Monday, January 23, 2012

State of the Union

Whatever President Obama says about the state of our union, trust in government is at record lows.  Disgust with Congress is deep and pervasive.  Partisan bickering has replaced leadership. 

But perhaps the state of our union is stronger than you think.  Consider: complaining about our elected officials is part of the landscape of democracy.  Citizens in many countries don’t have the luxury of badmouthing their government.  Look at North Korea, where the demise of the “Dear Leader” led to orchestrated paroxysms of public grief.  Contemplate Thailand, where it’s contrary to the Constitution to criticize the king or royal family.  In Saudi Arabia, dissent is tantamount to treason.  Here in the U.S.A., calling your political opponents creeps, crooks and scoundrels is not only legal but enshrined with all the protections of the First Amendment.

Like America, China is also holding an election in 2012, but the outcome is assured because there’s only one party.  Some admire this system, like Thomas Friedman, who wrote in the New York Times that “one-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”  The one thing it can’t impose, of course, is a sense of participation, ownership or legitimacy among the people it governs but who have little hand in its policies or decision-making.  The one-party system may or may not respond nimbly to a demand for more electric cars or fewer.  It excels at making widgets.  What it can’t countenance is a demand for more freedom, more channels for meaningful expression, or more human rights.

Though far from perfect, America remains a land where ordinary people’s opinions still matter.  As evidence, look at the continuing impact of Occupy Wall Street.  Protestors taking to the streets would be unimaginable in Beijing, whereas here the call for an economy that serves the 99% seized headlines.  According to one recent Pew poll, Americans now consider conflicts between rich and poor a bigger problem than tensions arising from race, immigration, or the generation gap.  President Obama, recognizing that shift, will almost certainly try to address it in his remarks to Congress.

Predictably, Republicans will call him an opportunist and charge him with class warfare.  Democratic supporters, just as predictably, will cheer him as a visionary.  And also predictably, perhaps sadly, very little will change.

Some decry this infighting which so often leads to legislative paralysis. And it’s true; the blood sport of winning elections often requires making the other candidate appear to be a knave, a fool or both.  None of this raises confidence that our elected officials will be able to reason together to find real solutions to urgent problems.  But if the alternative to a shouting match is a Dear Leader pep rally, I say let partisanship reign.  Someone once noted that democracy is a cheerful and disorderly form of government.  Except for the alternatives, nothing could be worse.

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