Responsibility and Unity

January 22, 2009

Unity has been a major theme in Obama’s previous speeches and campaigning, but it was notable mostly in its absence from the President’s  inaugural speech.  The theme of collective responsibility has implicit undertones of unity, but the idea itself was missing.

Responsibility and recommittment to hard work – a move away from the get rich quick celebrity fantasy culture – were certainly appropriate themes for a country that is facing major economic and social challenges (though I have to say that they came across more strongly re-reading the speech than when I listened live – for once Obama’s delivery made the message more obscure rather than illuminating it).  But I also wonder if President Obama and his boy-wonder speech writer decided to ditch the unity theme because they realised that it will be exceptionally difficult to turn around the highly partisan culture of US politics.

I recently ran across some interesting data on the 50/50 nation phenomenon compiled by a number of political scientists.   The most intersting fact is that while the US public itself is not particularly polarised, the political system is increasingly so.  Obama himself as early as his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech seemed to acknowledge that the divisions between “red states and blue states” were created by commentators and politicians, and did not accurately reflect people’s lives.  “The pundits… like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

The polarisation of American politics, and in particular the bitter partisanship which characterised most of the 1990s and 2000s in the US Congress, seem to be the result of one long term trend and one shorter term trend.  The long-term trend is the changes that occurred to the base of party support after the Civil Rights Movement.  The Democratic Party’s support for the Civil Rights Bill did, as LBJ predicted, cause them to lose the votes of the south for a generation.   Prior to 1964, the voting preferences of the Congress were centrist, with a set of policies in which representatives in the two parties overlapped in their voting profile.   As the Democratic Party increasingly relied on the northeast / Great Lakes region for votes, this changed, with almost no overlap in the voting records of representatives from the two parties.

The shorter term trend was the changes made to Congressional districting in the 1980s and 90s that created an increasing number of “safe seats” where constituencies were determined by party voting, not by geography.  The impact of creating a number of more strongly Republican or strongly Democratic districts is that a) the average voter represented by the Congressional member has views further from the centre and b) more radical party activists have a greater role in choosing the candidates.  This has furthered the partisanship in the Congress.

All of this implies that solving the “unity problem” does not require President Obama to appeal to Americans common sense of duty and responsibility, but on electoral reform and work within the Legislative branch.  This does not make for a sexy inaugural address.  No wonder they left it out in favour of this…

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

Far more poetic.


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