The State of the Union: An Angst-Filled Trajectory for Self-Governance
President Obama delivered his final State of the Union Address on January 12 and he sought in it to highlight much of the acerbic negativism, demagoguery and evocations of fear that have thus far characterized the Republican candidates’ dialogue as they vie for their Party’s presidential nomination. He called for loyal opposition, cooperation and union rather than the polarized rancor, cynicism and meanness now distinguishing the GOP race and indeed, US politics more generally. In rather Lincolnesque tones, he reminded his audience that the nation has made progress when it finds a way to unite in its diversity, rather than to divide the many groups that comprise its population:
Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?
This was no mere rhetorical question, as Republican candidates have homogeneously claimed the nation is in crisis and sharp decline, and just as uniformly asserted that virtually every action Obama has taken or proposed for the last seven years was malevolent or worse. In this, the Presidential aspirants have behaved no differently than the Republican Congress and Party during this period. Consider, for example:
- Republicans contended that the President’s effort to stimulate the economy (mired in the worst recession since World War II when he entered office, with average unemployment at 7.8 percent) with public spending would prove calamitous, as this would only bring ruin amidst untenable deficits and public debt.
- When that effort helped rather than hindered the economy and both the deficit and debt began to improve as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP)—the deficit to 2.5 percent of GDP today—the President’s critics did not admit their error, but criticized him all the more harshly for “wasting” public funds on helping industries avoid bankruptcy, especially the major auto firms, that would “never pay them back.”
- When that initiative, too, succeeded and the nation’s loans to the automotive industry were repaid with interest ahead of schedule, the GOP moved on to contend that Obama’s effort to ensure health insurance access for millions of Americans represented tyranny and “socialism” and would spell the end of excellent medical care in the nation (an argument Republican leaders continue to assert).
- When nothing of the kind occurred, the Party’s leaders turned to suggesting that “climate change” was not real and efforts to address this universal calamity amounted to systemic government overreach that was “killing” millions of jobs—additional assertions for which there was and is no evidence.
- Instead, the country’s historically healthy current accounts deficit and the nation’s overall unemployment rate of 5 percent (the United States is now nearing full employment by many economists’ reckoning) exceed those measures for the Reagan administration—the present GOP’s lodestone for success—and employment growth during the current presidency has outstripped anything achieved under Obama’s predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.
While this list might be extended, it suffices to suggest that the GOP has found it politically expedient systematically to disregard or oppose anything and everything this chief executive might undertake or accomplish and, if current campaign trends are to be believed, its representatives will continue to do so—ever more demagogically and even fascistically—irrespective of whether those claims bear any relationship to what is actually occurring. More, this rhetoric is clearly asserted for its own sake and simply abandoned when proven false, whatever its prior embrace entailed by way of social costs, for a fresh contention, without explanation or apology. These sorts of arguments have typified the GOP approach throughout the Obama presidency, with then Senate Minority leader (now Majority leader) Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky stating publicly in an interview and speech in 2010, that the Party would bend every effort and spare nothing to prevent this President from gaining re-election, and failing that, to obstruct his presidency in every feasible fashion.
It seems clear the Party has held to that aim in a disciplined way, even as it has now paradoxically lost control of its presidential nomination process in its early stages. The result is an unprecedentedly ugly rhetoric and cynicism, at least in recent times, offered by its candidates that is designed to appeal to fearful and uninformed voters in jingoistic and hate-filled ways. The question for democratic governance is what to make of this turn.
One might, as Republican leaders have sought to do, contend that Obama has taken the nation on a path of decline and imminent bankruptcy and that situation justifies their rhetoric and course. But that is simply not so by any objective measure and so may be dismissed, whatever a more balanced critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama Presidency might suggest.
Alternately, one might argue that the current sharp partisan polarization is not new in American politics, and on that basis suggest the nation will likely muddle through. This view is surely more supportable than the GOP narrative, since we have had demagogues and nativists as a part of our cultural fabric throughout our history. These include such examples as the costly chauvinism that led to the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War, the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party in the 1840s and 1850s, Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic and fascistic rants in the 1930s that attracted millions of listeners weekly, and the travesty of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt in the 1950s.
While this is certainly true and constitutes an important caution, the current context is quite different. Commentators have lately been debating whether the empirically false picture of the state of the nation painted by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and other GOP candidates will capture Americans’ imagination in the coming election without inquiring deeply into whether it is reasonable or appropriate to offer the nation a “choice” so utterly untethered from reality, however neatly it may play to popular fears or accord with an ideology. I find this oversight quite difficult, as it fails to hold the Republican Party accountable for a long series of depictions of Obama’s actions that are baseless. Indeed, GOP rhetoric concerning his initiatives and their implications has often borne no relationship to a reasoned discourse, even as it has demonized the President as an individual and as a leader.
One may debate why the Republican Party has elected to stymie and cast aspersions rather than seek to help govern, but it is evident that it has made that choice and the President bears no responsibility for its candidates’ embrace of nativism, bigotry and xenophobia, whatever one may argue concerning Obama’s relative responsibility for addressing the political environment that this Republican choice has created. Nonetheless, the Party’s course points to two enduring requirements of democratic governance. First, the GOP and its leaders’ decision to work to stonewall the nation’s first African-American President and to misinform citizens concerning his aims and accomplishments suggests how important Hamilton’s insight was in The Federalist Papers that the Republic must ever maintain leaders who are not simply seeking power and office for their own sake, but genuinely and prudently pursuing the public good. None of today’s leading GOP candidates can meet such a test as they deliberately mislead citizens, and traffic in fear and the demonization of the President and disadvantaged groups in what has already become a publicly vicious quest for power. The questions on which to reflect, therefore, are how matters came to this pass in one of our major political parties and who is supporting these individuals in their efforts to gain public office and why.
Second, whatever the reasons for the electorate’s current unease and fear, and I have treated many of those in recent commentaries, one must nonetheless wrestle with an additional reality of democratic governance illustrated by the excesses of today’s leading Republican candidates: a nation cannot long enjoy democracy if its citizenry is insufficiently informed and is willing to scapegoat and demonize shares of the population, on whatever basis. Many of those voters supporting GOP presidential aspirants Trump and Cruz indicate in opinion polls that they believe the President has orchestrated tyranny and allowed immigrants to overrun the country, among other wild claims. They do so clearly unaware of or unwilling to accept the facts (and parroting much of the cant pressed by these and other GOP politicians) related to their concerns and of the President’s actual actions. That is, their concerns are often predicated on little more than manipulative and misleading rhetoric. Democracies cannot long survive if large portions of their citizenries do not make reasonably informed choices and are incapable of resisting the siren call of various forms of demagoguery.
In short, today’s GOP, characterized as its now dominant stream is by a frenzied hatred of a demonized opponent and “othered” groups, has unleashed very dark forces that potentially threaten not only that Party’s future, but also the prospect for continued self-governance in the United States. The demagoguery we now confront as a people is not new to the nation, or fresh to democracy, but it is occurring in a fractionated media environment and during a period of deep electoral restiveness and fear. One may hope the coming electoral cycle ultimately will reveal the emptiness of the intolerance, mercilessness and venom now on daily display in our country. Nevertheless, that hope must be set against the evident appeal to many of those strident claims and the willingness of one political party’s leaders to seize on the forces animating them to secure power. Overall, it is difficult not to conclude that we live in a very ugly time for self-governance, as it is now under popular assault to a degree not witnessed in many years.
Note to readers: This is the 200th Soundings commentary, a milestone I never imagined I would cross when I began this series six years ago. I want to thank all of those who have read and commented on these efforts and encouraged me to continue to write them. I also wish to say thank you to the colleagues and graduate students who have helped me sharpen arguments and frame ideas in countless conversations and interactions during these years. I hope I have done justice to your insights. It is a truism that those who write for the public square inevitably learn a great deal about themselves as well as the world and I think that is the case for me with Soundings as well. Creating these columns has frequently occasioned soul-searching on my part and just as often required that I see concerns in different and sometimes discomfiting ways. I am not unique in counting writing for others a privilege, or also in very often feeling humbled by that effort. I look forward to continuing to learn much with and from those this series serves as it continues.
 Obama, Barack. (2016). Remarks of President Barack Obama—The State of the Union Address as delivered,” The White House, Speeches and Remarks. January 13. Webpage. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/12/remarks-president-barack-obama-–-prepared-delivery-state-union-address Accessed January 16, 2016.
 McConnell, Mitch (2010). “Our Top Priority: Make Obama a One Term President.” Remarks to the Heritage Foundation, November 4. YouTube video. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-A09a_gHJc Accessed January 16, 2016.
February 1, 2016