Courtesy Matt Yglesias, we’re told that America is, owing to recent farces of democracy like the “tea party protests,” inherently “ungovernable.”
This is an unfairly inflammatory way of stating a basic (and acknowledged) truth: Republicans are better than us at exploiting inherent flaws in democratic theory, to the ruin of all. Democracy demands a degree of selflessness, a willingness to see the other side, a decent respect for our opponents, and an appreciation of history. Unfortunately, we’re lucky to get one out of four on a good day. Tax cuts are billed as a good in their own right (to hell with the greater good); nuance is the enemy of rhetoric (“death panels”); progressives are either socialists, unpatriotic, or both; and Reagan, of course, saved the economy despite all evidence to the contrary.
Republicans almost depend on an ignorance of history for their very existence: show me a Republican President who cut taxes and decreased the deficit, and I’ll show you a script for a mirror universe West Wing. For a particularly egregious slap in the face, look no further than a recent poll, finding that a full 44% would prefer Bush to Obama. It took us ten months to forget, ten short months for a near-plurality to throw causality to the wind. The human brain is a fascinating, terrifying thing.
Truly, we are a flawed people. But the trap into which Yglesias falls is equating “flawed’ with “hopeless.” We’ve faced these problems before: it’s taken a generation each time, but we’ve almost solved institutionalized racism, terminated “states’ rights” as an excuse for bigotry, and built a great nation from a swarm of dissimilar colonies. All in the face of a stubborn, staid populace. What we had then — and what we don’t now — is strong moral leadership, and strong clash.
President Obama is capable of being a moral leader, because we’ve seen it before, as recently as last week. But he’s largely lost the spark that animated his day to day campaign presence, perhaps tempered by the responsibilities of office, perhaps because such charisma is simply incapable of routinization. Pray it’s not the latter, and hope he finds it again soon.
The second value will be tough to realize. We’ve become complacent, comfortable with a mode of political speech that permits each citizen to find his own peer group, and never leave. Ever. This is unacceptable. Our politicians should lead by example. We shouldn’t balk at serious, meaningful debates, and we shouldn’t make excuses for democracy. If we’re confident in our ideas, we should seek a fair method of clash, embrace openness, and spurn talking points.
We need a dialogue to define the era, something more than MSNBC and more than Beck, and while it’ll take opinion leaders to make it happen, we each can do our part. In discussions with your friends and family, don’t apologize for your politics — explain it, and defend it, kindly, politely, and legitimately seeking understanding. If you run a blog, turn off moderation, or moderate honestly, without editing for content. If you’re an educator, make your students comfortable with discussing politics by organizing clubs (and strive for rigorous neutrality yourself).
Ultimately, if we as a nation are “ungovernable,” it’s our duty to fix it. Break’s over.
Ahem. Unrelatedly, I realize that the Britten song, from which this post takes its title, is probably meant ironically, and taken as such by modern audiences, a jab at the unabashed enthusiasm of the original poet, and his often campy word choice. Fine, but it’s not terrible, and remember — nuance! Judge for yourself:
Across the darkened city
The frosty searchlights creep
Alert for the first marauder
To steal upon our sleep.
We see the sudden headlines
Float on the muttering tide
We hear them warn and threaten
And wonder what they hide.
There are whispers across tables,
Talks in a shutter’d room.
The price on which they bargain
Will be a people’s doom.
There’s a roar of war in the factories
And idle hands on the street
And Europe held in nightmare
By the thud of marching feet.
Now sinks the sun of surety,
The shadows growing tall
Of the big bosses plotting
Their biggest coup of all.
Is there no strength to save us?
No power we can trust
Before our lives and liberties
Are powder’d into dust?
Time to arise Democracy!
Time to rise up and cry:
That what our fathers fought for
We’ll not allow to die.
Time to resolve divisions,
Time to renew our pride,
Time to decide…
Time to burst our house of glass.
Rise as a single being
In one resolve arrayed:
Life shall be for the people
That’s by the people made!