jimsleeper.com » Obama’s ‘State of the Union’ Address: Pearls Before Swine

Obama’s ‘State of the Union’ Address: Pearls Before Swine

By Jim Sleeper – January 27, 2010

Yes, it was a great State of the Union speech, the more so for its unadorned honesty, not for soaring, rhetorical cadences like those of his campaign. Yes, he told the Roberts Court to its face what damage it has done. Yes, he put Republicans on the spot over the filibuster and their nation-destroying negativity. And he hit lobbyists and even big corporations.

What has changed for me, though, is my growing (hardening) conviction that the chamber he was speaking to is stuffed to its gills with frauds. (There are exceptions.) Beyond the few measures on which there is a rare alignment of stars, nothing he called for will happen, unless his road trip unleashes a firestorm in the American people against Congress for the systemic sins mentioned above.

Most Americans didn’t watch the speech. And with good reason. They’ve heard laundry lists and fine rhetoric before. As long as most Americans’ default position in politics remains what I said it is after the Massachusetts debacle, Congress will remain unworthy of Obama’s broad wisdom and self-discipline, and it will remain wide open, therefore, to the most malign and predatory interests.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” Ben Franklin said, doubting that, in the long run, we could. I don’t want to doubt it, but of late I see very little evidence that we can or will.

But hasn’t the republic survived graver doubts than mine for more than two centuries? Certainly, from the moment King George III was gone, the Founders took a hard look at the American people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Franklin sketched the odds at the Constitutional convention. He warned that the Constitution “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

History showed that this can happen not with a coup but a smile and a friendly swagger like George W. Bush’s, as soon as the people tire of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied along into servitude — or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough to intimidate.

Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes when he wrote that history had destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

How might that happen? “History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee.

The Founders were all reading Edward Gibbon’s then-new account of how the Roman republic had slipped, degree by self-deluding degree, into an imperial tyranny. Leaders could bedazzle citizens out of their liberties by titillating and intimidating them into becoming bread-and-circus mobs that “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army ….”

Gibbon added pointedly that Augustus, the first emperor (I tend to think of George W. Bush when I read this passage), “wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government” and that he knew that “the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.” Campaigning in an open shirt, as it were, “that artful prince … humbly solicited their suffrages for himself, and for his friends, and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate … . The emperors … disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power. In all the offices of life they affected to confound themselves with their subjects and maintained with them an equal intercourse of visits and entertainments.”

And so Rome became what Gibbon called “an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth,” not by conspiracy but thanks to a confluence of deeper currents that had enervated people’s republican virtues and beliefs.

This, of course, is precisely what Republicans promised, for eight years — no, for 30 years, ever since Ronald Reagan’s winning campaign in 1980 — that they would save us from, with the help of God, deregulation, and martial valor. They convinced a lot of Americans that it was liberal governmentalists who wanted to coddle them into servitude and decadence.

Plenty of liberal folly reinforced that perception, and Obama wrestles with the burden of trying to dispel that perception even as he tries to make government as pro-active as it truly needs to be. But he also has the burden of most Americans’ obdurate refusal to admit that rule by big, private corporations, not government, is ever more confining, intrusive, and even degrading of our virtues and our public courage — in employment, entertainment, patterns of consumption, even the subtle skewing of public discourse (journalists, write this down!), as well as of government itself.

John Adams wasn’t blaming only government when he warned that, “[w]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterward. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”

We are there, I fear. At least, that was my feeling as I watched a President who is as wise as the founders addressing a den of hogs sent there by an American people that seems more deeply beleaguered and befuddled than at any time in my life, which has been long enough to include some pretty bad times.

Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan shares my assessment for the most part and responds to this post, adding that the time has come to fight with and for Obama against not only the special interests but the conniving legislators and Justices who serve them.

That kind of mobilization and resistance — drawing on clean anger from a civic-republican center, if you will — is what the American Revolution was about. Do we still have the public courage, the sense of national honor, and the habits of command necessary to do it again?