What struck me about the speech was that Obama once again confirmed that it's the way Washington talks that he doesn't like. Here's what I said after the health care summit:
Barack Obama wants to change the way Washington works. What he doesn't like is a system in which politicians mostly speak in spin and poll-tested talking points. Politicians, he thinks, should just say what they mean.I contrasted this with John McCain's objection to the way Washington works, which is that he really does seem to object to people trying to advance their own, private, interests. Moreover, I said that both of them were wrong...for Obama's objection, I said that "spin is mostly harmless."
At Michigan, Obama set out a case for why it really matters that politicians speak in spin instead of plain English. First of all, because plain English can't compete:
It’s just sometimes all you hear in Washington is the clamor of politics. And all that noise can drown out the voices of the people who sent you there.I don't really find that convincing. Oh, I think that Washingtonians can be captured in a bubble that isolates them from their constituents, and that it's a particularly dangerous trap for presidents, who have a constituency too large to really grasp and security reasons for being removed from them. In other words, I think that the bubble is a danger, but it's not really created by "the clamor of politics."
Obama doesn't stop there. I'm going to quote at length, but note that I'm taking out his context setting, which is actually terrific; he makes clear that serious, vigorous conflict is an essential part of democracy. But:
[We should] maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate...we can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. (Applause.) You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. (Applause.) Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” -- (laughter) -- that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of politics in the past. It’s been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation’s birth. But it’s starting to creep into the center of our discourse...The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning –- since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”? (Laughter.)
It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.
OK. Obama has a number of problems with overly heated rhetoric. I think I can boil it down to:
1. Prevents compromise.
2. Undermines deliberation.
3. Prevents learning.
4. Coarsens our culture.
5. Might lead to violence.
Of these, I'll certainly agree with him on #4, but that's not really a political objection. For #5, I'm afraid I don't know any of the literature (if any?) on the relationship between elite rhetoric and political violence, but given that Obama concedes that extreme rhetoric is always with us, what someone would have to find is that mainstream rhetoric that echoes extremist themes can push some people over the edge...Obama doesn't seem sold on the relationship, so I'll put it aside.
I think his case rests on the first three claims, and really it all boils down to one complaint: that politicians use of rhetoric keeps them from doing the serious work of governing. They can't do real deliberation, because they can't state their real position (since instead they are busy spinning for mass audiences). They can't compromise, possibly because they've taken extreme positions, or possibly -- and I think this is the most serious charge -- because they're so enmeshed in their own rhetoric that they lose track of their own, and their constituents' own, interests.
The question is whether any of that is actually true, and unfortunately I can't give you an answer. In order to answer it, we need to know a lot of things that are pretty hard to get at...do politicians really believe the (false, extreme, spin-like) things that they're saying? When they threaten to vote against a bill for phony reasons, do they have real, constituent-based reasons underlying the phony, for-the-cameras reasons? Do political elites really become ignorant of the basics of public policy because they spout silly talking points (and remember, causation could run the other way)?
What I can give you is a reminder that when Barack Obama says that Washington is broken (or words to that effect), that's what he's talking about. He does share with John McCain (and most others) a dislike of something called "special interests," which I think he does see as inherently corrupt, but unlike McCain and many others his focus is not on corruption in that sense; it's on the failure of the rest of us, both in Washington and in the population at large. It's important to see that for Obama, self- and group-interest is not inherently bad; most of us, he says, have "legitimate but bridgeable differences" (although he does not much like to talk about legitimate but irreconcilable differences). The problem is that soundbite politics make it difficult to do the bridging. For Washington, the cure is, although he doesn't quite say it in the Michigan speech, plain talk. For the rest of us, he has two cures: one is empathy for the other side (that's the bit about reading both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; see Jonathan Chait for more on that). The other, which was the theme of his graduation speech two years ago at Wesleyan, is participation.
Oddly enough, I like the cure, even though I don't really buy the malady. I'm not going to knock participation or empathy, and while I do think the odds are that spin and heated rhetoric are mostly harmless, again I'm not going to complain about plain talk. If I had Obama in a seminar, I'd like to ask him about whether he thinks there are legitimate but irreconcilable interests, and if so what he proposes for that situation; I'd also like to get him to defend the notion that some interests are (presumably illegitimate) "special" interests -- but of course he, and not I, am in the mainstream of American political culture in claiming such a thing exists.
Again, do check what Sprung has to say about Obama's views of government. The question I'm left with, which I'm going to think about as Obama continues teaching his course in democracy, is the relationship between his ideas of democracy and his ideas of government. If you find that an interesting question, stay tuned, because I'll return to it in the future.