Welcome. This here blog offers what I learn, in commentary for all its worth. Know that I try to know best, when I know anything at all.

Journey onward!!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Part 2 - Post-Partisan Politics Defined: Descrambling Obama's Rhetoric

Most mainstream commentators have so far confused Obama's hypnotic suggestion of post-partisan politics with some kind of imminently polite, new-age bipartisan politics. They did so because, like all politicians, Obama praised bipartisanship by making the standard cookie-cutter pledges to "reach across the aisle" as president.

It is with great skill that he did so with a straight face because nothing else about his rhetoric had anything to do with praising bipartisanship.

On the contrary, Obama often uses words like "petty," "posturing," and "irresponsible" when describing Washington politics. His conceit centers around the notion that bipartisan legislation has become mired in ideological gamesmanship serving the electability of politicians, rather than be in the service of some higher cause. At worst, cynics argue that bipartisan deals equate to transactional politics whereby opposing lawmakers scratch each other's backs (read: re-electability) without regarding the bigger picture. In other words, even in bipartisan unity, Congress seems more concerned with appeasing the ideological leaning of their constituents instead of solving problems.

Obama attributes the root of this evil to eternal ideological warfare in Washington. To a professed post-partisan politician, unmitigated bipartisanship is tantamount to irresponsible lawmaking.

As I previously observed, railing against bipartisanship like this is a bit controversial to publicly say outright, so Obama did it by throwing trashy yet elegant rhetoric at the "status quo" in Washington. He speaks of going from "ideological and small thinking [to] our better angels," putting aside "stale ideology and petty partisanship, and embrace what works," and even suggesting a type of leadership where "facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology."

Perhaps most telling of all: "[ex-]President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology" or, as he utters in another breath, "wishful thinking and outdated ideology."

Now, I do not ask the reader to swallow all this dreamy and probably hypocritical stuff, but merely to observe how often the word "ideology" shows up in his rhetoric regarding Washington. These sound bites serve as irrefutable evidence of Obama's disingenuous praise for BI-partisanship and his unstated preference for something less shackled to ideology, namely POST-partisan politics. Yet just about every mainstream political pundit or politician continue to wrongly equate post-partisanship with bipartisanship, which makes no sense to me whatsoever; it is Obama's power of unspoken words at work, as I observed in my previous installment.

What Obama should have said outright is this: 'we should supplant the role of partisan ideology in politics with some kind of higher calling, that there exists an overriding ethos of responsibility and pragmatism which trumps the rigidity of ideological belief.'

This is Obama's unspoken post-partisan vision as I can see: a pragmatic approach to politics that separates solutions from their parent ideology. In a post-partisan world, ideological warfare and bipartisanship has its place but in the final analysis, ideology should not be the deciding factor.

For example, if tax cuts work, then let's cut taxes and if spending works better, then let's spend instead but if both works to some degree, let's find a balance and do both; but do not praise or deride a solution for its ideological purity. The central tenet is that a post-partisan solution must be evaluated for its efficacy and relevance to needs at hand, not if it is necessarily right or wrong.

You've heard this concept before, albeit in vague rhetoric, something like 'there is no Red or Blue America, just the US of America.' This particular Obamaism implies that responsible governance should NOT be the following:
  • Ideologically-pure like Mao Zedong's radicalism (read: Blue America) or George W Bush's childish 'good versus evil' stories from the Middle East (read: Red America)
  • Nor ideologically-bound like bipartisan warfare in Washington (read: Blue or Red America)
Rather, responsible governance should be ideologically-free like Barack Obama's post-partisan pragmatism (read: the US of America), maybe.

This is dreamy stuff, all theoretical and a necessarily imperfect framework. The only thing I hope to accomplish with this post is prove that Obama's unspoken post-partisan decree is NOT a call for bipartisan politics. The mainstream media and politicians claim otherwise (1 2 3 4 5), but nothing can be further from the truth. Rather it is a call for a politics of pragmatism over ideological consideration, or a "change" from Bush's naked and inflexible ideological precepts. Unless, of course, if Obama really is an empty suit, in which case I have grossly overestimated him. Only time can tell, and in the meantime I reserve my judgment on the merits of post-partisanship.

So far in these posts, I still have not left the realm of rhetoric and wishful thinking; the larger question of reality and implementation remains. Namely, who makes the non-ideological judgment call on which solutions are efficacious or relevant? Even more vexing, how can a post-partisan ideal, as I outlined above, even be compatible with a democracy in which bipartisanship is an existential requirement? At first glance, these seem diametrically opposed but as I will argue, their coexistence may not be as "new" in American politics as one might think.

What does Obama really have up his sleeves? That is the subject of my next and final exploration (for now).
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Friday, February 13, 2009

Part 1: Obama's Post-Partisan Vision and the Unspoken Promise

President Obama is a man who understands the power of unspoken words. Although his powerful rhetoric seems to reveal so much on the surface, he is able to deftly veil his inner ideological core from unwanted eyes probing for weaknesses to exploit. Certainly his political enemies tried and repeatedly attacked him as an "empty suit" throughout the campaign for his hair-raising oratories. It didn't work because in the hands of a master politician like Obama, the power of unspoken words preempts controversy by defusing it before it becomes inflated. More to the point, unspoken words serve as a smoke screen behind which Obama can operate against political enemies who, much to their dismay, cannot reliably attack what they cannot see clearly.

None better exemplifies this approach than the notion of "post-partisan" politics, a term given to Obama by the media to characterize the spirit of "change" he promised to bring to Washington politics. The funny thing is, post-partisanship is a term that Obama never used himself, but yet it is becoming more mainstream by the day. But precisely because Obama left the term unspoken, he was free to flex his rhetorical muscles and stake out an ambiguous yet distinctly post-partisan position without ever being challenged about what it actually means. Obama can get away with this because he can charm a crowd of millions without breaking a sweat.

So instead of telling us what post-partisanship means, Obama only told us what it should NOT mean: Washington politics as we know it today.

Obama did this for a very simple reason: to avoid big-time controversy. The standard thing for politicians to do is promise BI-partisanship, or the act of "reaching across the isle" and making deals with the opposition. Since this is what politicians are supposed to be doing anyway, bipartisanship is a relatively safe promise to make. But on the other hand, to promise POST-partisanship, something that implies doing something other than "reaching across the isle," is basically tantamount to turning the American political establishment on its head. This is precisely why Obama never uttered "post-partisanship."

Last time I checked, we live in a bipartisan democracy. The truth is, partisanship is an existential trait of our two-party democracy; polar opposition ensures balance in bipartisan Congressional agreements which contain ideological elements of both sides, otherwise it is not really democratic (i.e., pre-partisan). While too often does this political ideal result in watered-down or even incoherent legislation, it's a process of eternal compromise we as Americans implicitly agree to suffer. Bipartisan jockeying can get downright shameful and we may not like it, but somehow that's just how things here should work.

Were Obama to have come forth outright with the decree that we should not be bipartisan as the term post-partisan would suggest, there would be an uproar. Instead of calling him a socialist, the GOP would have branded him a dictator and that moniker might have actually worked. But because of the power of unspoken words, Obama masterfully defused a potentially damaging controversy and instead ended up compelling a lot of people to imagine "something new" without prompting them to wonder what that actually means. To fill the intellectual void, both Washington and the mainstream media stepped in to put their stamp on post-partisanship, the former being politicians hoping to gain a political edge and the latter being journalists hoping for snappy headlines. From what I can tell, neither have yet got the definition quite right (1 2 3 4), save for a few that are on the right track (1 2).

This is exactly what Obama wanted, a smoke screen behind which he can operate against an entrenched culture of ideological warfare in Washington and, as the indomitable Rush Limbaugh would say, the "drive-by" media feeding Americans woefully biased information. Indeed, if we are to give Obama the benefit of the doubt that he is not just an "empty suit" canvassing for votes, then the power of unspoken words is the only means by which anyone can hope to "change" the incumbent political environment. For now, President Obama holds the cards and has secured a position of power where he can reveal them at a time of his choosing and no other's.

A lot of people are satisfied to just "watch and see" how Obama will conduct himself in the coming years but personally, I feel the promise of post-partisanship is too significant to let others define it for me. As such, this post is the first installment in a series that will explore in turn the contrast between post-partisan and bipartisan politics, at least in my theory; how post-partisan politics can be even compatible with a bipartisan democracy such as ours; and how we can judge the genuineness of Obama's professed post-partisan presidency when partisan gridlock in Washington is all we have in recent memory to use as reference. Stay tuned!
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