The State of the Union, part 1: toward a more perfect competition?

Democracy is a delicate — well, often not so delicate — balancing of competition and cooperation. The competitive aspects of democracy are largely justified as the best available means to good government in the public interest over the long haul. By forcing would-be leaders to compete for the loyalty of the electorate, they are incentivized to at least appear to act and to propose policies that will benefit the public and not just themselves.

But again, the rough-and-tumble of the democratic competition does not guarantee good government. Sometimes winning tactics might undermine the public good. Sometimes cooperation across the partisan divide can be a more effective way to do what is best for the society. Opinion polls routinely find the electorate clamoring for more cooperation and less partisan gamesmanship; but they also reveal that people want both sides to cooperate around the policies already favored by their prefer partisans.

Adversarial ethics in the political realm is in part about when the competitors should set aside their attempt to “win” the next contest and instead cooperate with their opponents to achieve more directly results in the public interest.

I suspect that all State-of-the-Union speeches implore the members from both sides of the aisle to put aside their differences — and their focus on the next election — and to work cooperatively together. And President Obama’s speech tonight was no exception. In fact, it led with this “adversarial ethics” issue.

It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation.

But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passions and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater – something more consequential than party or political preference.

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

I believe we can. I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all – for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.

At stake right now is not who wins the next election – after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It’s whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It’s whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

This way of defining the basic war in the breast of any democratic polity — between competition (to benefit the public indirectly) and cooperation (to benefit the public directly) — could be uttered by any President of either stripe. Of course, all it really does is describe the inherent, perennial conflict.

It says nothing of any substance about the solution — unless you consider the globbing of sweet nationalist syrup over this mess to be a solution. Do we really think that it is a shared sense that we are members of a common family that sets Americans apart as a nation? Do we have to believe that we are a beacon of light to the rest of the world in order to set aside our partisan differences and work together? If we can’t set those differences aside to come up with, say, a sane system of healthcare for all members of the American nation, are we really going to do it because we are duty-bound to light that beacon for foreigners who are counting on us to lead the way?!

The absurdity or vacuousness of this appeal to nationalism just shows how acute this tension is between competition and cooperation in 21st-century democratic federal politics in the United States of America. It is a perfectly adversarial union.

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