Between Principle and Practice (Part I): Obama and Cynical Reasoning

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Raadhuset Main Hall at Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2009. © Pete Souza |

I have long been intrigued by the distance between principle and practice, how people respond to the distance, and what the consequences are, of the distance and the response. This was my major concern in The Cynical Society. It is central to “the civil society as if” strategy of the democratic opposition that developed around the old Soviet bloc, which I explored in Beyond Glasnost and After the Fall. And it is also central to how I think about the politics of small things and reinventing political culture, including many of my own public engagements: from my support of Barack Obama, to my understanding of my place of work, The New School for Social Research and my understanding of this experiment in publication, Deliberately Considered. I will explain in a series of posts. Today a bit more about Obama and his Nobel Lecture, and the alternative to cynicism.

I think principle is every bit as real as practice. Therefore, in my last post, I interpreted Obama’s lecture as I did. But I fear my position may not be fully understood. A friend on Facebook objected to the fact that I took the lecture seriously. “The Nobel Address marked the Great Turn Downward, back to Cold War policies a la Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al. A big depressing moment for many of us.”

He sees many of the problems I see in Obama’s foreign policy, I assume, though he wasn’t specific. He is probably quite critical of the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued, critical of the drone policy, disappointed by the fact that Guantanamo prison is still open, and by Obama’s record on transparency and the way he has allowed concern for national security take priority over human and civil rights, at home and abroad. The clear line between Bush’s foreign policy and Obama’s, which both my friend and I sought, has not been forthcoming. And . . .

Read more: Between Principle and Practice (Part I): Obama and Cynical Reasoning

Class Matters: The Not So Hidden Theme of the State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2013. © Chuck Kennedy |

I anticipated the State of the Union Address, more or less, correctly, though I underestimated Obama’s forthrightness. He entered softly, calling for bi-partisanship, but he followed up with a pretty big stick, strongly arguing for his agenda, including, most spectacularly, the matter of class and class conflict, daring the Republicans to dissent, ending the speech on a high emotional note on gun violence and the need to have a vote on legislation addressing the problem. Before the speech, I wondered how President Obama would balance assertion of his program with reaching out to Republicans. This was an assertive speech.

The script was elegantly crafted, as usual, and beautifully performed, as well. He embodied his authority, with focused political purpose aimed at the middle class. This got me thinking. As a sociologist, I find public middle class talk confusing, though over the years I have worked to understand the politics. I think last night it became clear, both the politics and the sociology.

Obama is seeking to sustain his new governing coalition, with the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the bi-partisan coalition in the House, although he is working to form the coalition more aggressively than I had expected. He is addressing the House through “the people,” with their middle class identities, aspirations and fears.

In my last post, I observed and then suggested:

“Obama’s recent legislative victories included Republican votes on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling. I believe he will talk about the economy in such a way that he strengthens his capacity to draw upon this new governing coalition. He will do it in the name of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class. This is the formulation of Obama for ordinary folk, the popular classes, the great bulk of the demos, the people. In this speech and in others, they are the subjects of change, echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: government of the . . .

Read more: Class Matters: The Not So Hidden Theme of the State of the Union

Moving the Center Left on Issues Foreign and Domestic: Anticipating the State of Union Address

President Barack Obama meets with Cody Keenan, Deputy Director of Speechwriting, left, and Jon Favreau, Director of Speechwriting, in the Oval Office, Feb. 5, 2013. © Pete Souza |

There will be more prose, less poetry, though President Obama will certainly highlight the themes of his Inaugural Address and his earlier poetic speeches. He will be specific about policy: on immigration, gun violence, climate change, military expenditures and reforms, and the need for a balanced approach to immediate and long-term economic challenges. He will hang tough on the sequestration, calling the Republicans’ bluff, and he will warn of the dangers the U.S. faces abroad, while he defends his foreign policy, including his major accomplishment of ending two disastrous wars (though he won’t call them that). The speech is going to be about jobs and the middle class. This is all expected by the chattering class, and I think Obama will meet expectations. But I also think that there will be more interesting things going on. The President will move forcefully ahead on his major project, moving the center left on issues foreign and domestic. And there are significant signs he is succeeding, see this report from a deep red state.

Look for an opening to Republican moderates. I suspect Obama will not only stake out his positions, but also point to the way that those holding other positions may work with him on contentious issues. This will be most apparent in immigration reform. He will also likely address Republicans concerns about long-term cuts in government spending.

He will highlight the need for a leaner, but as mean, military budget, as he denounces the dangers of the thoughtless cuts in military spending via the sequester. Real cuts in military spending will please his base, including me, but also some more libertarian Republicans, Rand Paul, though not John McCain.

Less pleasing for progressives would be what Obama very well may say about so-called “entitlements.” I am not sure he will do this now, but if not now, when?

He could make clear his priority – control medical and Medicare expenses, reminding us that this is a . . .

Read more: Moving the Center Left on Issues Foreign and Domestic: Anticipating the State of Union Address

The Reagan Revolution Ends! Obama’s Proceeds!

President Barack Obama playing multi-dimensional chess © DonkeyHotey | Flickr

In Reinventing Political Culture, I argue that there are four components to Barack Obama’s project in reinventing American political culture: (1) the politics of small things, using new media to capture the power of interpersonal political engagement and persuasion, (2) the revival of classical eloquence, (3) the redefinition of American identity and (4) the pursuit of good governance, rejecting across the board condemnations of big government, understanding the importance of the democratic state. I think that there is significant evidence for advances on all four fronts. The most difficult in the context of the Great Recession was the struggle for good governance, but now the full Obama Transformation, responding the Reagan Revolution, is gaining broad public acceptance.

The election was won using precise mobilization techniques. Key fully developed speeches by the President and his supporters, most significantly Bill Clinton, defined the accomplishments of the past for years and the promise of the next four. Obama’s elevation of the Great Seal motto E pluribus unum (in diversity union), defining the special social character and political strength of America, has won the day. And now, the era of blind antipathy to government is over.

The pendulum has finally swung back. The long conservative ascendancy has ended. A new commonsense has emerged. Obama’s reinvention of American political culture is rapidly advancing. The full effects of the 2012 elections are coming into view. The promise of 2008 is being realized. The counterattack of 2010 has been repelled. The evidence is everywhere to be seen, right in front of our eyes, and we should take note that it is adding up. Here is some evidence taken from reading the news of the past couple of days.

It is becoming clear that Obama’s tough stance in the fiscal cliff negotiations is yielding results.  The Republicans now are accepting tax increases. Signs are good that this includes tax rates. A headline in the Times Friday afternoon: “Boehner Doesn’t Rule Out Raising Tax Rates.” A striking shift in economic policy is apparent: tax the rich before benefit cuts for the poor, government support for economic . . .

Read more: The Reagan Revolution Ends! Obama’s Proceeds!

The Florida Primary and The ADD Electorate

Mitt Romney (caricature from photo by Gage Skidmore) © DonkeyHotey | Flickr

Following developments in the Republican presidential nominating contest the instability of the race is stark. Every political contest involves flawed candidates: how could it be otherwise? But often the public develops a firm sense of the perspective of the candidates and chooses to join a team. As primary campaigns are waged on a state-by-state basis, it is expected that in some realms one candidate will do better than another, but psychiatric mood swings are something else. We saw the politics of allegiance in the competition between Barack and Hillary (and the wormy love apple: imagine our blue dress politics in an Edwards presidency!). In the states of the industrial Midwest, home to Reagan Democrats, Hillary posted strong numbers; Obama was more successful in states not so hard hit by industrial decline, states with a rainbow electorate, and those open to a new type of politics. Soon one knew the metrics of the race, even if the outcome was uncertain. But the Republican campaign upends these rules as voter preferences lurch wildly. This is a campaign year that reminds us of voters’ cultural fickleness – their political ADD. They are watching a reality television show and so are we (Jeff Goldfarb describes his pained reaction in “The Republican Reality Show”). If one is not newly tickled, one turns away. Media narratives set our politics.

We have gazed at candidates, quasi-candidates, and proto-candidates – Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and The Donald – dance with the stars. Can parties fire their voters? Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty could have had his turn had he the internal fortitude or cockeyed optimism to recognize that to be dismissed in August might lead to be crowned a year later. If politics were based on a comparison and conflict of ideas, this would be inconceivable.

But American politics has become, as Jeffrey Goldfarb emphasizes, a reality show – adore it, dismiss it, or despise it, but depend on it. Voters demand diversion; they want bread and circuses, at least circuses. Around the scrum are kibitzers, now Sarah Palin and . . .

Read more: The Florida Primary and The ADD Electorate

The Tea Party Goes to Washington: Now What?

Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's 1939 political drama "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (Columbia Pictures)

The Tea Party reminds me of political movements I have been involved with and studied in the past. The development of this movement well illustrates my conception of “the politics of small things,” a very real and powerful element of political life.

Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's 1939 political drama "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (Columbia Pictures)

When people meet each other and speak and act in each others  presence based on shared principles about common concerns, and develop a capacity to act in concert, they create political power, a kind of power highlighted by my favorite political thinker, Hannah Arendt in Between Past and Future.   I saw this in the alternative cultural movement in Poland, and later in the democratic opposition in Poland and around the old Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 1980s.

People on their own, many my friends, reinvented their political culture, and the unimaginable and the hopelessly naïve became the realistic and the practical.  Solidarnosc was born.  The Berlin Wall fell.  The Soviet Empire imploded.  These opposition figures changed commonsense.  They presented an alternative to newspeak as a public language.  The unimaginable became the real. I wrote of many of these issues in my book, Beyond Glasnost.

In the anti-war movement, the Dean campaign and the Obama campaign, the same power was evident.  In the aftermath of the patriotic wave and mass support for the policies of the Bush administration, those who dissented started talking to each other, meeting, talking and developing a capacity to act in concert.  At first, this was accomplished by utilizing and supported by A dense network of conversation and common action was developed. The man naming himself as the candidate from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, changed the discussion among Democrats. They lost the election, but then won big, in 2008, very much propelled by the social support that was generated by the politics of small things.

Their great success, I should say our great success, was viewed very skeptically by a significant portion of the population.  After all, while Obama won decisively, 45% of voters . . .

Read more: The Tea Party Goes to Washington: Now What?

Rand Paul and the Tea Party go to Washington

In my state, New York, thanks to the Tea Party favorite, Carl Paladino, Andrew Cuomo’s election as Governor was never in doubt.   In Delaware, thanks to Christine O’Donnell, Chris Coons easily became Senator, when it seemed that he was likely to lose against a mainstream Republican.  In Nevada, the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who started and finished with low approval ratings, managed to be reelected, thanks to the Tea Party candidate, Sharron Angle.  On the other hand, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Rand Paul in Kentucky each impressively were elected to the Senate, assuring that there will be a discernable taste of tea in that great deliberative body.

As Paul put it,

“They say that the U.S. Senate is the world’s most deliberative body. Well, I’m going to ask them, respectfully, to deliberate upon this. Eleven percent of the people approve of what’s going on in Congress. But tonight there is a Tea Party tidal wave and we’re sending a message to ’em.

It’s a message that I will carry with them on Day One. It’s a message of fiscal sanity It’s a message of limited, limited constitutional government and balanced budgets.” (link)

The language is ugly, but clear.  The political discourse of the Senate is about to be challenged, and this is the body where the Republicans are in the minority.  It will be even louder and clearer in the House, which I admit I find pretty depressing, both from the political and the aesthetic point of view.  It’s going to be harder to actually deal with our pressing problems, and it’s not going to be pretty.

Indeed, it is in spheres of aesthetics and discourse that the Tea Party has been most successful.  It’s not a matter actually of how many races Tea Party politicians won or lost.  They won some and lost some, but from the beginning the Tea Party’s great success has been how it changed the public discussion about the pressing issues of the day.  In my next post, I will discuss this more fully, comparing the Tea Party with the Solidarity Movement in Poland, . . .

Read more: Rand Paul and the Tea Party go to Washington