Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The second inaugural

Apart from its content, i.e. considered purely as a piece of oratory, Pres. Obama's speech at his second inauguration was a beautifully crafted address, beginning with the central pillar of the national creed -- the single most famous sentence Jefferson ever wrote -- and ending in precisely the same place, with a reference to citizens' obligation to lift voices "in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas."

The basic conceptual content of the speech is firmly rooted in two major strands of the American political tradition: Enlightenment liberalism on the one hand and civic republicanism on the other. The former's emphasis on individual freedom is linked with the latter's emphasis on civic duty: thus "we have always understood that... preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." And as citizens "you and I...have the power to set this country’s course."

The speech was seen by many commentators as an expression of full-throated liberalism (or progressivism). Richard Norton Smith called it "the most ideologically assertive" speech since Reagan's first inaugural, "this being the un-Reagan." Harold Meyerson (with whose politics I am more likely to agree) also made the Reagan contrast. Yet one should not overlook that there were certain parts of the speech, notably the emphasis on support for democracy abroad and the line about one person's freedom being inextricably linked to everyone's in the world, that would have been perfectly at home in a speech by Reagan or George W. Bush. The big difference from Reagan is in how Obama sees the role of the government, as an enabler and protector of, rather than threat to, individuals -- but this distinction is of course nothing new. And what some commenters called a "communitarian" emphasis in the speech is perhaps better seen, as I already suggested, as an expression of civic republicanism.

The commentators who stressed the speech's liberalism were using 'liberalism' in its contemporary U.S. political sense. Obama's speech, however, can also be seen as liberal in a more philosophical sense, as I indicated above. It is important here to distinguish liberal from radical. A very brief excursion into intellectual history may help. 

We don't have to go back to the Enlightenment philosophes or to those writers, discussed in J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment, who carried the tradition of Florentine civic republicanism into the Atlantic world. We can go back instead just a half-century, to Louis Hartz's 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America

Hartz argued, among other things, that the U.S. had escaped many of the travails of the Old World because it had no indigenous feudal past. As Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis summarized it thirty years later, Hartz maintained that "the history of class antagonism in liberal capitalism is due not to inherent properties of the system itself but rather to its emergence from a system of feudal privilege...." (Bowles & Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism, 1986, p.30)  Lacking a feudal past, the U.S., in Hartz's somewhat rose-colored view, had escaped the history of class conflict and violent social upheaval that characterized large parts of Europe; the U.S. was thus "the archetype" of liberal capitalism, which Hartz saw, in Bowles and Gintis's words, as "intrinsically harmonious" (ibid.). Bowles and Gintis, by contrast, saw liberal capitalism as marked by a conflict between "the expansionary logic of personal rights" and "the expansionary logic of capitalist production" (ibid., p.29).

The much remarked-upon passage in Obama's speech in which he mentioned landmarks in the progress of civil rights for oppressed groups -- Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall -- traces this "expansionary logic of personal rights."  But unlike Bowles and Gintis in Democracy and Capitalism, Obama sees no conflict between the rising trajectory of personal (or group) rights and the imperatives of capitalism, provided that it's a capitalism whose worst excesses (including tendencies toward destruction of the environment) are curbed by state action, a capitalism enabled, not stifled, by legislatively enacted rules of the road. 

On the basic issue of whether liberal democratic capitalism is inevitably prone to internal conflict and contradiction, Obama thus is closer to Hartz. This President clearly is a believer in the possibility of harmony, of reason, progress, freedom, and all the other keywords of the Enlightenment. He also made a point of saying, toward the end of the speech, that fidelity to the founding ideals "does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness." But action cannot wait for these never-ending debates to be resolved, he went on, implying that the thought of a resolution of those particular questions is an illusion anyway. In all these senses, Obama is a liberal, not some kind of radical. But then, we knew that already.

P.s. (added later): There were some omissions, I thought; for instance, Obama should have acknowledged the unacceptably high incarceration rate in the U.S.

No comments: