Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Context vs. Content, Once Again

In a couple of hours, President Obama will give his first State of the Union Address. Should make for interesting viewing and listening. Will Representative Joe Wilson of South Caroline repeat his wonderfully rude parliamentary-wanna-be outburst of last September? Leading Republicans say "no", but we shall see.

Ezra Klein is calling this speech "the most important of [Obama's] young presidency" and "the most revealing of his career." Of course, in a world of 24-hour media attention and the possibility of some random moment going viral and becoming the storyline the mainstream media--and, thus, public opinion--will follow for days or weeks or months to come, practically any speech could potentially become the most "important" or "revealing" of any politician's career. But Ezra is on solid ground, I think, in making this claim. We all know why: health care reform--or rather, the larger political meaning that health reform has come to hold in minds of a great many Americans. For those who support it--even folks like myself who are depressed at how a chance to turn our nation in the direction of treating health as a public good has fallen from those heights down to that of a messy, conflicted, worthy-but-still-compromised social welfare program (and now, perhaps, not even that!)--it's fate reflects the promise of the Obama administration that fired us up a year or two ago. A promise that, even if we never fully bought into it, seemed real, in the sense of suggesting real action towards difficult but necessary civic goals. For those who oppose it, of course, it's fate represents a push-back against every bad thing they, rightly or wrongly (in all honesty, probably a little bit of both) associate with his administration: an unfeeling, even un-American intellectualism, a hard-ball determination to imagine a center-right nation as more liberal (in the contemporary sense) than it is or wants to be.

I wonder if that sets us up for failure though--a failure even more profound than the failure of national health insurance reform or any other such broad legislative measure could be. I wonder if it makes us look at the wrong thing: at what Obama is trying to do, rather than at how he's trying to do it. And I wonder, also, whether to two can be separated at all.

Peter Levine suggests they can, at least far enough to properly prioritize them: and for Peter, the latter is clearly more important than the former. Peter's great theme has always been civic action and participatory democracy, with all the communitarian and populist implications which follow from that--he's a strong supporter of health care reforms which will empower individuals to escape the corporate monopolies which dominate our system, to be sure--but he doesn't put the cart of such political content before the horse of political context regarding how it is to be achieved. Levine is frustrated with Paul Krugman, who--after the travails of health care reform over the past two weeks--has declared that he's "pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama." Peter will have none of it, and what he says speaks to the communitarian, the populist, the civic republican in me:

Obama never said he was the one we were waiting for. He said (quoting a line from the Civil Rights Movement): "We're the one's we've been waiting for." This was in the context of explicitly arguing that change does not come from the top down, but from the bottom up. The lack of bottom-up pressure for health reform is a major reason why the bill is being dropped. No major progressive organizations or movements really fought for a bill that could pass Congress, and you can't win a legislative battle without grassroots support.

Now Peter is, I think, eliding a point in how he makes this argument: there were plenty of progressive organizations who fought for the bill--I was part of that fighting, for whatever it was worth here in Kansas--so it's not as thought support was lacking. What was lacking, perhaps, was the ability to follow through, with just as much fervor, once Joe Lieberman kicked away that last option for passing a bill in the Senate which included something that could have become truly social and comprehensive and public. Or maybe not--I'm not sure how to measure that, absent tabulating every phone call, e-mail and Tweet every member of Congress received. But doesn't the fading of civic determination tell us as much about the nature of the American civitas, as it does about our level of civic responsibility and hope as well?

E.J. Dionne thinks the answer is simple: Obama is a believer in civic engagement--and he was wrong to trust in it. He shouldn't, at least when it came to something as large as health care, have tried to "bring the country together." Dionne sees a contradiction in "Obama's commitment to sweeping change and his soothing pragmatism that disdains public fights," and he may be right. Where's the determined leadership? Where's the...well, the content? Can you really conceptually, philosophically, approach a democratic community without presupposing what that democratic community is for--without offering them real specifics about how one intends to interact with that community (and, in our polity, interacting with the national community, at least in an immediately politically effectual way, means using a party, with a platform and goals and all the rest)? Of course, it's not as though Obama hasn't done any of that; on the contrary, he's done a lot. But in the present, very delicate moment, where hope is not yet dead but certainly on life support, perhaps his devotion to a certain civic context, to always encouraging Democrats and Republicans alike to "coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on"...well, perhaps it an betrays inexperience, an unwillingness to fully use the office of the presidency, maybe even an over-reliance upon a pragmatism which borders upon a religion, a deep commitment to the process of listening to the experiences of ordinary people. Which is entirely appropriate to a community organizer, but not so much for a man who, for better or worse, occupies the office of the presidency.

There's a lot of frustration out there; I suppose there always is, but this frustration stands out to me, because it seems to come back, again and again, to our size and diversity, and the sense that maybe civil discussion is a literal impossibility in America today. Patrick Deneen, for one; but then Patrick has suspected (and for good reason; let's not deny that) that America has become an all-but-ungovernable empire for a while now. But even Tim Burke, who has always struck me as an unflappable defender of modern complexity, seems to agree. To the depressing battle over health care in 2009 he's found himself making fatalistic noises: shrugging his shoulders hopelessly, saying "Whatever," adding in the comments that he doubts there's any real communicative, democratic context worth its name in America any more: "[T]he proposition that there’s some communicative connection that can happen, that the content of speech and ideas isn't just a projection of a habitus, that we can somehow connect the hubs and spokes of a social network and make something that links the situated knowledges of people to systematic improvements in our institutions? It just seems like a stupid thing to have ever believed that possible." If he's right--and he may be--then should Obama make any attempt tonight to defend how he aspires to lead America, as opposed to what he's leading us towards, it'll be worse than a joke: it'll be a waste.

As for myself...well, I've defended context over content plenty of times over the years, and I'm not willing to give up on it yet. Maybe I'm wrong to have become so susceptible to disappointment; maybe I've been valuing a particular content--health care reform--too much. Then again, that's a reform which can save lives, and what's the point of a healthy civic context if you can't democratically use it? As usual, I'm wishy-washy. So I'll watch the speech tonight, and think about the slow, hard, long defeat of those who try to do right, in the right way, knowing that they'll nearly always lose, or at best win far less than they'd originally dreamed. Maybe, in the midst of such somber thoughts, Representative Wilson will be an ass again. I know I'll at least have something definitive to say about that.

[Update, 1/27/10 9:56pm: I have my say here.


Anonymous said...

You have it backwards, though. The government is center-right, while the country tends to support liberal ideas, even if they don't know that.

Russell Arben Fox said...

You have a point, anonymous. The government is most certainly center-right, if you want to use that left-right metric; thanks to the Senate, rural states have a proportional advantage in legislation, giving conservative voices more strength than their numbers' actually deserve (and that's to say nothing of the influence which predominantly conservative/right-libertarian corporate forces have via campaign finance). But the country itself? Clearly large majorities support many liberal causes, but as you say, I think that by and large Americans don't recognize them as "liberal." Which is another reason, in the long-term, to work towards a language of identity or cultural politics--which historically, goes by the name of "populism"--that presents liberal notions in a different, more democratically acceptable context. Populism is a bad word for many liberals, and for good reason, but I really don't know of any other option.