22 January 2015

Thoughts on the state of the Union

The problem with the State of the Union address is that, from the way it is structured and from the way the expectations surrounding it are driven, it is often couched in a lingo that is meant to obscure more than it clarifies. The result is something that sounds more like a mission statement than something which honestly clarifies the ‘state of the Union’. The most recent such speech is no exception to this rule.

It is a standby of American politics to conflate the ‘middle class’ with whomever one takes as one’s political totem – the small suburban businessman or the urban petit bourgeoisie – and then to expand the definition of ‘middle class’ to include whomever one likes. What President Obama just did in this State of the Union address was precisely this. First he built a case for ‘middle-class economics’ from the left by using the anecdote of one working-class family (Rebekah and Ben and their two kids); and then he proceeded to elucidate what he meant by ‘middle-class economics’. In fact, Obama’s vision bears no resemblance to an economics of the working class, or even of the middle class. All the language of the ‘new economy’ notwithstanding, when one looks at the details – expanded infrastructure spending (schools, colleges, the Internet), federal childcare programmes, federal community college funding – it is by and large a watered-down American System Whiggism of Henry Clay ca. 1816 with some elite Victorian do-goodism sprinkled in for good measure, repackaged for a 21st-century audience.

There’s actually nothing intrinsically wrong with some of the things President Obama claims to want. An federal minimum wage increase is long-overdue; as is paid maternity leave. Each taken on its own, they would help to increase the self-sufficiency and relieve the burdens on the time and energy of working-class families. But when combined with the federal programmes for childcare and education, even though they are intended to decrease the burden on working- and middle-class families, they in fact signal a decrease of the family’s power to be self-sufficient, and indeed place more real decision-making power in the hands of corporations. Do we really want a higher-educational curriculum dictated by the economic demands of CVS and UPS, Google and eBay, for example?

And there are other highly-troubling aspects of Obama’s plan. He very nearly shows his full hand when he starts speaking about infrastructure – it’s not working-class families, middle-class families or traditional small businesses that are meant to benefit from the new federal investments. It’s the big multinational financial giants, the multinational corporations and the global tech companies that will benefit. The ones who will directly benefit from the powers that Obama is asking for, to sign the still bafflingly-opaque TTIP and the TPP trade pacts (though he doesn’t mention these by name), will not be the average American working-man. It is very clear that the rules of these trade agreements will not be written by the people Obama is claiming to help.

And, of course, the military jingoism which we have come to expect from an Obama presidency is also here on full display: the uncritical embrace of military unilateralism, the vacuous assurances that powers of extrajudicial-execution-by-drone are ‘properly constrained’ in the right hands, the breathtaking hypocrisy of Obama’s assertion of ‘the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small’, mere sentences after mentioning Syria. It is telling indeed, that the sole highlighted difference between the Republican and the Democratic approach to international relations one of adjectival semantics: a Democratic president gets to say, essentially, that the only difference between his foreign policy and a Republican one is that the latter is ‘fearful’, ‘reactive’ and ‘costly’.

Of course, for those who like their jingo and neoliberalism served neat, still further devoid of content and packaged in sappy condescending platitudes, or with perhaps a slight twist of Jacksonian rhetoric, the response from Senator Joni Ernst would probably be more appealing. (Myself, I had even more trouble wading through that than I did the transcript of Obama’s speech, feeling all the while that both would have a cumulative radiological impact on my IQ.) But what strikes me as I read each of the responses is how similar they are in their substance.

I’m not usually one to trot out the ‘both parties are the same’ line, because they aren’t – they do represent, supposedly, different political strands in the American fabric. Though traditionally the Democrats were the party of the big frontier and the solid South, having risen out of the campaigning tactics and ideology of the aforementioned Andrew Jackson, nowadays the Democratic base has shifted solidly toward the Northeast and has come to encompass a kind of bland Whiggism, for want of a better word: a carefully ‘non-judgemental’ elite social libertarianism combined with a penchant for grand technocratic projects undertaken on a nation-wide scale. The Republican Party, on the other hand, though it has largely always been and continues to be the party of Big Business, nowadays it has taken to heart the fact that Jacksonian pandering to the lowest common denominator is a winning strategy. And since the 1970’s in any event, the Republicans have managed to attract into their membership the old white Southern Dixiecrats who represented Calhoun’s strain of resource-rentier politics, complete with their quasi-libertarian ‘states’-rights’ gloss.

Personally, my own political commitments are much more akin to the Canadian red Tories than to anything currently on offer in my own country (though I confess to feeling a certain affinity for the Midwestern radicalism born of the Achtundvierziger generation of Central European immigrants). However I still find lamentable the lapse, if not loss, of the venerable old-style federalist New England conservative in the mould of John Adams. The gradual abdication of the Boston Brahmin as a class from its place in American politics, along with its traditional sense of noblesse oblige, is a tragedy. I would dearly love to see the return of a cultured politics which are solidly anti-war and realist in foreign outlook, sceptical of democratic excesses, and favourable to small American businesses and a robust, interventionist and moderately-paternalistic federal government.

The sad fact of our state of the union, is that both established political parties are now offering us a ballooning national security state, military commitments that recognise no proper limits, a trade apparatus which is completely unaccountable either to American businesses or to American workers, and policies which appear designed to entrench and enrich the already obscenely-wealthy. We need either better radicals or better conservatives. Preferably both.


  1. When I talk to American conservatives about politics, they often end up accusing me of being a socialist. Of course, the way they define socialism would probably cover most British Tories and I'm already on the left of the Tory Party.

    America really lacks a tradition of One Nation Toryism. I find it hard to sympathize with either side of American politics, but out of habit I always cheer for the Republicans, especially the more moderate Republicans.

  2. I can sympathise there, Matthew!

    I think the closest we ever really got to the One Nation Tory tradition are the Red Tories of Canada, who used to be high-church Anglican and immigrant farmers prior to the American Revolution. Even there, there are some differences, though. MacDonald and Disraeli were two very different men.

    As regards the Republicans. I have an incredible respect for my grandfather, who voted Republican out of habit for years before becoming a rural activist at the age of eighty-five. I have a great deal of respect for the Eisenhowers with their tradition of military service and measured conservatism of temperament. And I have a high respect for some of our local New England Republican and Independent politicians.

    Anyway, many thanks for the comment, Matthew, and sorry I have taken so long to reply!