02 May 2013

Obama and Neo-Lincolnism

Add Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, to the ranks of the Neo-Lincolnites. These are America's Machiavellians for the 21st century, realist liberals who reject what they see as a cripplingly narrow view of politics as purely a matter of rhetorical persuasion. Abraham Lincoln was a role model for them even before Steven Spielberg's biopic appeared to serve as a cinematic bible for the movement. President Obama is the whipping boy -- if you'll forgive the metaphor -- for Neo-Lincolnites because he seems almost exclusively rhetorical in his approach to his job. Dowd notes with dismay that, during last weekend's Gridiron dinner, or whatever they call it now, Obama performed in a skit parodying Spielberg's Lincoln. How can he be aware of the film, she asks, without absorbing its lessons?

Dowd was more dismayed by the President's comments at a recent press conference. Obama told the reporters that he resented the suggestion that it was his job, as President to get legislators to "behave." He explained his options, as he saw them, when dealing with recalcitrant Republicans.

I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people around those common-sense solutions, but, ultimately, they themselves are going to have to say ‘We want to do the right thing.'

What this means to Dowd is that "He still thinks he’ll do his thing from the balcony and everyone else will follow along below."She insists that "it is his job to get them to behave." So what isn't he doing? What hasn't he learned from Lincoln? The obvious answer, for those familiar with the film, is that Obama's list of options above doesn't include making deals with his antagonists. In the movie, Lincoln gets members of the opposing party to vote for the 13th Amendment to end slavery by offering them political patronage. Lincoln targets lame-duck Democrats who lost their re-election campaigns the previous November but are still finishing their terms by the old schedule. Government jobs and other deals look good to these people, few of whom are so dogmatically opposed to the abolition of slavery that they cannot be induced to vote for it. The other main plot point of the picture is Lincoln's insistence that radicals in his own party tone down their rhetoric to make bipartisan passage of the amendment easier. Since I don't suppose that's an option Dowd wants the present President to adopt, all she seems to be left with from the Lincoln playbook as an option Obama has supposedly ignored is the dealmaking. Is that what she wants from him? Should he be promising pork to Republicans who break ranks? Apparently he should be offering them better inducements than the "permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country," that the President himself drily suggested. This was offered as a shelter to Republicans who'd fear getting primaried for voting Obama's way, but there seems little he could do to help such people against their own base except promise them Democratic nominations. So again we're presumably left with the dealmaking. Is that really what Dowd wants to see?

Liberal constitutional democracy often seems to bend over backward to protect political minorities. Dissent enjoys the benefit of the doubt and is presumed, however paradoxically, to be the health of the state. I wonder sometimes -- and I'm sure Republicans wonder more worriedly -- whether American liberals look with any envy on those democracies where a different attitude prevails, where the reigning tone often sounds like, "We won the election, so shut up!" In more radical or populist democracies, there seems to be an expectation of submission by minority parties, or an assumption that deference to majority rule as expressed at the polls should take precedence over the rights of conscience or commitment to principles. Those elected to govern expect to govern. For however many reasons, Americans seem different. Some may recall admiringly Lyndon Johnson's arm-twisting tactics, but they don't mean to describe them literally, and in any event LBJ seems to have more often bullied people in his own party than those on the other side. Americans may want the minority party to submit, but few if any feel entitled to force them to do so. If anything, they probably presume themselves explicitly forbidden to do so. Hence Obama: "I cannot force Republicans..." Many observers have pointed out how to make it easier for majorities to govern without "forcing" minorities -- by changing the filibuster rules, for instance -- but the privileges of political minorities have been so long entrenched that any effort to make these changes still looks like "forcing" to some people. That may only mean that Americans have little idea (despite our access to global news) of what actual  "force" in political debates can look like. Regardless, the U.S. is stuck with the question of how to govern when you can neither force nor persuade an apparently irreconcilable opposition. The Neo-Lincolnite option seems cynical but has the virtue of non-violence, yet it isn't an option if the opposition is too principled for its own good. Then what? While we search for pragmatic fixes, we might also reconsider first principles, or at least seek a better balance between the right to dissent and the right to govern. As Abraham Lincoln said, "As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."


Anonymous said...

Sometimes "force" is the only solution. Sometimes the minority is just plain wrong. The purpose of government is to govern. not to cajole, beg or plead, but to lead. Sometimes the minority don't like to be lead. Sometimes they simply need to be tread upon.

Samuel Wilson said...

The question then becomes how to define "sometimes."

Anonymous said...

How long do you let your toilet overflow before you force whatever is causing the problem to go down the drain? How long do you allow a boil to fester before seeking medical help? The longer you wait, the worse the problem gets.

The bottom line is that we live under a government that is (to all intents and purposes) democratic in structure. Democracy will ALWAYS favor the majority. If you don't like that premise, then you should not live in a democracy.

Of course if you live in a democracy where the demos is made up of lazy, gullible self-centered individuals who will always favor what is most convenient, not what is necessary, then your democracy is bound to fail eventually and you have to accept that fact.

Anonymous said...

He may not be able to "force" them, but he could be doing a whole lot more to show the public who is really benefiting from the status quo. Unfortunately his political party is one of the biggest benefactor and most certainly would not take kindly to that being pointed out.

My point being that this "depression" has not hit big business at all. Profits keep going up, quarter after quarter, yet WE are told to tighten our belts. It's about time those at the top of the fiscal chain were told to tighten THEIR belts. It's time the stock holders were told: "Sorry, but there's no dividends for you this quarter because we have to actually take care of the people who create the profit you leach." It's time the CEOs had their golden parachutes removed and were informed if the plane goes down, as the captains-of-industry, they go down with it.