get me wrong here -- there are plenty of newly minted boundaries out there, some of them silly, some of them unjust and oppressive, all of them enforced with a cultural rigor that lends credence to the concerns of Mill or Tocqueville. We are still the children of the Puritans. No matter what our political leanings, no matter what our educational level, many of us find it easy to castigate others who fail to live up to our standards of propriety -- whether they do so by being overweight, smoking, failing to exercise, or by refusing to abide any of a myriad of fundamentalisms (religious, economic, or political) by which we structure our vision of the world. Indeed, this is also part of the problem: we too quickly slide into treating fellow citizens as infidels, as beneath our concern, as not deserving of respect. We too easily reject members of our community as beyond the pale. And when we do, our overall societal lack of reticence permits us to talk about these folks as if they are enemies to be wiped out. As the crowning touch, we call this freedom.

Of course we cannot expect the president to talk about these things. We have grown unused to political leaders -- or would-be leaders -- speaking the truth about things. We expect them to paint a rosy picture, to fire us up, to pat us on the head and tell us how wonderful we are. And we expect them to tell us how destructive the views of their political opponents really are of the welfare of our nation. All this is rhetoric, of course, and rhetoric has its place in politics (as political thinkers as diverse as Aristotle and Hobbes both recognized). But let us not fool ourselves into thinking tonight's speeches will rise above the ongoing campaign that is Washington to enlighten us about the real state of the union. They will not.

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