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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

"Obama’s Missing Moral Narrative"

I think this makes a good point:

Obama’s missing moral narrative and the intimidating right-wing message machine, by George Lakoff, Berkeley Blog: Barack Obama may be one of the best communicators of this generation, but he is not living up to his own talents. ...
Crises are opportunities. He has consistently missed them. This was a grand opportunity to pull together the threads — BP and the spill, Massey and the mine disaster, Wall Street and the economic disaster, Anthem BlueCross and health care, the Arizona Immigration Law, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — even Afghanistan. ...
It’s not that he said nothing to tie them together. But there was no home run, no unifying narrative, no patriotic call to the nation on the full gamut of issues. Instead, there were only hints, suggestions, possible implications, notes of concern — as if he had been intimidated by the right-wing message machine.
And yet, Obama of all political leaders, could have done it, because he did before in his campaign.

I fully agree that Obama has not tied this all together into a master narrative. However, the next part of the essay I'm less sure about (there's quite a bit more in the original):

The central idea is Empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on people caring about one another and acting to the very best of their ability on that care, for their families, their communities, their nation, and the world. Government must also care and act on that care. Government’s job is to protect and empower its citizens.
That idea is what draws together all the threads. The bottom line for corporations (whether BP, Massey, Anthem or Goldman Sachs) is money, not empathy. The bottom line for those who hate (whether homophobes, the Arizona Legislature, or al Qaeda) is domination and oppression, not empathy.
Empathy, and acting on it effectively, is the main business of government. And Obama knows it in his heart.
Yet the right-wing has intimidated Obama into dropping not just the word “empathy,” but the idea. Empathy is a positive deep connection with other people in general and with all living things, the ability to see and feel as they do. The right-wing, which shows little empathy, has confused empathy with sympathy for individuals, which they see as a weakness. And though Obama has repeatedly made the distinction clear, he has allowed the right wing to intimidate him into abandoning “the most important thing my mother taught me.” ...
That should have — and could have — been [a] central narrative drawing all the threads together. ... But .. it ... would be confrontational. It would bring him head-to-head with right-wing ideology — empathy-free, self-interest maximizing, with disdain or even hatred for those seen as lesser beings. It is self-reinforcing: a value-system that above all promotes that value-system itself.
Because that ideology takes precedence over empathy, there will be little or any real bipartisanship with those on the hard-core right. The right is provoking confrontation. It cannot be avoided. The president should be confronting the right-wing on all issues — not issue-by-issue as a policy wonk, but with the master moral narrative that makes sense of our country’s values. ...
A great deal follows from a unified moral stance. Empathy and the discipline to act effectively on it, when seen as the basis of democracy and American values, can be powerful. It can unify the major policies of the administration, and unify people of good will — and that is a majority of our citizens. But only if the president communicates the central nature of empathy effectively, and acts on it consistently.

Empathy (e.g. social insurance) would be part of the master narrative I'd tell, for example people who suddenly find themselves jobless through no fault of their own deserve our collective support. But my narrative would also involve economic and political power, the need for government to provide countervailing forces, e.g. antitrust law, campaign finance rules, the decline of unions and the corresponding decline in influence of the working class, and the failure of government to provide countervailing influences in recent decades. That's understandable, it's not in the economic interests of politicians to reform campaign finance, to use antitrust law to break up the source of campaign funds, or to pass new laws to break up big banks, another source of campaign contributions.

But it is in the public's interest, and that's what they were elected to represent. Of course, legislators were never pure in their motives, self-interest always played a role, but it seems to me that the shift toward what's best for individual legislators and away from the public interest has widened in recent decades. Perhaps this is based upon a convenient belief in the metaphor of the invisible hand, that somehow pursuing their own self-interest results in what's best for the public generally even though it's evident that's not the case, But whatever the reason, there does seem to be a shift in emphasis toward the self-interest of individual members of congress and away from the public interest. Perhaps this also explains the lack of concern for the unemployed that we've seen recently in Washington. Without unions to fill campaign coffers, and without a strong sense of any obligation to the unemployed more generally (without empathy?), why should legislators care?

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 02:34 PM in Economics, Social Insurance | Permalink  Comments (68)


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