‘The hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government’
In the first State of the Union Address of his second term, President Barack Obama echoed themes from past speeches, most recently his Second Inaugural Address delivered a few weeks ago and his victory speech from election night. A central theme—arguably the central theme—of all these addresses and many previous ones has been the need for the nation’s elected officials to work together to solve lingering problems caused by two wars and a major economic crisis. The president opened his fifth State of the Union Address with a quotation drawn from John F. Kennedy, who along with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., is his favorite source. Kennedy opened his second State of the Union address by urging Congress to remember that, “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress.” And so President Obama once again urged the representatives of the rival parties in Congress to work together to pass legislation to stimulate the economy, improve education, and reduce gun violence.
He continued to quote from Kennedy’s 1962 speech: “‘It is my task,’ [Kennedy] said, ‘to report the State of the Union—to improve it is the task of us all.’” This emphasis on individual initiative on behalf of the common good emerged strongly in President Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention last September, when, echoing his 2008 campaign slogan “Change you can believe in,” he told the audience, “My fellow citizens—you were the change.” Amplifying that message in his State of the Union Address, the president attributed recent economic and social progress to “the grit and determination of the American people” and ended his speech with stories of three individuals who demonstrated devotion to the common good.
At the convention President Obama addressed the challenges of democratic citizenship, which he described as “the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”
“As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us,” he said in September. “It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” He echoed this point in his address last week when he spoke about, “the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”
This definition of democratic citizenship states in more general terms the principles of deliberative democracy that he articulated in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. In the chapter “Our Constitution,” then-Senator Obama wrote that the Constitution was designed “to force us into a conversation, a ‘deliberative democracy’ in which all citizens are required to engage in a process of testing their ideas against an external reality, persuading others of their point of view, and building shifting alliances of consent.” I discuss this recent body of political theory with deep roots in US political culture, and relate it to the early phases of the Obama presidency in Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic.
Deliberative democracy is one form of democratic experimentation and innovation that has emerged in recent decades to address a chronic sense that democracy is in crisis. In a reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that appears in her book Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, Danielle Allen describes this crisis as a result of “the psychological tension that arises from being an often powerless sovereign.” As democratic citizens we are told again and again that it is crucial to be active and engaged, and yet the actual sense of connection and accomplishment most of us experience is diluted to the point of invisibility. Layers of media, party organizations, and government bureaucracies intervene between citizens, their representatives, and legislative outcomes. The baroque, and, in many ways, undemocratic system of government in the United States makes that connection still more opaque. Deliberative democratic theory arose in the 1980s as one way to combat the alienation that Allen describes; Cass Sunstein, who is thanked in the acknowledgements to Audacity of Hope, is a leading theorist in this area. He was the president’s colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, and he went on to serve in the first Obama administration.
In one important sense, President Obama’s efforts to reform US democracy in a deliberative direction have met with failure: in his interactions with many members of the Republican Party, including the Republican leadership. Of the numerous occasions when he has extended invitations to deliberate and been stonewalled, two stand out: the healthcare reform summit that he hosted in February 2010; and the negotiations over the budget with House majority leader John Boehner he engaged in during the summer of 2011. The Republican Party’s decision to “Just say no” to Obama in the hope of making him a one-term president, and the rise of hyper-partisanship in Washington, is a familiar story that does not need rehearsing here.
But while it might seem that the president’s appeals to deliberate have backfired—and with regard to the Republicans in Congress they have, at least in the near term—there are other ways that American democracy has grown more deliberative in recent years. Both Obama presidential campaigns have emphasized conversation, dialogue, and outreach to build the electorate. “Camp Obama” seminars have included materials about the community organizing strategies of Saul Alinsky and directives to listen closely to prospective voters, take note of their concerns and stories, and build personal connections with them. Marshall Ganz, who worked with César Chávez and Robert Kennedy, made the social movement model central to Camp Obama and the team-based campaign structure that developed out of it. Ganz sees the interpersonal dimensions of organizing as a corrective to the marketing model that came to dominate American politics after the 1960s. The 2012 campaign methodically built the network of teams that constituted “Organizing for America,” which has now been retooled as the nonprofit “Organizing for Action.” According to its website, the new “OFA will encourage the formation of chapters that will be dedicated at the grassroots level to [the president’s legislative agenda], but also committed to identifying and working progressive change on a range of issues at the state and local level.”
The emphasis on persuasion as a central component in achieving political goals has been overshadowed by fascination with the “new media” dimensions of the Obama campaign’s success, but the organization itself gives at least equal prominence to the building of face-to-face interpersonal relationships as to its Twitter messaging and “Fireside Hangouts” on Google+. The quality of those encounters almost certainly does not rise to the level proposed by scholars like James Fishkin, who runs the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University. Fishkin has developed a practice called “deliberative polling,” which he has used around the world to help citizens make more fully informed political decisions. Campaign conversations fall short of the ideal of the deliberative poll but are a step toward the kind of democratic innovations being explored not only by Fishkin, but by scholars in the United States, across Europe, and around the world.
President Obama chose to end his State of the Union Address with a focus on gun violence. The administration’s effort to involve all the stakeholders in what they term the “national conversation” on this issue after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December is another example of how the principles of deliberative democracy have been brought to bear. In January, Vice-President Joe Biden met with leaders in a range of industries and fields to build support for legislative action. The president’s proposals for new legislation are working their way through Congress, and Organizing for Action has events scheduled to support that effort. At present, a bill designed to close the background-check loophole on gun shows is before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Will the social movement model behind OFA bear fruit in legislative successes? Will OFA incorporate more robust deliberative elements as it matures? The depth and quality of US democracy, and thus the long-term legacy of the Obama presidency, depends on innovations like these.
Sandra M. Gustafson is professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America and Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic.