Great speech. Obama always gives great speeches. Hooray!
But it’s not without its problems—one big one in particular. President Obama’s most powerful theme was his invocation of military solidarity as a contrast with the messiness of democratic governance. He repeatedly argued that governing Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to emulate the common sense of purpose that animates the Navy SEALS. Why can’t Beltway conservatives and progressives work together? Why can’t Congress operate with military precision?
This is pretty obviously a problematic analogy. As I’ve previously written, there’s no bipartisan consensus about the goals that political leaders ought to pursue. There’s no common vision for the country. With all apologies to homespun Thanksgiving table rhetoric, progressives and conservatives don’t “agree on the ends but disagree on the means” of solving our common problems. Quite the opposite.
Meanwhile, military platoons have a clear mission with well-defined objectives—and that’s what makes them so effective.
Rhetorically problematic though it may be, the comparison is interesting, especially given some of my pet complaints about the Democrats. I’ve long worried that American progressives can’t articulate their vision for the country in a compelling, coherent way. They desperately need a set of clear, persuasive goals that they can bring to public debates. Without this sort of account, Democrats fall back on technocratic language—much like the president did tonight. Though he trotted out a few well-worn lines about the inherent fairness and fundamental Americanism of a more progressive tax code, he avoided making serious ethical arguments to justify the ends of his proposals. Instead, he spent a great deal of his rhetoric on the means we ought to pursue.
Again, SEAL teams don’t debate over ends. That’s why they cooperate so well. Their goal is pre-determined: Enter this compound, assassinate this person, and get the hell out of Dodge.
Finally, since so many of us want more efficient governing institutions (me too), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what we’d lose if policymaking was that easy. To paraphrase Alexis de Tocqueville, democracy isn’t valuable because of what it does—it’s valuable because of what it causes to be done. Democracy isn’t worth defending because it works quickly and devises Pareto optimal policy outcomes. It’s worth defending because the process of hammering out policy solutions can (sometimes) ennoble and educate citizens who take part in public debates. The indirect effects of democracy are perhaps better than its direct effects.
A few of you will be howling, “But the Republicans have completely poisoned the public well! We can’t have good debates over policy when one party lives in a world detached from empirical reality!” And that’s true, but it still doesn’t make a speech dreaming about efficient pursuit of contested ends any more effective. It’s a credit to Obama’s patience that he still frames his arguments as if there’s a consensus path forward, but it’s not going to have much of an effect on the coming legislative session. At best—and this is probably what he was going for—by projecting a clean, efficient ideal of political governance in terms of his agenda, the president set the terms of debate as the campaign really gets rolling. Most Americans want to believe in a Navy SEALS Congress. No matter how impossible or undesirable this might actually be, there’s rhetorical hay to be made by using that image to attack Beltway gridlock.