A Tale Of Two Inaugurals

I’ve often been perplexed when I hear people complain that there’s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans.  I’m not sure where that perspective comes from.  To my mind there are deep fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans, and it colors virtually everything they do and say.

If the suggestion is that they only differ in rhetoric rather than in deeds, my response would be that our Founders purposefully gave us a system that protected us from radical shifts in behavior as a function of changes in leadership.  The Founders were, after all, familiar with nations in which shifts in leaders often got a lot of people killed.  Had they been around in the 20th and 21st Centuries, their conviction in the necessity of systemic checks on leadership power would have been strengthened by an order of magnitude.

And so we have divided government, veto power, a high threshold for veto over-rides, slow changes in the constituency of the Senate, a very high bar for the passage of Constitutional Amendments, and a Supreme Court vested with the power of judicial review whose members serve for life.  If that makes Democrats and Republicans act a little more like one another, that’s all to the good.

All of which makes Presidential Inaugurals a regularly interesting occurrence.  Because of the inherent conservatism of our system, inaugural addresses are often couched in vague but lofty terms, almost always paying homage to our founding documents and principles.  And yet because the rhetoric is presented through one of two very different world views, they also convey quite a bit about the filters through which Democrats and Republicans read those founding documents.

The Second Inaugural Address of Barack Obama, delivered earlier this week, and the Second Inaugural Address of George W. Bush, delivered in January of 2005, provide an interesting comparison.  I am indebted to Michael Medved’s radio program for this comparison – Medved perceptively compared two of the quotes that appear below.  (And another note about quotes – quotes presented out of context can sometimes be misunderstood; I’ve linked above to the full text of each speech and encourage you to read the quotes in context.  The speeches are relatively short by political standards.)

Here’s a quote from one of the speeches:

What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

And from the other:

From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth.   Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.

It may not be obvious which quote came from which man, but there is a clue.  The first quote is from President Obama’s speech, the second is from President Bush.  The clue comes in the very last sentence:  “…no one is fit to be a master…”

It’s a beautiful turn of the phrase, because it has two levels of meaning.  Bush’s speech occurs during the War on Terror in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and his speech is largely concerned with keeping America safe.  He is walking a fine line in this speech, trying to make it clear that nations that are friendly have nothing to fear from America, but that the terrorists certainly do.  He is conscious in the speech that he should not appear belligerent to all Muslims, and as a result there is much talk in the speech of tolerance.  He is acknowledging a particularly ugly period of intolerance in the United States with his mention of masters and slaves.

But masters and slaves have a second meaning here.  A President – a leader – can be a master, and in too many governmental systems – the rule in the Middle East – the leader truly is a master and the citizens are essentially slaves.  Their lives and liberties are, at the end of the day, in the hands of the leader.  But, Bush is saying, our Founders understood that no man can be entrusted with the role of master – no man is “fit” to be a master.  We can’t handle that.  We’re flawed beings.  And history is filled with men given too much power who sought to do good (or at least claimed to want to do good) and in the end were terrible masters – men like Robespierre, Napoleon, Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh – the list is perhaps nearly as long as the list of leaders given great power.

President Obama’s quote continues, not long after:

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

This is not an easy statement to parse.  It is intentionally vague, in the spirit of most inaugural addresses, but none of the various meanings I can give these words sound like anything a Republican would say.

One interpretation would be this:  our problems now, unlike those of 1776, can only be overcome through governmental action.  There is evidence for this interpretation throughout the speech – the President talks of building roads and fighting enemies and preserving Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – all actions of government.

But collective action is a funny thing.  Collective action is the pursuit of one goal by many people.  Whose goal is it?  Is it the goal shared by all of the people collectively pursuing it?  Or is it the goal of the leader, marshaling the manpower of many people (regardless of their individual opinions of the matter)?

This is the dirty little secret of “collective action” and why conservatives quake in their boots when they hear this phrase.  Sure, if the goal is as vague as “Freedom” or “Prosperity” or “Peace”, everyone’s for it.  But one can’t take action on goals that ill-defined.  Instead one takes action on specific agenda items like expanding the food stamp program or dictating the nutritional content of children’s lunches or extending unemployment benefits to 99 weeks.  And when things get that specific, there’s not a chance everyone will be on board.  And so the goal – of the leader – is obtained by the coercion of the citizenry.  (This is very nearly the definition of fascism, by the way, which is why I continue to be mystified by the incorrect belief that Republicans are closer to fascism than Democrats.  Jonah Goldberg shares my mystification in his excellent book.)

This is fundamental.  From the perspective of Republicans, government exists to protect the ability of the citizens to pursue their individual goals.  From the perspective of Democrats, the citizens exist to protect the ability of a leader to define and obtain “collective goals”.  This is chilling for Republicans for two reasons: one, it inhibits individuals from freely choosing their own path, but two, it puts a lot of power into the hands of the leader – and, as Bush says, human beings just aren’t fit to handle that kind of power.  The genius of the Constitution is that – when it is followed – it effectively and purposefully distributes power and responsibility to many who are themselves subject to the votes of the entire citizenry of individuals.

How important are individual rights and individual liberty to Republicans?  Bush put it eloquently:

By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.

In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character, on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.

That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.

Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before: ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today and forever.

Republicans share the goal of a tolerant society affording equal opportunity, but they don’t believe that “collective action” is the way to get there.  Strong character and strong families are the way to get there – since the power must always rest in the people, the only way to improve society is by improving individual people.  This requires a strong moral education and the development of personal conscience.

A second difference in orientation – and this was Medved’s point in comparing the two speeches, was Bush’s emphasis on ideals that “are the same yesterday, today and forever.”  That’s how conservatives got their name – by recognizing that certain facts about morality and human nature are timeless and can never be forgotten except at our peril.  President Obama’s speech, in contrast, tells us that “when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges.”  This is where the term progressive comes from – the notion – I would argue a mistaken notion – that the progress of history nullifies the importance of what may once have been true.

Of course, the fascist appeal has always been powerful.  After all, President Obama is a nice guy, with a nice family – perhaps in his hands, absolute power wouldn’t be such a bad thing?  What collective action would he have us pursue?  Surely he didn’t call for anything evil in his speech.  In fact, he called only for wonderful things – wonderful things that nonetheless send shivers up the spine of a conservative:

Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

Reflect on this for a moment.  He seems to be implying that children don’t currently know they are cared for.  Seriously?  Does he imagine the country is populated by uncared for children?  Does he have that low a view of the mothers and fathers of America?

Surely not – we know what he means.  He mentions, after all, two impoverished areas and one town recently ravaged by a hideous murder spree.  The caring of mothers and fathers just isn’t enough.  The children need to know that their government cares for them.  That their leader cares for them.  Uncle Sam has turned into Daddy President.

Further, we’re not done until our children know they are “always safe from harm.”  Always safe from harm?  Is this an obtainable goal?  Is this even a desirable goal?  What would it mean to be always safe from harm?  What would we have to give up?  (32 ounce sodas, certainly.)  Need I even point out that since no one knows how to keep us always safe from harm, the leader will have to make his best guess.  My guess is that the President’s way of keeping us safe from the harm of climate change will cause energy prices to soar (as alternative energy requirements are doing in Germany) and the economy to collapse.  His way of protecting us from gun violence may increase the crime rate (as has happened in virtually every city with strict gun laws).  My point isn’t to win debates about climate control and gun control, my point is that collective action is ultimately action toward the goal of one person – the leader – and people – even a “smart guy” like President Obama – are flawed.  They’re just not always right.

How can Republicans trust individuals so much if we’re so convinced people are flawed?  Isn’t that a contradiction?

The answer is that they don’t trust individuals.  That’s why they resist giving any one individual so much power.

But isn’t this a recipe for a cold and sterile society?  The President was quite successful in presenting this concept during the campaign – that Republicans are the every-man-for-himself-Party, and that Democrats were the band-of-brothers-Party.

President Bush said it well:

Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another. Our nation relies on men and women who look after a neighbor and surround the lost with love.

It’s not a question of choosing sterile individualism over warm and fuzzy collectivism.  Everybody’s idea of America is warm and fuzzy.  President Bush sees a nation where we get our warm and fuzzies from our friends, neighbors, organizations, recreation clubs, schools, and local store owners.  President Obama sees a nation where we get our warm and fuzzies from marble buildings in Washington, D.C., and, of course, from our Great Leader.

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