My first college course in anthropology instilled in me a profound appreciation for best practices. It’s been a personal mission to uncover the best ideas and chart how they work, identifying their structures and functions. One discovery has been that even bad ideas can work well. It sounds strange, but the success of an idea often has nothing to do with its truth or level of insight. Its power and influence has more to do with its context and how it functions with other assumptions and tasks.
We would all prefer strong ideas that work well. Alaska’s Iditarod grips my imagination most winters, more than the State of the Union. The long distance grit of lead dogs Andy, Larry, and Granite guiding teams through 50-50-50s—winds 50 miles an hour, temperatures 50 degrees below, with visibility less than 50 feet—across wilderness and glaciers is a test of endurance rarely seen in politics. And the Iditarod offers equal opportunity. Susan Butcher won three in a row and four out of five between 1986 and 1990, and once had two dogs killed mid-race by a pregnant moose.
Last night’s State of the Union had Speaker Boehner making pregnant moose faces; his uncomfortableness with the President’s proposals was obvious—but was it a bad idea that served, from Boehner’s view, a good intent? Did it function to keep the GOP brand alive, apart from the pockets of craziness where they are winning elections, winning not really based on their platform of budgets (most states have laws that require balanced budgets), but more on hot button issues like immigration and race, or winning in one-party states out west?
The President, often criticized as a poor team player, continued to prove he is an effective leader (Susan Butcher’s dog Granite suffered from the same criticism!) with good ideas. He has also proven he can outrun the lumbering herds of opponents who have not adapted to the new environment and are using outmoded best practices.
The silent test of last night’s State of the Union was to outflank Ronald Reagan. Even President Obama has described Reagan as someone who reset the arc in America’s politics. Yet we forget the circumstances of that reset. Reagan created the meme that all of the problems of society were created by government excess. But what were the problems?
Women pushing for access to opportunity and self-determination, blacks refusing to be exploited, physically intimidated or discriminated against; massive resistance to corporate interests; food purchased from the bins of co-ops rather than on sale in plastic packages and cans stocked by chains. Reagan realized that the government protected those actions and had played a major part in expanding these rights. He coined the idea that government “created” these problems and caused the disturbing sight of school kids being bused and women deciding about pregnancy, and colleges graduating more critical thinkers who challenged the system and the status quo. The government didn’t reflect the will of the people, the people reflected the will of the now all-powerful government. But without the help of government, the gains of the people probably couldn’t be sustained.
In Reagan’s view, stop government, stop the advance of the people. He couldn’t sell an attack against the people—couldn’t demagogue blacks, women, youth as the problem (which for conservatives, they were!)—so he brilliantly assigned blame to government and used exaggerated stereotypes to knock it down. The welfare queen and other non-existent stories were repeated until the bad idea of government’s bad ideas became the Republican best practice for winning elections. Even Reagan’s ideology of cutting taxes to provide greater wealth to the rich didn’t happen during his administration, but the idea survived and is the basis of Republican policy today.
Despite widespread thinking that liberalism (again a code word for blacks, women and youth, packaged as “growing government”) was dead, Barack Obama somehow made it through and revived it in his first term. No matter; the new GOP plan was to blame his success and go after the old groups with a vengeance. If the stimulus succeeded, blame Obama for its size. If the economy recovered, blame entitlements, loudly arguing it could be even better without them. Turn obstruction into patriotism. Sprinkle the discussion with a little of the sour sickness of race—always heretofore cured by blaming the victim.
But Barack Obama never played the victim. He wouldn’t be maneuvered into the set role. Never mind his infuriating patience, his centrist views, his go-slow, compromising approach, he was steadfast about not playing the victim, which was the one thing America subjectively understood. By not doing so, he toppled the conservative ideology which was never really built on fiscal balance or personal liberty, but was at its heart, racial, gender and generational warfare. (Newt’s janitors were the 19th century children who worked at looms and in mines.) Barack Obama stood up to the direct attacks and slurs and defined an actual role for government.
Did Romney make us laugh? Barack does, except for Boehner. Do victims smile? Because there was Barack Obama and he was not an affirmative action pick. It was possible to succeed by the liberal model of collective effort aiding individual initiative.
What a smiling, joyful Barack Obama did last night was to begin to construct the language that dismantles the conservative failed vision. It has persisted only because of the large unspoken embedded discomfort about the roles of race and gender in the country. He put forth an assembly line of ideas that Republicans have no answer for; that’s why Rubio could write his reply before he heard the President’s message and why he referred to none of the real proposals that the President put forth. Instead of discussing early childhood, higher wages, and tax loopholes, Rubio replied on the rhetoric of putdowns which have lost their effectiveness.
The media still covers both parties as though they are engaged in the same challenge and have the same goals, when in fact, the goals of the two parties diverged long ago.
What the President offered was a recognition of the parties’ differences, a dialogue of peace, and the opportunity to forge a forward vision of the future in common partnership.
The Republican reply, by their remaining in their seats and Boehner’s scowl and Rubio’s response was to ignore the common sense ideas that the President outlined and to return to the language of class war, with government as a proxy. It worked for Reagan. But best practices adapt to changing circumstances. Republicans have not changed ideas, and those ideas don’t work now that it’s time to build schools, fix roads and bridges, and upgrade education for the future. Even the heroic individualism of the Iditarod celebrates its original, collective purpose: to deliver diphtheria serum to the sick. Sometimes it takes a single individual to rise and protect the fragile, collective life on which we all depend.
As evidenced by last night’s State of the Union address, listening to Barack, the people have put hatred aside, are willing to work with government as a team, and are listening to common sense.