Wednesday, January 13, 2016

State of the Union

Yesterday, I commented on the Archbishop of Canterbury's well-pointed address to the meeting of Anglican Primates. Last night I listed to president Barak Obama deliver a political equivalent - a rousing call to citizens to counter the withering and erosion of our civic life and resist the fear-filled voices that have been making so much political noise already for far too long. It was surely one of his best speeches as President.

The speech had lots of great lines. Among the best and most telling: "Middle-class families are not going to feel more secure because we allowed attacks on collective bargaining to go unanswered. Food Stamp recipients did not cause the financial crisis; recklessness on Wall Street did .Immigrants aren't the principal reason wages haven't gone up. Those decisions are made in the boardrooms that all too often put quarterly earnings over long-term returns. It's sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts." 

Without naming anyone, the President clearly challenged the fear-mongering and scapegoating politics of Donald Trump, in particular Trump's leitmotif of American decline. He challenged Ted Cruz's neo-isolationist military bluster and Marco Rubiio's unrepentant neo-conservative substitutes for foreign policy. He invoked the successful 1960s space program as a better model for responding to a crisis than denial (e.g., as in climate change denial): "Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there.  We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget.  We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon."

The evident theme of the speech, in addition obviously to celebrating the successes of the last seven years, is that significant and disruptive change is not new in American experience but must be made to work for us rather than against us, something that can only be done by the collective commitment of citizens engaged in a healthy political process.  Ultimately, that comes down to how we pursue our politics, whether we work together or whether we fearfully turn inward and work against each other. The latter of course, in various versions, is what the opposition candidates seem to have been proposing.

As far as I could tell, only two candidates were present. Bernie Sanders seemed to be engaged. Marco Rubio had a look that suggested there was no way he could absorb anything that was being said. And the poor Speaker of the House just seemed happy when it was finally all over.  Perhaps being so overly athletic, the struggle to sit still for so long on camera was an ordeal in itself for him!

The evening's ritual reminded me of Max Weber's famous statement: "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective." 

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