Wednesday 21 January 2009

Obama's speech: a beautiful statement of the republican ideal

What does Barack Obama's Inauguration speech tell us about his public philosophy as President? Does it, as some have argued, represent a repudiation of 'ideology'?

During his run for the Democratic nomination, my colleague Karma Nabulsi wrote in The Guardian of the way Obama's campaign fitted into a 'rich republican tradition' of thinking about - and practising - citizenship. Obama's Inauguration speech suggests that his philosophy of government will follow on directly from the republican approach that Karma rightly saw at work in his campaign.

This is clear from the very first line where he chooses to address his audience as 'My fellow citizens', rather than, say, 'My fellow Americans'. It is an immediate reminder that the Inauguration is an event in the life of a republic, where individual members of the state are not just individuals with a particular national identity, but participants in a particular kind of political project, with all the rights and responsibilities - the moral import - that this implies.

So what is this political project, this project of 'the republic'?

(1) Democracy is the rule of 'we the people', not of individual leaders. First, Obama reminds his fellow citizens that their state, as a democracy, is fundamentally based on popular sovereignty. The ultimate law-makers, the ultimate bearers of responsibility for the laws and welfare of the society, are not political leaders, but the people themselves. Thus, he says:

'...America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.'

(2) Democracy, rightly understood, is about ideals, not raw majority will. In this same passage, Obama also identifies himself with the view that democracy is not simply a matter of letting majorities do what they want. It is about the people governing themselves in accordance with appropriate moral ideals. There is an echo here of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued in The Social Contract that legitimate authority not only rests on popular sovereignty but on the people exercising that sovereignty so as to satisfy appropriate moral ideals.

What are these ideals?

(3) The core regulative ideals of democracy are the equality and freedom of individual citizens. Rousseau argues that: 'If we seek to define precisely the greatest good of all, the necessary goal of every system of legislation, we shall find that the main objectives are limited to two only: liberty and equality...' This idea passed into the US political tradition and Obama explicitly restates the idea:

'The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit...that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.'

(4) Liberty means no arbitrary state power. The republican tradition emphasises that individual liberty depends on denying the state arbitrary power. It rests on the rule of law. Obama clearly restates this republican idea when he says (with a nod to Benjamin Franklin):

'...we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to ensure the rule of law and the rights of man....Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.'

(5) Equality means not just legal equality, but a degree of economic equality. Rousseau argues that citizen equality implies some degree of economic equality: 'Under a bad government,' Rousseau says, '[citizen] equality is only apparent and illusory: it serves to keep the poor wretched and preserve the usurpations of the rich.' By contrast, a good government will work on the principle that 'the social state is advantageous to men only if all have a certain amount, and none too much.'

In line with this latter comment of Rousseau's, we find Obama saying:

'...a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.'

(6) The achievement of democracy's ideals depends on citizens taking active responsibility for their achievement. The republican tradition is one that emphasises the importance of active and responsible citizenship. To be a citizen is not simply to enjoy a legal status. It is to have a definite moral personality. It is to have an understanding of the society's common good, and a willingness to act to promote this. Without such commitment, then, as Rousseau argued, the republic is corrupted, a prey to elite interests. This idea permeates Obama's whole speech and it is stated very clearly when he says:

'What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.'

And then comes the sentence which sums it all up:

'This is the price and the promise of citizenship.'

Of course, Obama is a 'pragmatist'. But he is a pragmatist with a profound understanding of, and commitment to, the American political tradition and its republican underpinnings.

His Inauguration speech falls into a classic genre of republican rhetoric: the call to turn from bad, fallen ways, and make the republic a reality again. My fellow citizens, Obama says, we have fallen, corrupted, from our animating ideals; let us pick ourselves up, fight the special interests and the forces of self-interest in ourselves, and make the republic a truth again - or rather, given our history of slavery and segregation, let us make the republic a truth for the very first time.

Postscript: For a really interesting discussion of Barack Obama's Inauguration speech, I recommend the segment on bloggingheads tv by Joshua Cohen and Glenn Loury.


Charlie Marks said...

But then, as if to repudiate claims he's about to "spread the wealth around" he criticises Communism (a reference to China, possibly Cuba?) as being on the wrong side of history. He instructs us: no questioning markets as a means of allocation!

So, this republican legacy of popular sovereignty is not matched with an egalitarian ideal - although, in a market system, are we not equal as individuals in that we possess the same rights and freely enter into contracts?

Theoretically, he hasn't worked this one out, not explicitly. And unless push comes to shove with, on the one hand his corporate backers, and on the other, his grassroots supporters comprised of youth, minorities, trade unions - he's not likely to articulate either this brutal defence of capitalist rule or spell out an actual Fabian vision, by which I mean, a gradual transition to a socialist republic.

Stuart White said...

Charlie, if Obama meant to condemn China or Cuba in the 'wrong side of history' segment of his speech, then that was surely for reasons to do with their lack of political democracy, not their suppression of markets. 9Moreover, it hardly seems right to imply that China suppresses the market...)

Yes, he did say that the market is essential - while also emphasizing its limits. The republican tradition is neither simply 'against the market' nor tolerant of the inequality generated by markets. It sees markets as useful power-dispersing tools, but sees also a big role for the democratic state in maintaining an egalitarian distribution of property rights, e.g., through inheritance and wealth taxes, universal capital grants, social funds, etc. What Obama said was perfectly consistent with this - though I am not saying he will enact any of these specific proposals.

Charlie Marks said...

China still has a third of its economy under state control, has recently abolished preferential tax rates for foreign investors, and has made US companies that don't allow unions permit their Chinese workers to unionise. Not great news for the US capitalist class, is it?

I'd argue that's who his comments on the market were aimed at. That small number of Americans that live in Richistan - the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets, not the ordinary American citizen - were being told, "it's okay, really, I'm not a socialist."