Columns » Jay Barth

Obama's polarizing address



One of the most insightful works of political science in recent years is a book by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics." In it, Hetherington and Weiler combine historical research of American electoral politics across the last several decades with quantitative analysis of contemporary U.S. voters to show that basic worldview differences that go beyond party or ideology are at the heart of how and why American politics has become decidedly more polarized over the past two generations.

With the rhetoric and actions of candidates and officeholders prodding them along, rank-and-file Americans have increasingly sorted into one of two camps of voters with some pretty fundamental personality differences — authoritarians and nonauthoritarians. Authoritarians see the political world as a Manichean battle between good and evil, believe there to be great value in respecting traditional authority and hierarchy, and express hostility to those groups who threaten to disrupt a tidy American social order. In contrast, nonauthoritarians are quite comfortable with nuance and ambiguity in life and law and embrace societal change including the empowerment of traditional outsiders. In foreign affairs, these nonauthoritarians promote diplomacy and negotiation as the more proper course while authoritarians are more comfortable with the use of force. Although there are more authoritarians in the American electorate, the growing distinctiveness of nonauthoritarians over the last two to three decades has been just as important in promoting sharp polarization in American political life.

President Obama's concise second inaugural address elegantly sampled phrases from the nation's founding documents and then applied them to 21st century America in making the case that the democratic experiment remains alive in the United States. However, the speech did much more as Obama, more clearly than ever before, expressed his fundamental rejection of authoritarianism. Some have labeled the speech "liberal" or "partisan," but reactions to it from the right show that it hit a nerve even deeper than ideology or party.

First, Obama embraced the inherent messiness and uncertainty of the American experiment, recognizing that "our work will be imperfect." Rejecting "absolutism," Obama made the case for a deeply pragmatic progressivism that "does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time."

In embracing the importance of full-fledged "citizenship," Obama discarded hierarchy and emphasized the power of rank-and-file Americans to reshape the nation. From critiquing obstacles to voting to trumpeting citzens' "obligation to shape the debates of our time," Obama emphasized that the fuel for the American experiment is the many, not the few.

Finally, a large chunk of the speech highlighted America's betterment brought about from the inclusion of traditional outside groups. From the personification of the American dream in "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty" who "knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American" to the alliterative embrace of activists at "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," Obama showed his nonauthoritarian worldview. The next step in that struggle for inclusion, the president argued, is to "welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."

Those on the right expressed full-tilt authoritarianism in their response to the president's address. One example was Pat Buchanan's snarky but telling belittling of the inclusion of the key moment in the gay rights movement as "a barroom brawl in Greenwich Village in 1969." Perhaps most thorough in stating the fears produced by Obama's worldview was Republican leader Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas who aggressively critiqued the inaugural events saying, "It was apparent our country's in chaos and what our great president has brought us is upheaval. We're now managing America's demise, not America's great future."

Obama arrived on the national stage in 2004 with a speech to the Democratic National Convention emphasizing a post-partisan American in which he critiqued those who "slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states." Listening to that speech today, one hears a younger Obama who is equal parts inspiring and naïve. Obama's speech last week showed a maturation of his pragmatic progressivism political thought. It also showed that the president now recognizes that there truly is a key divide in American political life — not between "red states and blue states" but between authoritarian and nonauthoritarian citizens — and made clear the side he's on in the key political battle of our time.

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