The Republic Will Neither Rise Nor Fall Due to Barack Obama

Andrew Sullivan writes:

My foreboding sense is that America may have already passed the point of no return in terms of civil, constitutional governance. I do not believe that in the Bush administration, the United States was effectively governed by its Constitution. The forms were still there, but the reality wasn’t. Beneath it all, the desire for despotism ran, fueled by the despot’s greatest ally, fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of terrorists, fear of gays, fear of immigrants, fear of the inevitable uncertainties of real reform.

Although I share his dismay at actions taken by the Bush Administration and supported by a frightening number of Americans, I cannot help but think that the assessment he offers here is too dire. Ours is a nation that won a war against the British Empire before its colonies even agreed on a sustainable way to close ranks. Its early years saw the spread of slavery, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and a campaign against Native Americans that approached genocide. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus to win a war that pitted Americans against one another on actual fields of battle. The highest murder rate ever recorded in this country came in San Francisco in the years following the gold rush. That same city was utterly destroyed in an earthquake, home to Chinese laborers who were treated little better than slaves, and was once seized by vigilante businessmen with a private army who informed the mayor that they’d impose marshal law — and did so! Woodrow Wilson’s affronts against civil liberties alone dwarf anything done by the Bush Administration, World War I began a long period when fear of foreigners radically curtailed the ability of newcomers to arrive here, the fear of immigrants seen now is tame compared to all sorts of historical moments, the internment of Japanese Americans most prominent among them, and gays are thankfully more accepted now than at any time in American history. Indeed, they are a generation away from full marriage rights and perhaps months away from the ability to openly serve in the military.

Every obstacle and injustice to American flourishing that I’ve cited required citizens to speak up for positive change. On issues including torture, gays in the military, foreign adventurism, the war on drugs, and the deficit, I share Mr. Sullivan’s concerns, applaud many stances he’s taken, hope for progress, and lament our polity’s inability to adopt more sound public policies.

But we’ve overcome greater challenges than this in the past, the progress this nation has made even in the last couple generations is stunning, and it is flatly incorrect to say that we’ve passed the point of no return for civil, constitutional governance. It’s worth putting things in perspective because it is precisely hyperbolic assertions about how the center cannot hold that pushes nations toward undue panic.

Later in the same post, Mr. Sullivan writes:

…this fever feels to me like either the kind that precedes the final death of this republic into a carnival of FNC-directed war and debt and drama led by charismatic media-emperors or empresses – or the fever that finally ends the sickness, and restores some sense of civic responsibility and republican virtue. Last night, I saw one of the few men left able to see the depth of the crisis and not lose faith in this country’s ability to overcome it.

I reject the notion that the United States of America is in a position so dire that it can only be saved by a particularly noble leader. Arguments for that proposition could be made for the tenures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and maybe even FDR. It is notable that even those men never behaved as if that proposition were true, and anyway the challenges we face, however grave, pale in comparison to their burdens. Would anyone trade our challenges today for the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, or World War II? I wouldn’t even trade places with the Americans who endured the Carter Administration.

Mr. Sullivan concludes:

I believe our crisis is deeper than many now believe – because it is not just a crisis of economics, of debt, of over-reach, of an empire now running on its own steam and unstoppable by any political force, but because it is a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems that marks the distinction between a republic and a bread-and-circuses Ailes-Rove imperium.

Among other mistakes, this gives Roger Ailes and Karl Rove far too much credit. Lord knows that their cynical, brazenly dishonest brand of self-aggrandizing propaganda does damage to our society, but these are men who influence a small minority of Americans who obsess about cable news, treat politics like a team sport, and play a minuscule role in the lives of most ordinary Americans. I am not among those who argue that men like this should be ignored, but in exposing their wrongheaded rhetoric and indefensible behavior, we must keep perspective, else they damage America by driving those that oppose them to overreact. There is a strong case to be made that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are dysfunctional in ways that render them incapable of governing well. That is certainly my belief. It is also my contention that reacting to this circumstance by putting all one’s hopes in Barack Obama is an unwise and unnecessary overreaction.


3 Responses to “The Republic Will Neither Rise Nor Fall Due to Barack Obama”

  1. davidlosangeles Says:

    Mr. Friedersdorf,

    I certainly agree with your general point that the existence of constitutionalism in the United States of America is not dependent upon one man. I do not believe that Mr. Sullivan meant to suggest that it does. It seems to me that what he is arguing is that at this particular political juncture, Mr. Obama is one of any a few individuals who has both the political power and the necessary historic vision to have a significant impact in changing the course of history.

    Having said that I do not think that I agree with Mr. Sullivan. I do not believe that he does comprehend the seriousness of the crisis looming before us. Mr. Obama seems to have embraced the logic of US military and political hegemony in the south west Asia (at least until the oil runs out) and the perpetual state of warfare that that now entails. Dick Cheney has for years argued that the rule of law, democracy, and civil liberties are incompatible with the needs of being the dominant power in the world, and he is right (Julius Caesar knew this truth well). Mr. Obama seems to agree with this, if with a bit more moderation in openly stating so. This is entirely beyond the fact that US economy has gone from the greatest industrial nation in the world to being where money changers derive huge profits from overseas investments and the rest of the country just looks after their file cabinets. The increased shrillness and rigidness we see reflects the fear caused by the shrinking economic pie that must be sliced thinner and thinner.

  2. Tweets that mention The Republic Will Neither Rise Nor Fall Due to Barack Obama - Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog - True/Slant -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marvin Smilth, Tweets Tube, Betty Sharma, Alaina Partlow, Mary Crosby and others. Mary Crosby said: The Republic Will Neither Rise Nor Fall Due to Barack Obama: My foreboding sense is that America may have already … […]

  3. clyons11 Says:

    Conor – your last paragraph actually reinforced some of Mr Sullivan’s arguments. You stated:
    “. . . these are men who influence a small minority of Americans who obsess about cable news, treat politics like a team sport, and play a miniscule role in the lives of most ordinary Americans”
    To begin with, Mr Rove and Mr Ailes directly influence every other Fox property; and I’d argue they influence every other media giant in America as well (Overton window and all that, cf. Stewart).

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