Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jan/130

Reflections on an Inaugural Address

I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.

-RB

31Aug/123

The President’s Failure and His Challenge.

I spoke with my daughter this morning. She is seven. I asked her what she thought of Mitt Romney's speech. She answered: "Both he and President Obama tell lies simply to get elected." Now I know she is to some extent parroting what she hears around our dinner table and the playground. But there is something deeply disheartening in her seven-year-old cynicism. There is a deep sense not only that our politicians lie, but also that the Presidency is a broken institution. That the President is captive of interests special and not-so-special. That the President is trapped in a bureaucracy impervious to change and that the President, whomever he or she may be, cannot really change the perilous course on which our nation is headed. This indeed is the topic of an upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."

There are myriad sources for this pessimism that one hears from seven-year-olds, college students, and adults. It is markedly different from the idealism that swept the country four years ago personified in Barack Obama. More so than any time I know of, there is a sense of total hopelessness; a feeling that neither party and no potential president can possibly change our course for the better.

To understand this ennui, one must take President Obama's failure seriously. That failure is simple. He became President amidst the perceived failure of the presidency of George W. Bush. The Country desperately wanted a change.  At the same time, the financial crisis threatened to overwhelm the nation. The President offered hope. He embodied all of our dreams, offering a way forward, out of the excesses of the Bush era and towards a re-enlivening of basic American values of freedom and fairness. There was, in the President's own words, a demand for a "new era of responsibility."

The force of Mitt Romney's Convention speech on Thursday was his expression of disappointment in the President. This strikes me as a non-partisan statement and that is its strength. It is hard to find even the most stalwart of President Obama's supporters who will disagree with this assessment. Where does it come from? Why has Obama disappointed us?

One answer comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the leading thinkers of Presidential rhetoric of our time. Jamieson has given analyses of many of President Obama's speeches, and his found them deeply wanting. In her 2010 address to the American Political Science Association, she says:

In other words, Barack Obama was never as eloquent as we thought he was. A person matched a moment with rhetoric in a context in which the audience created something heard as eloquence. Widely labeled as eloquent, he creates expectations for his presidency that he cannot satisfy in the presidency barring that he is Abraham Lincoln with the Gettysburg Address or a Second Inaugural in his pocket.

So on the one hand, Obama set the expectations for himself too high. That may be, but it is also the case that he became President at a time of great crisis. Maybe it wasn't a Civil War, but the financial crisis does threaten the future of the United States. One fault of the President is that he has continued to describe the financial crisis as a temporary setback, one that will cause some pain but will pass. He has not taken the financial crisis seriously enough, and categorized it for what it is, a crisis. By refusing to do so, he has lost the opportunity  to become a crisis President.

In a recent post, I discussed Roberto Magabeira Unger's insistence that we need a wartime President now without a war, one who rallies the nation to change and sacrifice towards a future goal. What Obama has refused to do is present his vision of where we should go. He speaks about change, but doesn't offer a sense of what that change might be. In Jamieson's analysis, he has failed to provide a rhetorical speech that offers us "a digestive sense of what this presidency is going to do."

A digestive statement for Jamieson is something like John F. Kennedy's question: "Ask not what your country can do for you..." As Jameison writes, such statements "sound as if they're sound bites until you realize that there's a definition underlying a presidency in those kinds of statements." Kennedy meant something with his question, something he backed up with the idea of the Peace Corps and public service.

The problem with President Obama's rhetoric, and thus his presidency, is that he has yet to find such a digestive statement that defines what he cares about and what he believes this country is about. As Jamieson writes, there is nothing like Kennedy's invocation of the Peace Corps or communal sacrifice that defines or articulates Obama's vision for America. There is no theme of "transformation of generational identity." She writes: "Indeed, I would challenge you to give me a phrase that is memorable at all, that defines who we are and where we're going under this presidency."

Jamieson's critique of the President is harsh. But I think it is accurate. That is the reason why Romney's claim of disappointment strikes me as powerful. Whether Romney offers an alternative is hard to know, since he himself seems to change his opinions and views weekly. That said, President Obama has his work cut out for him. He must show us that he can articulate a response to the disappointment people feel and provide the hope that he can still get the country back on track, even after three years of failing to do so.

The crises the President inherited are not his fault. It is disgusting to hear Paul Ryan and others blame the President for every problem in the United States. And despite Mitt Romney's impressive past history, his willingness to change his positions regularly and disavow past achievements raises serious questions about his own ability to lead. And yet, it is undeniable that after three years, the financial crisis is still with us and the political crisis is worse than ever. At some point, the President must take responsibility for his failure to address these crises and offer hope that he has a plan to address them in the future. That is the President's challenge during his convention speech next week. To somehow try to answer the criticism that after three years, we still don't know what it is that President Obama believes in and how he wants to respond to the financial and political crisis that he inherited.

In thinking about what the President will say on Thursday, I encourage everyone to read Jamieson's analysis of the past failure of Obama's rhetoric. It is your weekend read. And if you want to think further about the challenge of the president to lead in times of crisis, think about attending the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming conference, "Does the President Matter?"

-RB

 

24Aug/121

Redefining “Liberal”

I am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury's website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me to his Reverence's recent review of Marilynne Robinson's newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:

These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.

Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop's excellent taste. First, the Archbishop's desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to "the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving." The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.

The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan's selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Christianity. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan's calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:

Mr. Ryan's own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an "intrinsic evil" (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, "there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers."

It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Robinson's book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Chistianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan's own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of "non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity." What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.

A second point to glean from the Archbishop's review is his interest in Robinson's "striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism." The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality.  Rationalism  "is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic."

Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world's leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life's perplexing questions.

You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury's review of Marilynne Robinson's essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson's 'When I Was a Child I Read Books'.  You can also read past discussions of Robinson's work here and here.

 -RB

17Aug/121

Miracles and Politics

In one of the Facebook comments responding to my post about Paul Ryan, a friend suggested I read Jon Rauch's book Government's End. The specific Facebook friendly recommendation read: "does the most cogent job of explaining why the US is stuck in rut." I tend to take such recommendations seriously, so I did.

The first quotation that stopped me was this one:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed. What you see now in Washington is basically what you will get for a very long time to come, even though many people, in fact probably a majority of people, may both wish and vote for something quite different.

Rauch presents himself, first, as a teller of hard truths. The hard truth Rauch tells is that the price we pay for stable societies is sclerosis—he calls it Demosclerosis to emphasize that it is a particular affliction of liberal democracies. He builds his theory out of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action, a book that argues "the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests." Smaller groups will out organize larger groups, which means that smaller groups will have an outsized interest in politics. As groups proliferate, these groups will succeed in pursuing their parochial interests over the national majority. This will, in the end, lead to a government fully answerable to a myriad of interest groups and resistant to any will by the majority to resist those interests.

Rauch insists that this is not because there are bad people in government. Nor is it because of liberals or conservatives. Nor is it a failure of specific policies or electoral methods. The media is not to blame. The people are not at fault. Better education and better civic engagement will not solve the problem. No, for Rauch, this is simply the fact of government in the late 20th and now early 21st century. The best thing we can do, he writes, is to accept it.

Second, Rauch argues that his point is non-partisan and that both liberals and conservatives are equally indebted to and caught up in the system of Demosclerosis he describes.

 " Many liberals have long assumed that Washington can do almost anything it puts its mind to, if only the right people are in charge." Against the liberals, he argues that more and more programs will not solve the problem. Indeed, it makes it worse. Anyone who has witnessed well-meaning efforts to fight poverty, improve education, or protect the environment blossom and fail over the last century has to have sympathy with Rauch's basic point. While countless individuals have been educated by state schools and fed by state programs, and while particular rivers are cleaner than they would be without state intervention, it is hard to argue that poverty is less or the environment is healthier. The overwhelming benefactor of the state's enormous largesse has been the state and the people who feed off it.

Conservatives are more comfortable with the idea that government cannot solve all of our problems. But conservative rhetoric about limiting government ignores what Rauch sees as the basic fact: " Demosclerosis turns government into more and more of a rambling, ill-adapted shambles that often gets in the way but can't be eliminated."  While conservatives may decry big government, they have refused and continue to refuse to honestly tell the voters what a smaller government would actually mean: "Less stuff for you." As Rauch writes,

In their eagerness to make government-cutting sound easy and fun, conservatives have helped persuade the electorate that there is no reason to support any actual hard work of cutting anything except "waste" (read: somebody else's programs). Thus has American conservatism become handmaiden to the "big government" that it so stridently condemns."

Third, Rauch argues that there is simply no realistic alternative to Demosclerosis. It is simply part of Mancur Olson's social scientific theory of the way the world works. Thus, the best thing we can do is abandon our unrealistic hope to change the system. We must expect less of government, and "reward politicians who chip away at the empire of the entrenched interests." "Real-world success means not "returning government to the people" (or whatever) but simply putting additional pressure on particular lobbies at every opportunity, a less dramatic but far more attainable goal." We need to reward incrementalism, small but determined efforts to free parts of the nation from sclerotic special perks.

Above all, then, Rauch argues that we must change our expectations of government. We should accept that government is a sclerotic and sickly beast that is poor at solving problems and honestly expect it to do less and less for us. This analytical and honest approach will bring about the "End of government," namely the end of the expectation in and hope for a government that truly reflects the will and serves the needs of the people. It is important, Rauch writes, for "Americans of the broad center not to expect miracles."

Even as I was reading Rauch's Government's End, I was also reading Hannah Arendt's essay What is Freedom? Near the end of this exceptional essay Arendt writes:

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear; for it is disaster, not salvation, which always happens automatically and therefore always must appear to be irresistible.

What Arendt reminds us is that the very kinds of automatic processes that in Rauch's telling comprise the irreversible system of governmental sclerosis are, as human creations, changeable. It is precisely at those times when the government seems most automated and when disaster seems most unavoidable that salvation appears in the form of miracles.

In speaking of miracles, Arendt does not have in mind a deus ex machina. Instead, she affirms the basic fact of human life, that human beings are surprising and spontaneous. While it may seem an inviolable scientific law that humans in large groups don't organize together in the common interest, at times they do. Such organizations happen, as they recently did in Egypt and Tunisia, and as they did in this country in the late 18th century. Social scientists will also be shocked and surprised by such uprisings of revolutionary common sense as they were in Egypt, because human beings are free. That means that humans are in the end unpredictable. What that means as well is that it is simply folly to say, as Rauch does, that our current situation cannot be reversed.

Of course it may be that Rauch's conclusion is less folly than it is a sad hope. For all of Rauch's talk of telling of hard truths, one cannot but also sense that Rauch finds the situation of Demosclerosis he describes oddly satisfactory. In his final section, titled "Why Dreams Must Be Buried," Rauch writes:

In truth, this demise [of the dream of good government] is no disaster. The Social Security checks will still go out, the budget will still be passed (most years), and patchwork reforms and emergency bills will still be approved....In some ways, in fact, the death of the dream may be to the good. Americans tend to be obsessed with government. Liberals hunt for a governmental solution for every problem; conservatives hunt for a governmental cause for every problem.... All of them are governmentalists, in the sense that they define their ideologies and social passions in relation to government.

That Americans are governmentalists could also have its root in the fact that Americans love freedom. One basic premise of freedom is self-government, the insistence that we can as a people govern ourselves wisely and freely. To turn our back on government is to abandon not simply big government, but the ideal of freedom itself.

There are, of course, different ideas of freedom. Traditional liberals like Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, see freedom as something pursued in the private sphere. Government exists simply to protect our private pursuit of individual ends. For Arendt, however, and for Americans over the last 200 years, freedom has meant as well public freedom, the dream that we can, as a people, collectively create something meaningful and great.

I have deep respect for Rauch's telling of hard truths. His book should be read. That is why it is this week's weekend read. His account of demosclerosis may be truthful. It is a critique liberals and conservatives must take to heart. But his enthusiastic rejection of the miracle of political freedom is decidedly less realistic.

Read an excerpt of Government's End here. Better yet, download Government's End on either Amazon.com or an Itunes. Or support a used bookstore and order it here.

-RB

13Aug/125

Does Paul Ryan Matter? On the Limitations of the Rhetorical Presidency

One week ago this was the most important and yet the most boring election in history. No longer. Ryan's selection adds a jolt of seriousness and consequentialness to the next 90 days of electioneering. Or at least so we are told. Why?

Because Ryan has been, over the last year, one of the very few politicians in the United States who seems to really understand the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and who is willing to propose and support radical steps to address it. His proposed budget is draconian. It has some great ideas, including simplifying the tax code and getting rid of tax breaks like the Carried Interest provision. And yet, it is one-sided and highly partisan. Ryan calls for enormous cuts to the entitlements that will cause incredible suffering to the poor and middle classes, while providing large tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. If we are to suffer to repay our debts, as I think we must, we must all suffer together.

It is hard to imagine that Ryan's budget is what most Americans want or should want. And yet, Ryan's willingness to propose a deeply unpopular budget and argue eloquently and strongly for it is praiseworthy. At times, it seems as if Ryan is the only grown up in the room, the only politician who is willing to deal honestly with our predicaments.

The opinion that the election is now more meaningful and more serious is one that many share—on both the left and the right. On the right, Ryan's selection means that the election is a referendum on the crisis of big government. Glenn Reynolds writes in  USA Today :

Romney's selection of Ryan shows that he understands the dire nature of the problem, and that he's serious about addressing it.

Paul Rahe argues that Romney's choice amounts to a clarion call for radical change:

In choosing Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney has opted to go for broke, and he has indicated that he is a serious man — less concerned with becoming President of the United States than with saving the country from the disaster in store for it if we not radically reverse course, willing to risk a loss for the sake of being able to win a mandate for reform.

And in the Wall St. Journal (which ran an Op-Ed calling upon Romney to select Ryan) Gerald Seib could hardly contain his excitement:

The Ryan pick wasn’t the safest one Mr. Romney could have made—not by a long shot. But as the author of the budget plan that most clearly delineates the view of limited government that most Republicans hold, and with more specificity and crystalline explanation than most can muster, Mr. Ryan best guarantees the country will get the kind of philosophical debate worthy of a presidential campaign.

On the left as well, there is a gleeful sense that Ryan's presence on the ticket will prove President Obama's claim that this is the most important election in ages. For Democrats, Ryan's extremism is a blessing, allowing them to paint Romney-Ryan as out-of-touch radicals who will undo a century of gains in middle class benefits while giving tax breaks to the very wealthiest Americans.

John Cassidy, at The New Yorker, writes that Ryan is a dream pick for Obama-Biden because it makes the election what Obama has said it is all along—a choice between Obama's moderation versus Romney and Ryan's radicalism:

In placing a lightning rod like Ryan on the ticket, Romney appears to have decided that the best form of defense is attack. For months, he and his campaign have been trying to turn the election exclusively into a referendum on Obama’s record. That strategy has now been abandoned. Ryan’s mere presence ensures that the election will be framed in the way that Team Obama has wanted all along: as a choice between the President’s moderate progressivism and the anti-government radicalism of today’s G.O.P.

John Nichols at The Nation agrees and argues that Ryan solidifies Romney's choice to run far to the right—so far as to be out of touch with the moderate electorate. This means, he writes, that team Obama can win big.

On every issue that you can imagine, from reproductive rights to environmental protection to labor rights, Ryan stands to the right. Way to the right.  The Ryan selection moves the Grand Old Party harder to the right than at any time since 1964, when the true believers got a nominee, a platform and 39 percent of the vote. America’s more divided now. The Romney-Ryan ticket will run better than Goldwater and Bill Miller did forty-eight years ago, But by bending so far toward the base, Romney has given the Democrats an opportunity to dream not just of winning but of winning bigger than anyone dared imagine forty-eight weeks or even forty-eight days ago.

Thomas B. Edsall writes over at the NY Times, that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "a well-respected liberal think tank," describes the Ryan budget this way:

The new Ryan budget is a remarkable document — one that, for most of the past half-century, would have been outside the bounds of mainstream discussion due to its extreme nature. In essence, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse — on steroids.  It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history). ... Even as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget would impose trillions of dollars in spending cuts, at least 62 percent of which would come from low-income programs, it would enact new tax cuts that would provide huge windfalls to households at the top of the income scale. New analysis by the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center finds that people earning more than $1 million a year would receive $265,000 apiece in new tax cuts, on average, on top of the $129,000 they would receive from the Ryan budget’s extension of President Bush’s tax cuts. The new tax cuts at the top would dwarf those for middle-income families. After-tax incomes would rise by 12.5 percent among millionaires, but just 1.8 percent for middle-income households. Low-income working families would actually be hit with tax increases.

For the left, Ryan moves Romney outside of the political mainstream and thus offers a stark contrast with the middle-of-the-road President. They agree with the right on the basic contrast. And yet each side believes the contrast works in their favor. This is because, of course, each side increasingly speaks only to itself and has so convinced itself that it is absolutely right that it cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with it.

A new received wisdom is emerging and the pundits on the left and right agree: Ryan's place in the election makes this a watershed election that will be a referendum on the future of the country. And even from a position outside partisan pugilism, Walter Russell Mead makes the point that the selection of Paul Ryan guarantees that this is an important election. In perhaps the most clear-headed and provocative essays on the Ryan selection I've read, Mead writes:

2012 looks like an election between two united parties who will both be enthusiastic and both be convinced that the fate of the nation hangs on the November result. That’s a good thing, on the whole, for the country. Whatever else can be said about our electoral politics, nobody can argue that they are inconsequential or that real issues have disappeared. This is a serious election about important affairs and the two sides will both be offering a coherent vision of American values that allows voters to make a clear choice.

There is something hopeful and true in this consensus that Ryan will up the seriousness of this race. I remain skeptical. Here is why.

We have to question the basic assumption that sharpening the question in the election will lead to a greater likelihood that the winning side will successfully carry out its agenda. This seems unlikely for the simple reason that the stark question being posed is furthering the partisan split in the country rather than seeking a middle ground. Rather than a sustained debate, we are just as likely to watch both sides dig themselves into ever-more-fortified trenches on opposing sides of the partisan front. What this means is the Ryan's selection is just as likely to increase the partisanship and vitriol in American politics as it is to elevate the tone of the election to being one about ideas and the future of the country. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances are diminished that either party will be able to actually make the kinds of radical changes that both think are necessary.

The reason for this is the basic institutional limitations that our constitutional system places on the power of the President. For all the talk in recent years about an "Imperial Presidency," the facts are largely otherwise. Outside of foreign policy, the president is largely constrained to make far-reaching policy changes. Large bureaucracies, a resilient and skeptical media, and now the fractured political world of competing ideological realities—each with their own newspapers, news shows, and blogs—means that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a President with the power to drive through a meaningful agenda.

Just consider, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, they will be able to negotiate major concessions in or even block entirely any Republican efforts to roll back entitlements. And even if the Democrats lose the Senate, the power of the filibuster means that they will be able to block many of the more extreme Republican initiatives. The same dynamic goes the other way as we have seen. Republicans have been able to frustrate much of President Obama's domestic agenda, even when the President had large majorities in both houses of Congress. The demands for ideological purity on both sides rewards conviction politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, but it does not necessarily bode well for a serious and deliberative approach to our real political problems.

At the root of this difficulty is the fallacy of  The Rhetorical Presidency. As Jeffrey Tulis argues, the most fundamental shift in American politics since the Founding has been the rise of a rhetorical presidency: The idea that the President should lead as a popular leader.

Tulis writes that from the Founders until the early 20th century, U.S. Presidents assiduously avoided trying to become popular leaders. As an institution, the Presidency was designed to resist the power of demagoguery and yet also to stand as a check on the power of Congress. The president himself engaged with Congress, but did not mobilize the people as a popular leader.

The role of the President changed with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson insisted that only a president could like a lightning rod call forth the will of the people "unconscious of its unity and purpose" and "call it into full consciousness." For Wilson, the President leads with simplicity. Wilson writes:

Mark the simplicity and directness of the arguments and ideas of [true leaders.] The motives which they urge are elemental; the morality which they seek to enforce is large and obvious; the policy they emphasize, purged of all subtlety.

If early American Presidents were forbidden to use direct appeals to the people, Wilson insists that modern 20th century presidents must do so. And as Tulis shows, Wilson's ideas underlie our modern idea of the president as a popular leader.

Tulis is not interested in defending or condemning the rhetorical presidency, but in exploring its possibilities and limitations. He makes an exceptional point that while 20th century presidents like Wilson and Lyndon Johnson regularly appeal to the people, "the same popular rhetoric that provided the clout for victory [e.g. in in Johnson's War on Poverty] substituted passionate appeal and argument by metaphor for deliberation." The rise of rhetorical presidency and the tools for popular leadership may at times be politically effective, but they clash with the institutional role of the President who must still work with Congress. The President's popular leadership translates poorly into legislative deliberation and thus often yields less of a change or less good change than was sought. One can see this exemplified in President Obama's attempt to mobilize his enormous popular mandate to reform healthcare.

While the modern rhetorical President can enlist the people to pressure the legislature, there are limits and consequences to these pressures. Congress can resist the power of the presidency, as the recent abuse of the filibuster shows. What is more, the increase in speeches and popular appeals constitutes, in Tulis' prophetic words,

a decay of political discourse. It replaces discussion structured by contestability of opinion inherent to issues with a competition to please or manipulate the public. ... The rhetorical presidency enhances the tendency to define issues in terms of the needs of persuasion rather than to develop a discourse suitable for the illumination and exploration of real issues—that is, problems that do not depend upon the certification of a public opinion poll to be recognized as needful of examination. It is increasingly the case that presidential speeches themselves have become the issues and events of modern politics rather than the medium through which issues and events are discussed and assessed. Subsequent speeches by presidents and other politicians often continue to elaborate the fictive world created in the initial address, making that world, unfortunately, a constitutive feature of "real" national politics.

What Tulis forces us to confront is the possibility that the very kind of rhetorical leadership that makes Barack Obama and Paul Ryan such compelling politicians leads to a transformation of politics in which passions and fictive worlds replace the sober discussion of policy. As appealing and promising as such rhetorical leadership appears, it too frequently spends its power on populist slogans that translate poorly into real legislative transformation.

There is a strange disconnect between the rise of a rhetorical presidency and the common sense of an increasingly cynical public that thinks the choice of president seems to move the needle very little. While the papers and blogs are filled with assurances that now the election is serious (a necessary belief to sell papers and drive traffic), the people don't always agree.

At a time of mediated and fragmented politics, the promise of bold political leadership is ever less likely. Given the apparent abdication of leadership throughout our politics, we must ask: Does the President Matter? This seems an absurd question as we confront what is imagined to be such a consequential election. And yet, as the country is about to elect a President, it is a pressing question.

Precisely because it is an open question whether the President can translate his popular appeal into political leadership, the Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is sponsoring its Fifth Annual Conference and asking: Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair.  The conference features Jeffrey Tulis and Walter Russell Mead amongst other speakers, including Rick Falkvinge (founder of the Swedish Pirate Party), Ralph Nader and Bernard Kouchner (Founder of Doctors without Borders and Foreign Minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy). Paul Ryan is undeniably serious and he is raising important questions about the future of the country. But there is a question of whether our political system in the 21st century is still capable of presidential leadership.

-RB

25Jun/120

The Courage to Lead

Since our recent weekend read from Roberto Unger regarding the upcoming presidential election is generating so much discussion, we thought we would re-run this "Quote" of the week from Roger Berkowitz that was originally posted in February.  "The Courage to Lead" seemed an apt follow up .

"Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life, and too great a love for life obstructed freedom, was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence."

-Hannah Arendt

Courage is the first virtue of politics; and cowardice is one reason politics is so lame today. Politicians hem and haw, searching for an answer that won't offend. They serve up focus-group tested sound bites,  making them seem less like people then robots. It is as if leaders have gone on strike; unwilling—or unable—to make decisions anymore, except when forced to.

  • The President's healthcare plan might have been courageous, if it had actually dealt with the rising cost of healthcare and the unchallenged assumption that everyone has a right to all the healthcare they want at all times.
  • Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden's joint plan for entitlement reform might actually have been courageous, if it had called for shared sacrifice of the wealthy as well as the poor and shrinking middle classes.
  • President Obama's current budget plan, calling for a 1% decrease in discretionary spending over 10 years, would be courageous, if it didn't leave mandatory entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security to grow by 96% over the same 10 years. By 2022, under the President's budget, 77% of the Federal Government's budget will be non-discretionary spending—an abdication of democracy and leadership that is increasingly taking the vast majority of political decisions out of the hands of those elected to govern the nation.
  • And in Europe, Angela Merkel and the German political elite have simply waited while first Greece and then Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain have flirted with disasters. Greece and Italy are now governed by technocratic governments specifically empowered to override democratic decisions. As chilling as that sounds, it is in many ways simply a foretaste of what is coming to the rest of us, as we hand increasing power over our fates to technocratic decision makers. Driven by an overriding concern for efficiency and growth, our politics is increasingly governed by economic decision-making.

To re-imagine leadership for today, we might begin with thinking about what Arendt meant by courage as the chief virtue of politics.

First, courage is the virtue of the person who leaves the security of private life and risks death and ridicule for an idea. Who needs the headache of running for politics or sleeping out in the cold in Zuccotti Park? It is risky and time-consuming, when one could be making money, dining out, or playing with the kids. To throw oneself into the political fray takes chutzpah—and not a little courage.

But simply entering politics does not make one courageous, especially when we are speaking about those who make their living by politics. Professional politicians, lobbyists, and aides don't risk their lives and livelihood; on the contrary, politics is the means with which they secure their fortunes.

Beyond the business of politics, the courageous politician must exercise freedom—something more difficult and rare than usually imagined. Freedom, which Arendt calls the "raison d’etre of politics,” names the ability to "call something into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination and which, therefore, could not, strictly speaking, be known."  Freedom thus demands the courage to act without a script in ways that make others pay attention. The free act surprises; it is noticed.

What elevates such a free act to political relevance is that it not only surprises, but it also inspires. The free act (freedom and acting are synonyms for Arendt) leads others to act as well. By way of responses, the free act is talked about and turned into stories. In this way the free act re-narrates and thus re-makes our common world. That is why the free act is political and how it can change the world.

In 1946, shortly after arriving in the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from Germany, Arendt wrote, "There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom." Arendt loved America, and became a citizen eagerly. Still, she worried that the greatest threat to American freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The scope of this country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life. How could free acts be meaningful, and not be swallowed up by the nation's voracious appetite for the new.

Arendt's answer is that political action must be measured in terms of greatness. Not only must political action be courageous action, action in the public sphere that can either succeed or fail.  Political action must also aim at immortality. It must seek not merely to shock, but to build new stories, new institutions, and, thus, new worlds. Political leaders, Arendt argued, are those who act in unexpected ways and whose actions are so surprising and yet meaningful as to inspire the citizens to re-imagine their sense of belonging to a common people with a common purpose.

As politics becomes increasingly driven by the democratic and technocratic need to appeal to the wishes of the people, Arendt asks, how can we maintain the ideal of freedom and the possibility of leadership?  This is an especially timely question. Amidst the leaderless paralysis of our current politics, one wonders where real, unifying leaders might come from — leaders, in the words of David Foster Wallace, who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” Such leaders seem unlikely to develop under the current system.

If we are to foster the kinds of leaders who might call us to our better selves, we will need to welcome those who show courage. It is too easy to tear down and criticize those who enter politics. New ideas are immediately suspect, and just as quickly shown to be self-interested and partisan. All of this is true. But we need to make room for failure in politics if we are going to find the risk-taking leaders we need.

-RB