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Be Thankful For Rancorous Political Debate (The Other Options Are Far Worse)


“It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” President Obama lamented in a State of the Union speech packed with rancor and suspicion about his political opposition. What the president probably meant—as most of those who claim to want less “partisanship”—is that he regrets so many Americans remain stubbornly attached to their own ideas about the world.

For this president, liberal certitude is never partisan, unlike the moral and intellectual corruption of the GOP position. “BREAKING,” tweets The Associated Press, “President Obama to say US faces choice between fear of change and confidence in its future.” That’s about right. Obama’s SOTU was a crescendo of false choices pitting the future (bolstered by science, optimism, and rational thinking) against the icky past (anti-science, anti-love, and anti-reason). Francis Wilkinson put it well in Bloomberg View when he noted that Obama’s performance wasn’t a speech, it was an indictment.

The president, despite offering a scattering of platitudes about the importance of genuine public debate (Paul Ryan was singled out for expressing an interest in “tackling poverty;” because, as you’re all surely aware, conservatives normally champion destitution) he never really acknowledged the views of his detractors might be formed by some sincere, philosophical objection about the best approach to fixing things—or even that Americans might disagree on what exactly needs fixing.

But, you know, if you’re not psyched about transforming every leftist hobby horse into the next space program it can only mean you’re terrified of the twenty-first century.

Obama went on to claim that democracy doesn’t work if we believe “the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice.”  I don’t know about that. Through seven years of his presidency, liberals have regularly accused political opponents of being motivated by racism, misogyny, bloodlust-driven warmongering, selfishness, and an irrational and mysterious need to destroy democracy at the behest of the superwealthy.

Anyone who is critical of illiberal ideologies and faiths is a xenophobe.

This isn’t just the position columnists, bloggers, and activists, but the leadership of the Democratic Party. How many times has Obama argued that Republicans only reject his ideas because they have some deep dislike of him personally?

When they weren’t circumventing debate by impugning the motivations of the opposition, they were delegitimizing its entire worldview. “Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” the president says. Anyone who believes in human adaptability over climate alarmism values partisanship over the fate of the earth. Anyone who is critical of illiberal ideologies and faiths is a xenophobe.

“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president,” he explained, “We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.” Obama, who spent over a billion dollars winning the presidency in 2012, will discover his better self by campaigning to limit free speech for those he deems have too much money—and other special interests (abortionists, unionists, rent seekers, crony clean-energy groups, and other morally uncorrupted interests excluded)—to blunt rigorous debate.

Which reminds me: my favorite part of Tuesday’s speech was the president’s assertion that the Founders wanted us to argue about “the meaning of liberty.” This was the only time Obama mentioned the word liberty in his speech, and when he spoke about “freedom” it was never in the context of the Constitution.

Now, I wouldn’t claim to know exactly what the Founders desired for us, beyond mentioning that they codified many ideas of the Enlightenment and specifically wrote them down for us to follow, sometimes even numbering them so we would understand. Although they certainly debated some of these notions, it is implausible to believe any Founder would be okay with forcing Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for someone else’s birth control or forcing Americans to report to a bureaucracy like the IRS before engaging in political speech. Progressives want to redefine freedom as a form of dependency and common good, not argue about its traditional contours. So, yes, some people are suspicious of “change.”

Progressives want to redefine freedom as a form of dependency and common good, not argue about its traditional contours.

Meanwhile, the president believes early 20th-century progressive economic ideas are the freshest thing going. Fine. But, by any historical measure, arguing that markets can’t serve the public good without being micromanaged by the state is no bolder or newer than arguing for a renewed laissez faire attitude. An inability to implement those progressive ideas does not mean politics is broken. We have intractable disagreements.

Although rancor and suspicion between the parties truly broke open when Democrats unilaterally decided to push health-care reforms that compelled every American to participate, it was probably just the spark. The anti-establishment movements within both parties had festered for a long time. Liberal grassroots constituencies had revolted in 2000s, and conservatives became hyper-idealistic even before Obama was elected. The difference between those two revolts was that the Left’s insurgents won and Obama became president. Conservatives remained the frustrated opposition.

So we no longer have the capacity to come together on big policy. Facts is, I couldn’t recognize America anywhere in Obama’s long harangue yesterday, and I’m probably not alone. Anyone who believes he has a monopoly over the “future” deserves the suspicion and rancor that come with politics. It’s not to say that blind partisanship or uniformity is productive, or that Republicans have answers. But partisanship—as in prejudice toward a particular cause—allows us to avoid destructive national political “unity.” So, as rancorous as partisanship is, it’s far less destructive than Obama’s political ideal.