Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Better Politics

After President Obama's speech ended last night, I spent a few minutes listening to TV pundits react. The basic line was: "The President talked about a better politics. But he didn't offer any conciliation to Republican ideas."

I had to turn the TV off after just a couple of minutes because I was so frustrated that none of them seemed to even remotely grasp what the President said. The assumption was that the only way to achieve a better politics was for him to agree with Republicans.

Here's some of what the President actually said:
So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes...

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives...

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.
Too many pundits (and Americans in general) assume there are only two options: agree or demonize your opponent. That's the kind of politics we've been living with for far too long. It's what President Obama calls our "empathy deficit." He is saying that we can disagree strongly with each other AND still address the heart of the matter.
I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny...

So let us say that on this day of all days, each of us carries with us the task of changing our hearts and minds. The division, the stereotypes, the scapegoating, the ease with which we blame our plight on others - all of this distracts us from the common challenges we face - war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate. It is the poison that we must purge from our politics; the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late.
This is truly President Obama's unique contribution to our politics today. Unless/until we can begin to grasp what he's saying...the poison will continue to infect our system.


  1. Too many pundits (and Americans in general) assume there are only two options: agree or demonize your opponent.

    And they're right. There's only peace in our time if one side unilaterally lays down its arms.

    Some 80+% of congress is white. Same with the courts. Some 95% of major CEOs are male. Etc. The goal of Democrats/liberals/what-have-you is to essentially fire huge swaths of those with power or wealth or influence in this country and replace them with historically non-traditional actors.

    The goal of every Democrat is to defeat every Republican and reduce their number to zero. And then never lose again. Politics are zero-sum. We don't have a "two-state solution" of our own where two separate spheres exist in parallel and mediate their disputes without one side needing to eradicate the other. Politics are about eradication. One side wins, one side doesn't and gets nothing. The losers are literally out of their livelihood and now they have to go work and live somewhere else.

    You watch the GOP be totally sour about all indicators of progress and refuse to pay even token support to seemingly no-brainers like "women should be equal!" and "let's not let working parents drown in debt to take care of their kids!" and you wonder why they don't ever get out in front of these movements and proactively fix them themselves. But we secretly all know why: beyond plutocratic incentives of their societal leaders, they wouldn't get any credit for it. They know it, we know it. They never have and the wolves will never leave their door. It's impossible to ever declare victory over the standard of living. It's always about more this and better that. There's always some new ask, some new demand, some new generational cause. You give the mouse a cookie and now he's asking for the glass of milk to go with it. Human beings are rightly insatiable. Life is precious and it deserves to be awesome.

    That's why conservatives are fundamentally anti-democratic. The fewer people they can get to participate, the less likely any of them are to ever be replaced. So you convince the masses that everything sucks and nothing will change, and enough people believing it will make it true.

    1. Once upon a time, within MY lifetime so not so long ago, it was possible for the two sides to debate, disagree, and yet cooperate. In the 60s and 70s my brother, draft age, applied for conscientious objector status. He was supported in that by our REPUBLICAN Senator who wrote letters on his behalf never once asking if my parents had even voted for him (they had not.) The CRA and VRA were strongly supported by Republicans. Most of our infrastructural greatness was bi-partisan, and at the state level in CA moves toward building sustainable self-sufficient jobs to eradicate poverty via worker coops was also bi-partisan. Reagan ended that. The "take no hostages" payback for Watergate and for an ultra-reactionary, racist agenda was laid down in his administration. But it is NOT the preference of most rank and file Republicans who exist outside the extremism of the religious right and corporatist supported Tea Party. This wall of obstruction is far more within today's corroded GOP politics, but it is NOT so grounded in the voters as they would choose to believe. It will change - such things always do - as the GOP abandons its real base to court the extremists.

      What we have to do is stop demonizing our own allies and work to have some civility with our neighbors so that voting against GOP extremism is not scary, is not seen as marching to some vague gray Gulag. We need to be more kind, too. Civility is not giving up your views. It's being humane in how you express them so the 'other guy' will actually listen.

    2. But for Margaret Chase Smith, once upon a time everyone in your life who had political power was white and male. There was a sorting beyond the sorting that made it so that D vs. R or liberal vs. conservative mattered less than a greater continuity that white men would find agreeable.

      We sort ourselves differently now. The root cause of liberal disaffection (beyond resentment towards those fighting in the arena or raising themselves up on high) is a refusal to just admit how enormous its progressive dream is for the world. It's turning the world on its head. That doesn't come easy.

      For the longest time, women were de facto property. Your fathers would trade you like futures contracts to another family in exchange for goats or gold or farm plots. Half the children ever born wasted away as toddlers and infants. If men came in contact with a stranger from another land or tribe, they would cut his throat so that he could not report back their existence to his own kind.

      The fact that all of this changed means that change is and has always been possible. Super gigantic change. But at every turn, people who profit more from how things are than from how they could be pose obstacles. And some times they have to be shut down and that's just that. You can't square every circle and save every soul, you just have to keep going forward.

      Barack Obama hires people like Barack Obama. He doesn't usually hire people who wouldn't have hired him. They're on the outs, he's on the in. Who gets to be legitimate and equal in society is at stake. And those are deeply contested topics.

  2. And they're right. There's only peace in our time if one side unilaterally lays down its arms.

    I fundamentally disagree. What you are describing about Republicans is how they feed the poison in our system. And yes, that is what we need to purge. Playing the game at their level won't get that done.

    1. You are describing a world where everything is decided in quiet committee and everybody participates all the time forever. Which might theoretically work for some isolated tribe in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea (spoiler: that's not even how they do things there, either), but can't plausibly be mapped onto our own civilization.

      Authority has to concentrate somewhere. Somebody has to win and then they go ahead and hire more of their own at the expense of the losing side. You wish for a world where you can win without anybody noticing, nor anybody ever feel a loss for losing.

      Be honest with yourself: you want Republicans to become a dead movement and a dead ideology, right? But they exist, right? And they presumably will contest their own oblivion and attempt to preserve their space in this world. The whole history of humanity is one endless struggle. Endless. You're being utopian.

    2. In a world where the poison was removed from our system, there are times when Republicans would actually have a point. We haven't seen that in the last 15 years, but from a purely ideological perspective, conservatism would play a balancing role.

      Case in point: Almost all liberals would support single payer healthcare. But as we saw recently in Vermont, the abrupt transition from our current system to single payer is too big of a leap. The more conservative Obamacare is not only getting results - its likely paving a very long road towards single payer.

      If the whole history of humanity is one endless struggle - one side unilaterally laying down its arms is not a real possibility. So who's being utopian?

    3. This part applies perfectly to the "pundits":

      "A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives..."

      Their lack of self-awareness boggles the mind.

  3. ??????????????
    Thanks for doin' what you do, Nancy

  4. Not to paint everyone with a broad brush, but... Just like being a lawyer is a license to lie, being a tv pundit is a license to say stupid things.

  5. Churchlady, I truly do wish you'd write a blog. I'd so totally read it. You write so well and your historical perspective is so educational.