Embedded within the long profile of President Barack Obama in a recent New Yorker magazine is a trenchant analysis of the divisions within our society and the attitudes that make those divisions more hard-edged than necessary.
Obama, in his discussion with writer David Remnick, notes that the left and the right are vulnerable to a distorted view of the other. As a funhouse mirror would do, weakness is present in each and becomes misshapen and exaggerated, causing each side to recoil from the other.
For example, Republicans — and in a previous era, Southern Democrats — often present themselves as defenders of state’s rights and as opponents of federal power. But those on the left are aware of a historical truth: The defense of state’s rights was historically and sometimes still is a cover for racism. The South opposed federal power because federal power was employed to abolish slavery. Today federal power — the judiciary and the Justice Department — are employed to oppose racist efforts to restrict voting rights.
Obama’s comments contained an appeal to Democrats, saying if we are ever to find common ground, then those on the left need to recognize that there is a legitimate case to be made for state’s rights. If the left were to take a charitable view of those on the right, it would acknowledge that, even if Democrats disagree with them, Republicans have a point in pushing to restrain the federal government. That doesn’t mean that racism does not sometimes animate anti-Obama, anti-federal government politics. It is to say that if we are ever to get anywhere, we must look beyond the racism to authentic, conscientious conservatism.
Those on the right have a similar responsibility with regard to their view of Democrats. Republicans often say Democrats use federal dollars to hand out benefits wastefully on moochers and freeloaders. They say welfare programs rob people of the incentive to work. Democrats use federal money to buy support, according to this view. Thus, the Affordable Care Act is spreading federal revenue around to people who would be better off working to buy their own health insurance.
Just as Democrats ought to look beyond the racism of some and recognize the legitimate views of small-government Republicans, Republicans need to recognize that there is a legitimate case to be made for the social safety net. Food stamps, welfare, unemployment insurance, Obamacare, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — these don’t weaken people’s moral character. They make the nation stronger by helping people lift themselves up. Believing this is not a cynical ploy. It is based on history going back to the Great Depression and the accounts of people who at one time were down on their luck but got a lift when it was needed. It doesn’t mean there are not moochers and people who exploit them. But like racists on the right, they do not indelibly taint the beliefs of the left.
It is necessary to identify and condemn racism where it exists, as it is to root out corruption where government benefits are being abused. But it is easy to exaggerate and demonize, especially in a media culture where cable TV shout fests skew the rhetoric toward extremes.
Obama has always seen himself as a conciliator, trying to sift through differing points of view to look for common ground. He has always been reluctant to assume the role of rabble-rouser or ideologue. As a rising African-American politician, it was one of the keys to his success. Whenever he has ventured toward harsh rhetoric — calling bankers “fat cats,” for example — his heart has not been in it. Indeed, his allies on the left have wished he could have been more aggressive in handling malfeasance on Wall Street and raising the populist war cry.
On the right, the conciliators in the middle have mostly been shouted down, and even a so-called moderate such as Mitt Romney has been guilty of the stereotyped view of the left — as in his comments about the 47 percent. But Obama’s comments point the way toward reconciliation if the parties want to pursue it: Take a charitable view of the other and search for common ground. It’s possible.
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