As I watched President Obama’s second inaugural address and reflected on it afterwards, I realized a few things about politics and life.
His address was a well-crafted and well-delivered, clear, progressive statement of where he sees the country and where he wants to go in a broad way. It reflected the diversity of the country in many ways, though I think it left out much of the diversity of the country he doesn’t agree with. It was a principled annunciation of President Obama’s view of the world and where he wants to lead the country. President Obama should be lauded for being clear that though he ran as a centrist through two national elections, there is no question he seeks to govern in the next four years as an unapologetic progressive.
The problem we have is that country still has many divisions. It has divisions of people who go to church regularly and those that don’t. It has divisions among income levels and education status. It has divisions of sex and sexual orientation, and the judgments we each make surrounding those personal decisions. There are divisions of age, where older citizens see a different America than younger voters. It has divisions of those that live in or around urban centers, and those that live in small towns and rural communities. And there are still divisions on race between whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and others. The results of the election of 2012 certainly put an exclamation point on these divisions that are very present in today’s America.
As a functioning democracy, it is important that we allow the principled views of all sides to be heard and acknowledged. Liberals or progressives need to push and shout for what they believe is the right way for our society to be and for what they believe is the proper role of government. Conservatives need to do the same and pursue their belief of what they think is the best direction for the country to go. A democracy depends on this debate in the public marketplace of ideas, where all viewpoints are heard and represented.
However, in order for a democracy to function properly and well, the viewpoints must be put into the stew of debate, and consensus and compromise must be reached. And through that consensus, the country can move forward in a way that a majority of Americans are represented. The leaders we elect should see to not only speaking out in principled ways, but also finding common ground and compromising with all sides in the course of debate. It is not just enough for leaders of either side to make conservative arguments or liberal arguments. Democracy only works when consensus can be achieved.
Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton all understood that articulating principles isn’t enough, that leading involves compromise with opposing parties. Otherwise, we become a tribal culture where one side tries to run over the other side because they believe in the purity of their own position, and the country as a whole isn’t reflected.
At this point, about a quarter of the electorate sees itself as liberal and about 35 percent conservative, so neither represents the country as a whole. The plurality of the country sees itself as moderate, and the majority of the country really is a diversity of viewpoints – some liberal and some conservative.
At this point, the interpretation many have made of President Obama’s second inaugural address is that he is going to govern based on the 25 percent progressives, and Republicans in Congress are going to govern based on the 35 percent conservatives. And democracy will not work unless leaders step up, stand up to their own bases and allow give and take.
Many Democrats are celebrating the results of the last election as a reflection that the progressive viewpoint is where the majority of citizens want to go. This is foolhardy and creates a tremendous opportunity for Republicans in the next presidential election if they are smart enough to come up with a candidate who speaks to a majority of the country and speaks to values at the core of that majority. I don’t know if they will because they, too, seem trapped in a minority ideology, but I believe the president’s inaugural opens a window for success for a Republican who has more of a centrist message while still sticking to some conservative principles. Who knows if they have the capacity to do that. Time will tell.
As someone who is one of 11 siblings, I get that people can each have their own opinions and push for their wants, but if the family of democracy is going to succeed, we have to see it more holistically and have effective forums to reach common agreement and consensus. Relationships and democracy succeed where people realize moving forward and being happy is more important than being right.