Friday, May 29, 2009

The Audacity of "We"

Presidential rhetoric has always been an instrument of public education. in retrospect it is remarkable how effectively Ronald Reagan used the “bully pulpit” to teach Americans not to trust government—to reject the notion that there is a common good. His rhetoric was powerfully educational, and the result has been to dissolve the sense of common good that had been the underpinning of the New Deal. With the rhetoric of individuality, Reagan used his position as educator-in-chief to teach us that “…government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” ( That idea was the heart of the Reagan Revolution: the denial, in the starkest possible terms of the fundamental idea of the New Deal—that we are in this together.

More to the point, Reagan taught the American people to reject the notion at the core of democratic life: that “we the people” are not estranged from government, but we are the government. Eliminating this premise from public life lay the foundation for everything that followed in the Reagan Revolution: the loss of progressive taxation, the increased divide between the rich and the poor; the decay of infrastructure so it could be sold off to the highest bidder; and the drive to privatize schooling, among other effects. In general, the loss of any sense that there is a “we” in a communal sense. The body politic was reduced to the market place, where people come together to pursue their individual interests competitively or in parallel, but not in common.

That is the point of some of Reagan’s most famous aphorisms, among them: “…the 10 most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘Hi, I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help’”; and … government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The shift in public rhetoric he engineered was prefigured by his campaign mantra: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Not, “are we better off?” but “we,” which rhetorically was “I.” This was a marked difference from the public rhetoric of the previous half-century, and as public education, it was very effective: it both justified and begin the deconstruction of democracy as a project of the common good, as opposed to the pursuit of individual good.

Public speech has been largely miseducative over the past two generations, beginning with Reagan’s opposition democratic life as a shared existence. One effect of the deconstruction of the commons has been a marked loss of civility. In my life the essentially civil discourse of Lawrence Spivak’s original Meet The Press and William F. Buckley’s Firing Line has been replaced by the mindless shouting matches on Crossfire so nicely skewered by Jon Stewart ( Even more corrosive have been the propaganda machines made profitable by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. So we pursue our political aims individually, with no sense of common purpose. People like Diane Rehm labor to continue a public conversation, but their numbers and influence are small compared to those who seek to end public speech.

Bill Moyers once described democracy as “government by conversation.” This is why the dissolution of civil discourse is so dangerous; when we can not hear each other speak (see Tom Green on the nature of public speech at, we can not make democracy function. At least not democracy that has any sense of common good; without real public speech, “the center can not hold.”

For this reason I find President Obama’s recent address at Notre Dame so encouraging ( In this speech he begins to particularize the public idea he articulated in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention ( That remarkable address to the nation was a call to reconstitute a public. He reminded us that the hard work of individuals is futile without the support of the commons in matters of common welfare (unions, health care, good schools, veterans benefits). This was the beginning (one hopes) of an effort to undo the damage to democratic life done by the work of the right wing in this country: it is a powerful example of public speech and therefore of public education. The reminder that we are all in this together, and that we must speak to each other and listen to each other: “It is that fundamental belief: I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper that makes this country work.” This is rhetoric employed by few politicians and no presidents since LBJ, whose statement that “we shall overcome” was a call to a public consciousness.

At Notre Dame, he tried to realize that rhetorical flourish in addressing perhaps the most divisive issue in US political life: abortion. After pointing out that the current economic conditions are the result of acting on “…immediate self-interest and crass materialism,” (another claim not often made in the public sphere), and after his speech is interrupted a few times by protestors, he moves into the discussion of abortion.

The speech is educative in both its audience and its tone. The audience could perhaps not be more openly skeptical: he is articulating a pro-choice position at a—perhaps the—Roman Catholic University in the US. The very presence of hecklers is an instructive reminder about the nature of democracy, a much needed public lesson after eight years of a President afraid to speak to audiences of unscreened citizens.

In tone, it is instructive. He begins his discussion of the abortion controversy by acknowledging, as he has done before, that he has not always accorded the proper charity to those with whom he disagreed, recalling an incident where he spoke of “…right wing ideologues who would take away a woman’s right to choose.” It is important to note that he was not backing away from his policy commitment to choice; it was the ungenerous portrayal of those with whom he disagreed that he regretted. It is only when we talk about our differences “with a presumption of good faith,” that, “…we discover at least the possibility of common ground.” It is also when we discover the possibility of a public.

He goes on to what strikes me as a quite remarkable passage on the politics of abortion. In it, he acknowledges that many of us would like to “fudge” the issue, but we can not do so: “…at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” This is something I can not think of many politicians making: an honest admission that, while civil discussion is always necessary, not every conflict is open to compromise; the discussion must continue indefinitely and with patience and mutual respect. This is not easy; if it were, more of us would probably be doing it.

But having seen the damage Reagan’s rhetoric of disconnection and opposition to the common good helped create the deconstruction of the public square, we can hope that a president speaking the language of common good and common interest can help reweave the tattered fabric of our commons. The president is only commander-in-chief of the military in times of war, but the president is always the public educator-in-chief. Preliminary evidence is that President Obama, whatever his other shortcomings, is up to the task.


Amy Shuffelton said...

YES! I have nothing to say beyond I agree wholeheartedly -- that the rhetoric of common goods is important, and that thank goodness Obama is using it. Nice posting.

Kathleen Knight-Abowitz said...

This post is all the more powerful, and needed, in light of yesterday's shooting in Wichita, where a doctor who dared helped women seeking an abortion was murdered. Finding a "we" in the abortion debate sometimes feels as elusive as peace in the Middle East, but Presidential leadership in BOTH these arenas is so desperately needed, including rhetorically. Thanks for the posting, john.