Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Politics and Current Events

Imagining the State of the Union: Part II


Yesterday, we asked scholar Sandra M. Gustafson, author of Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, to comment on President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. This afternoon, she’s joined by James T. Kloppenberg, author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, who engages with the history of other deliberative democrats and evaluates where Obama’s words fell for a spectrum of interested parties, while remarking on the conflict and compromise that informs both authors’ books. Thanks again to Professors Gustafson and Kloppenberg for sharing their thoughts with us!


“Obama’s 2012 SOTU: Keeping Open the Invitation to Deliberate” by James T. Kloppenberg
Champions of conciliation face an uphill battle in 2012. As Sandra Gustafson notes, ours is a contentious culture. Of course that’s nothing new. As Barack Obama emphasized in The Audacity of Hope and as he has observed many times since, conflict is as American as apple pie. The first settlers in New England began squabbling before they got off the ships that carried them across the Atlantic. William Penn’s utopian vision of a peaceful Pennsylvania vanished in a firestorm of criticism. Most of those shipped to the southern colonies arrived as slaves, servants, or convicts, inferior beings to whom the ruling white males would not have to listen. Yet beneath the noisy arguments that erupted everywhere in colonial America, a new sensibility quietly established itself around the idea of self-government. In New England towns, in the villages established by the quarreling religious and ethnic groups that settled the middle colonies, and in the colonial legislatures where southern planters fought a war on two fronts against the demands of English officials and the rabble they wanted to keep subservient, people were learning from experience that, in the absence of a ruling monarch or an aristocracy with privileges secured by law, the members of every deliberative body had to learn to accept the judgment of the majority. Accompanying conflict, in other words, was the imperative of persuasion, the need to convince those who disagreed to see the light and come around.
Ever since the ancient world, a tension has persisted in democratic cultures between the prophet’s principled refusal to compromise with evil and the deliberative democrat’s equally principled commitment to the institutions and the process of achieving gradual change through conciliation. As Sandra Gustafson shows in her splendid book Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, and as I try to establish in my forthcoming book Tragic Irony: Democracy in European and American Thought, conflict and its provisional resolution through compromise together constitute the democratic tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Obama understands the power and the necessity of unyielding calls to justice, he also understands that democracy can work only when the chasm between competing and incompatible principles can be bridged through efforts to understand other perspectives and identify and bring to the surface buried commitments to shared ideals. Americans have always fought bitterly over issues ranging from theology to economics, from slavery to abortion, and those who reject compromise always dismiss as unprincipled those conciliators who work to discover or create overlapping consensus where others see only irreconcilable differences. Like deliberative democrats from James Madison to John Dewey, Obama understands that although not every dispute can be resolved through deliberation, the alternative—civil war—is always tragic and usually ineffective as a means to heal the deep wounds it creates. Our culture’s romantic celebration of warriors blinds us to war’s long-term consequences; democracy depends on persuasion and must resort to force only as a last resort.
Obama’s State of the Union address surprised only those who continue to project onto him either their own aspirations for radical change or their own paranoid fantasies about his secret plot to turn the United States into Denmark. The speech instead falls neatly in the continuous line of analysis Obama has offered ever since 1988, when he wrote the little essay “Why Organize?” before he left the Chicago world of community organizing for the Harvard Law School. Some commentators on the left complain that the SOTU left them feeling undernourished: Obama failed to excoriate his opponents or lay out a bold plan—to be accomplished by executive order, evidently, given the Republican majority in the House of Representatives—to bring justice to our land of inequality and oppression. By contrast, members of the self-styled moderate conservative commentariat have been left sputtering about the speech: the food is terrible, they complain about the mildly progressive measures Obama sketched out as his priorities, and there’s so little of it. Their frustration is easy to understand. Although Obama did make clear his preferences for a simplified and more steeply graduated income tax, steps to return manufacturing to the United States, and more robust regulation of the environment and the financial sector, there was nothing in the speech to antagonize the independent voters whom his Republican opponent will have to woo in November. Instead he continued to plead for “responsibility,” “cooperation,” “opportunity,” and “fairness,” favorite code words invoked by progressives for over a century to justify the reforms we seek. For decades conservatives successfully blocked such initiatives by raising various specters, first communism, now terrorism, and again and again the various demons conjured up by the notion of a culture war. Obama refused to play into the mythology that he is an anti-business or anti-American radical. Instead he embraced the explicitly solidaristic ethos of the military and reminded us that he is willing to deploy helicopters, moles, or drones when he deems it necessary. Americans who actually listened to his words, rather than filtering the speech through the increasingly rickety categories concocted by his critics, heard the voice of a moderate who still believes, against all odds, in deliberative democracy. Although surrounded by people who would rather shout down their opponents than reason with them, Obama showed yet again his commitment to the proposition that the electorate can be persuaded to choose a path of moderate development toward a newer, and more inclusive, understanding of the present-day meanings of the nation’s traditional democratic ideals of liberty and justice for all.
James T. Kloppenberg is the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University and the author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Second Edition, 2012).