Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of Our Union

The cold (3 degrees outside right now) and snow and ice have virtually paralyzed my town - an unusually apt visual metaphor, perhaps, for the actual state of our actual Union. While the snow was still falling here last night, the President gave his annual address to the Congress. He spoke well enough, as one expects him to do. He addressed the crisis of increasing inequality and declining mobility, recognizing its centrality in the social struggle of the age. He spoke eloquently about the need for immigration reform, called for extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, and pointedly skewered his opponents on health care. Notably, the President emphasized doing what he could without Congress.

That, of course, highlights the fundamental problem. As Matt Miller observes in today's Washington Post, putting aside the progress this Administration has made towards universal health care coverage, in the last 20 years "the measure of a good society have gone in the wrong direction." That is the problem that bedevils that actual state of the actual Union. It is something a President can talk about (the famous "bully pulpit") and hopefully mobilize voters to care enough about. But by himself it is not something any President can appreciably alter. It's not just that fixing a broken culture requires legislation. It requires consensus - not unanimity, of course, but some degree of common consensus in society. And that - in our cynical, apolitical, self-absorbed, culturally polarized country - remains elusive at best.

The kind of society we have become is no one President's fault and is way beyond any one President's power to fix. All he can do is talk - the famous "bully pulpit" again. And, while what the President said was  good, it is nowhere near enough. The President is being faulted by pundits for his mainly modest proposals, the idea being that they represent an admission on his part that he can't get much more. True enough, but it is the country as a whole that must also be faulted for having in effect virtually given up on itself.

To his credit, the President largely avoided highlighting his (and his party's base's) extreme positions on polarizing social and cultural issues. Yet that omission also highlights an ongoing part of the problem. Extending health care coverage is an important step in healing the maldistribution of wealth and opportunity in our society. So is immigration reform. So is extending unemployment benefits.  So are higher wages. So are any number of other worthy things the President is proposing. But moral and cultural calamities like the so-called "marriage gap," for example, also need to be addressed. The decline of marriage and the collapse of the American family are both symptoms of economic inequality and declining mobility and contributors to its intensification and long-term continuation from this generation to the next.  As long as one side in our politically polarized non-debate remains wedded to economic policies that favor the few at the expense of the many and the other side remains wedded to a moral and cultural ideology that undermines family and community, our divisions cannot easily be repaired nor our decline reversed.

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