Thursday, February 18, 2016

Our Self-Destructive Politics

We'll start with the long view, and a rational analysis based on ideals central to the American identity, at least until now.

Last week President Obama spoke about the current state of American politics to the Illinois legislature, where he began his elected public service, and where--nine years to the day--he announced his candidacy for President.

  After some ruefully funny stories about his early days there as a rookie and in the minority party, he detailed some of the relationships between Republican and Democratic members that grew over the years, as well as among members from cities and downstate rural areas, and from different ethnic groups.

"I don’t want to be nostalgic here -- we voted against each other all the time," he said. "And party lines held most of the time. But those relationships, that trust we’d built meant that we came at each debate assuming the best in one another and not the worst... And we didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America."

It was this experience, he said, that gave him confidence in a better kind of politics.  Because that spirit mirrored how constituents talked and went about their lives, the people that they represented. "And it convinced me that if we just approached our national politics the same way the American people approach their daily lives –- at the workplace, at the Little League game; at church or the synagogue -- with common sense, and a commitment to fair play and basic courtesy, that there is no problem that we couldn’t solve together."

"And that was the vision that guided me when I first ran for the United States Senate. That’s the vision I shared when I said we are more than just a collection of red states and blue states, but we are the United States of America."

"Now, over these nine years, I want you to know my faith in the generosity and the fundamental goodness of the American people has been rewarded and affirmed over and over and over again," he said, and gave examples.  But he also acknowledged that America's politics has not gotten better, but a whole lot worse.

In a preview of what we're likely to hear after he leaves the White House, he outlined structural changes that could counter entrenched divisiveness.  He spoke (Bernie Sanders-like) about the "corrosive influence of money in our politics."  He called out the Citizens United decision, and said exactly what I've said here: "I don't believe money is speech."

 Because of gerrymandering, most congressional seats belong to one party, so the greatest threat to a congressperson is somebody from their party attacking them from (for GOPers) the right or (for Dems) the left--pushing both parties to extremes, and demonizing compromise.  So drawing congressional districts has to be reformed (again, always.)

And the best way to make politics more responsive to peoples' needs is for more people to vote--and so voting should be made easier, not harder.  He went on to talk about American and democratic ideals, about reason and compromise, and ended with a subtly breathtaking metaphor.  He's often talked about the phrase "a more perfect Union," and how we're in a continual process of perfecting that Union.  But this time he layered it with another union:

And that’s the thing about America. We are a constant work of progress. And our success has never been certain, none of our journey has been preordained. And there’s always been a gap between our highest ideals and the reality that we witness every single day. But what makes us exceptional -- what makes us Americans -- is that we have fought wars, and passed laws, and reformed systems, and organized unions, and staged protests, and launched mighty movements to close that gap, and to bring the promise and the practice of America into closer alignment. We’ve made the effort to form that “more perfect union.”

America as the struggle to create a more perfect union between ideals and reality, the promise and the practice of American democracy--it's a beautiful image and a real inspiration.  To have such a vision can inform action and commitment at every given moment.

With that vision in mind, President Obama's prescriptions for structural changes made a lot of sense.  Increasing participation, opening up the process, not only further the goal of this better union, but lacking them does help explain why our politics today are so awful.

But they don't explain everything.  The next day after this speech, President Obama appeared at a party fundraiser north of San Francisco, among people who have supported him since the 2008 primaries.  In the course of his remarks, he spoke to them about income inequality, and its effect on this year's politics:

"And people are deeply concerned about inequality in the sense that the system is rigged against ordinary folks. And they’re not wrong that lobbyists and narrow special interests have disproportionate influence in Congress, and that big money and unaccountable, undisclosed money is distorting our politics in ways that are going to be damaging over the long term.

And that disquiet, that concern is expressing itself in the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party. And we have to listen to that, and we have to pay attention to that and be mindful of it. Because when people are scared, then strange things can happen in politics. When people are nervous and feel threatened, then we can get a politics that is not about bringing people together, but is about “us and them,” and looking for somebody to blame."

And that last paragraph will be the text that begins my next sermon on this here site--on psychotic politics.

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