State of Disunion by Sandra M. Gustafson


For the past several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to have scholar Sandra M. Gustafson contribute a post following Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union addresses, providing thematic context for the president’s speeches and scrutinizing his use of rhetoric within larger social and political frameworks. Read Gustafson’s 2014 post in full after the jump below.


In previous State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama has called for a civil and deliberate politics in the wake of the 2011 Tucson shootings; fought for cooperation with Congress in 2012; and exhorted his audience to devote itself in 2013 to engaging in “The hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

This year’s address was different. After giving credit for the improving economy and communal wellbeing to everyday people—a teacher, an entrepreneur, an autoworker, a farmer—the president emphasized how the failure of Congress to pass needed legislation has inhibited rather than fostered those achievements. He described how, “for several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate—one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy—when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States—then we are not doing right by the American people.”

In response to this persistent congressional stalemate, which threatens to intensify in an election year, the president promised action: “America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” More limited than legislation, executive orders do allow for some concrete steps—and can promote a more powerful image for a president who was recently listed as one of the twenty-five least influential people of 2013 by GQ magazine. The capacity of the president to project an image of potency could be significant for the midterm elections, particularly with male voters who gave him only 45 percent of their vote (compared to 52 percent for Romney) in 2012.

This image of presidential power is at odds with the vision of a more restrained executive branch that has in many ways been central to the Obama presidency. (His support for the NSA surveillance programs is a partial exception.) The president’s description of the United States as a “deliberative democracy” in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope; his inclusion of deliberative democracy theorist Cass Sunstein in his administration; and the creation of Organizing for Action to promote citizen activism are all pieces of the more robust and decentralized vision of citizenship that he brought to the office. The decision of congressional Republicans to double down in oppositional mode has sharply limited the president’s ability to realize the post-polarization vision of his breakthrough 2004 Democratic convention speech—what New York Times news analyst Carl Hulse called his “gauzy vision of a post-partisan brand of politics.” David Remnick was more sympathetic in a recent New Yorker profile, noting that the president’s no-red-states-or-blue-states vision was more than “rhetorical pixie dust” and rather, “an elemental component of his self-conception.” For Remnick, who titled his 2010 biography of the president The Bridge, this is a matter of personal experience and style.

It is also, as I have shown in Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, a vision of democratic republican politics with deep roots in the United States and beyond. Barack Obama would not have succeeded in reaching the nation’s highest office if the case were otherwise. Three recent developments illustrate the ongoing vitality of this vision, despite the dysfunction in Congress.

In 2013, the University of Chicago opened the nonpartisan Institute of Politics under the inaugural leadership of longtime Obama advisor David Axelrod. Axelrod has hosted a variety of events including a fall 2012 panel that brought together leading members of the Obama and Romney campaigns for a post-election breakdown; an interview with author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel; and a three-way conversation on grace in politics with Anna Deveare Smith, whose works of documentary theater have explored politically and racially sensitive issues, and Illinois Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, a progressive political leader in Chicago who was once President Obama’s alderman. The Institute provides a range of experiences that move beyond the sharply polarized media image of politics, and seeks to recruit talented young people into political careers.

Last fall, the American Political Science Association, the main scholarly organization of political scientists in the United States, released a task force report on negotiating agreement in politics, which aims to help resolve congressional polarization. Jane Mansbridge of Harvard University, a leading deliberative democracy theorist, headed the committee that prepared the report. Mansbridge teaches a popular democratic theory course at the Kennedy School and brings a comparative international approach to her scholarship.

The Mansbridge report, much of which is written in a style accessible to lay readers, deserves to be widely consulted. Most relevant for this year’s SOTU is the discussion of deliberative negotiation, in which Mansbridge and her coauthor Mark Warren single out Congress as essential to democratic action. They note that “the collective capacity to act is a crucial component of democracy,” and that, “when Congress is unable to act in the face of urgent collective problems, power flows to other parts of the political system, diminishing its democratic capacity and legitimacy.” Drawing on a range of successful examples, many from Europe, Mansbridge and Warren identify several key features of deliberative negotiations that allow representatives to elicit relevant expertise and bring together stakeholders to solve pressing social problems. They also sum up the costs of stubborn conflicts that inhibit change: “If a democracy is working well,” they write, “its institutions transform conflicts into potential agreements…. Legislative gridlock fails to convert the wills of those who should be included in any decision into something that constitutionally could be considered a collective will and decision.”

Outside academia, the No Labels organization was founded in 2010 to combat the intensifying polarization that followed the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Though it has hardly galvanized the political scene the way the Tea Party did, No Labels has launched a number of initiatives and shown slow but steady growth. Shortly before the SOTU, the organization released No Labels: A Shared Vision for a Stronger America, edited by Governor Jon Huntsman and with a foreword by Huntsman’s cochair, Senator Joe Manchin. Huntsman and Manchin have been prominent in the effort to foster bipartisanship. No Labels echoes many of the broad themes of the Mansbridge report in the context of a citizens’ movement that seeks to influence elections and change the political culture in Washington.

These three endeavors suggest a variety of means to change the climate in Washington:  train up capable young people with better skills at negotiation and deliberation and a less polarized vision; develop new institutional capacities for forging agreements; and nurture a more cooperative climate in Congress by supporting representatives willing to work in a bipartisan manner. As Mansbridge and Warren note, “The capacity to act is built into the very meaning of democracy, or rule (kratos) of the people (demos).” Without action, the ideals of cooperation and social solidarity that form the very basis of democratic citizenship are diminished. As the main legislative body of the world’s oldest democracy, the United States Congress should be a leader in realizing those values, not a symbol of their collapse.

Sandra M. Gustafson is professor of English and American studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a book on conflict and democracy in classic American fiction with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

To read more about Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic, click here.