Why Obama’s compromise is doomed

About a month ago, Joan Walsh penned a couple of articles for Salon.com, where she is editor-at-large, in which she tackled President Barack Obama’s relationship with compromise. These articles are worth reading if for no other reason than her examination of the analogy between Obama’s and Lincoln’s so-called pragmatism in polarized political situations where attempts to compromise fall far short.[1] In her view, Obama is unmasking the extremism of Tea Party zealots. But, she writes,

None of Lincoln’s attempts at compromise worked, however, and in the end he had to fight the Civil War. It was the course of the war itself that made Lincoln a staunch foe of slavery’s existence, not merely its expansion. The war showed him the absolute intransigence of slaveholders, as well as the wisdom and the courage of African Americans who supported his war, despite his compromises on slavery, and who gave their lives fighting in it. The war taught Lincoln, albeit belatedly, that African Americans deserved not merely freedom from bondage but the rights of citizenship.[2]

But understanding what’s going on here requires something beyond her grudging admiration (and I do not fault her for this) of Tea Partiers’ willingness to stand up for their beliefs.[3] She’s right to acknowledge their dedication even if she is perhaps too generous with Obama’s vacillation:

If we didn’t know it already, it shows that the president has a lot of patience, and a lot of faith in the value of compromise. I don’t know whether he’s just posturing when he says he’s willing to talk about entitlement cuts. He might genuinely believe those programs need to be cut. Or maybe he believes Social Security and Medicare must be “strengthened,” and if he trades some (slight) cuts that he truly believes won’t hurt (many) people (very) much, he can do better things that will help more people with the political and fiscal capital he gains in a “Grand Bargain.” At this point, though, that is faith-based politics at best. There is absolutely no evidence that anything of the kind will work. The only thing he hasn’t done so far is act like a staunch Democrat, and take cuts to key Democratic programs off the table. That might not work either, but we don’t know, because it hasn’t been tried.

The president sincerely believes that the intense polarization of American politics isn’t merely a symptom of our problems but a problem in itself – and thus compromise is not just a means to an end but an end in itself, to try to create a safe harbor for people to reach some new common ground. I actually have some sympathy with that point of view. But having now watched two smart Democratic presidents devote themselves to compromise with Republicans, only to be savaged with increasing intensity, I’ve lost faith that compromise itself holds some healing magic. Maybe it just emboldens bullies.[4]

To simply call Tea Partiers “bullies” is to take their beliefs entirely too lightly. That’s not to say they aren’t racist or they aren’t arrogant or they aren’t any of a number of things the left accuses them of. Including being bullies. To the contrary, I accept all of those characterizations. It’s just that there’s more to it. And to understand this, we need to understand foundational beliefs.

Foundational beliefs are fundamental beliefs that, by virtue of their status as foundational beliefs, are not subject to justification and cannot be proven or disproven. Consider the following questions:

  • Do humans have rights or earned privileges?

  • Should we prefer knowledge that is rooted in theoretical understanding or in experience?

  • Are people inherently cooperative or inherently selfish?

  • Is there a supreme being?

  • Does the earth exist for human exploitation or do humans exist as part of an ecosystem whose health sustains us all?

  • Are some people and/or societies inherently superior to other people and/or societies?

This is not an exhaustive list. I’m hoping that I have covered the foundational differences between people on the political left and people on the political right in the United States.

And what I’m hoping to illustrate is that these are dichotomous beliefs—you accept one proposition or the other and there is no tenable “compromise” position. For instance, humans either have “rights” by virtue of being alive or they must earn what we so often call “rights” but are thus actually privileges. There’s no reasonable middle ground to this question: you can’t really argue that people must earn freedom of religion or a right of free speech. You either accept that rights exist or you do not. And if we disagree on this question, there is no argument I can offer that will persuade you and no argument that you can offer that will persuade me. These are questions about which we must agree in order to discuss any propositions that follow from these foundational beliefs.

Similarly, if you privilege knowledge that is based in some variation of Plato’s Ideals or a similar epistemology, like an ideal notion of society or an ideal notion of human relations, then no amount of experience will alter your views, perhaps, that climate change is a scientific fraud, that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a fiction, or that a god of Abraham exists and prescribes our conduct as described in the Bible. Or perhaps you believe, as did Richard Weaver, in a tyrannizing image that privileges a core set of beliefs in each society and thus devalues multiculturalism and alternative views.[5] I happen to disagree and neither of us can persuade the other. Because these are foundational beliefs. And again, no compromise is tenable. Either we agree or we disagree, but there isn’t a way to privilege both theory and experience or both dogma and experimentation.

And with a view of humans as inherently communitarian or inherently self-centered, the hard cold fact of the matter is that we will interpret even the evidence of indigenous peoples differently. I interpret it as concrete proof that societies can be organized cooperatively, but you might assign greater weight to the benefits each individual derives from social systems under those conditions and treat any examples of cooperative action as contingent upon specific conditions. Again, neither of us can persuade the other. And again, it is simply oxymoronic to suggest that humans are both altruistic and greedy; the final alternative that we are neither would suggest that we have no interest in anyone’s welfare and again, this seems unreasonable.

Another characteristic of foundational beliefs is that the failure to adopt a position on them will be perceived as weak, “spineless,” or as failing to stand for anything. And in the most generous plausible interpretation of Obama’s behavior, this is precisely what he is doing. Harsher interpretations are possible, such as that I—and others—have advanced that Obama is a conservative who ran as a progressive[6]:

Not only is Obama not a progressive, but it is increasingly apparent that for all his words about wanting to put people back to work, he’s right in there with the stick-it-to-the-poor and kick-’em-while-they’re-down crowd. And as for campaign promises of “hope” and “change,” Obama consistently exceeds the wildest fantasies of the GOP’s wettest dreams, as he widens and multiplies the military crusades,[7] embraces and extends the Bush administration’s putative “anti-terrorism” policies,[8] refuses to prosecute those who created the financial meltdown,[9] leaves the unemployed to twist in the wind,[10] and now puts Social Security and Medicare at risk.[11]

But my point today is not to yet again bash Obama. A mainstream consensus has already emerged that Obama has failed miserably. According to Gallup, his approval rating has dipped to 39 percent.[12] His re-election prospects in 2012 depend entirely upon the weaknesses of any potential Republican challenger and even though these are legion, they might not be sufficient. Further, I accept the part of Stanley Greenberg’s analysis that the Democratic Party (if one is so generous as to distinguish it from the Republicans) has simply lost any credibility.[13] Given all that, this question of Obama’s fitness is settled.

Rather, my point is that even with a better president, even with a better party, even with a better economy, the clash we are seeing is foundational in nature, that the polarized views we see today cannot be reconciled, that compromise is impossible, and therefore that in the United States, we face a stark choice between letting the right oppress the left or letting the left oppress the right. Either end results in one side perceiving itself as oppressed. This degree of polarization cannot be accommodated within a single political order; a valid reason for separate countries is so people can live in societies that better suit their belief systems. The United States is no longer a viable country, only in part because while liberals might be willing to tolerate the presence of conservatives, conservatives cannot tolerate the presence of liberals.[14]

But as it stands, progressives are taken for granted.[15] And as this dynamic plays out, we face a choice not between whether, for instance, conservative or liberal Supreme Court justices are appointed, but rather in how much more conservative each succeeding Justice is than his or her predecessor; we face a choice not in whether Roe v. Wade is upheld or overturned, but in the timing with which it will most certainly sooner or later be overturned; we face a choice not between whether the rich are made richer at the expense of the poor or the tax system is adjusted to effect some necessary redistribution of wealth, but how much richer the rich will be made and how many fewer regulations they will subject to; we face a choice not between war and peace, but in the number of wars we will fight simultaneously; we face a choice not between environmental protection and degradation, but the speed with which environmental protections are rolled back or set aside entirely to advance the interests of capitalism; we face a choice not between civil liberties and a police state, but in the degree to which we celebrate that police state; and, to summarize all the ways in which the range of acceptable political discourse has shifted beyond progressives’ grasp, we face a choice not between Republicans and Democrats, but between wannabe-Republicans and Fascists.

This is not compromise. It is simply shameful. And no one who cares about other people should be willing to be a part of it.

  1. [1]Joan Walsh, “Arianna Huffington v. Frederick Douglass,” Salon, July 19, 2011, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2011/07/18/arianna_huffington_vs_frederick_douglass; Joan Walsh, “The president wins another round,” Salon, July 22, 2011, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2011/07/22/obama_liberal_support_slips
  2. [2]Walsh, “The president wins another round.”
  3. [3]Walsh, “Arianna Huffington v. Frederick Douglass.”
  4. [4]Walsh, “Arianna Huffington v. Frederick Douglass.”
  5. [5]Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Dickens Redux,” DisUnitedStates.org, August 3, 2011, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=4279
  7. [7]Tom Engelhardt, “American Militarism Is Not A Fairy Tale,” TomDispatch, June 14, 2011, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175404/tomgram%3A_william_astore%2C_american_militarism_is_not_a_fairy_tale/
  8. [8]Glenn Greenwald, “The vindication of Dick Cheney,” Salon, January 18, 2011, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/01/18/cheney/
  9. [9]George Washington, “There’s No Recovery Because the Government Made it Official Policy Not to Prosecute Fraud,” Washington’s Blog, July 8, 2011, http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2011/07/theres-no-recovery-because-government.html
  10. [10]John Nichols, “As Unemployment Spikes, Obama’s Got a Bigger Problem Than the Debt Ceiling,” Nation, July 8, 2011, http://www.thenation.com/blog/161863/unemployment-spikes-obamas-got-bigger-problem-debt-ceiling
  11. [11]David Dayen, “Pelosi, Reid Talking Big About Revenues, Protecting Safety Net on Catfood Commission II,” Firedoglake, August 2, 2011, http://news.firedoglake.com/2011/08/02/pelosi-reid-talking-big-about-revenues-protecting-safety-net-on-catfood-commission-ii/
  12. [12]Gallup, “Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval,” August 13, 2011, http://www.gallup.com/poll/113980/Gallup-Daily-Obama-Job-Approval.aspx
  13. [13]Stanley B. Greenberg, “Why Voters Tune Out Democrats,” New York Times, July 30, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/tuning-out-the-democrats.html
  14. [14]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  15. [15]Glenn Greenwald, “Democratic politics in a nutshell,” Salon, July 31, 2011, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/07/31/democrats

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