THE BLOG

The State of The Union: The People vs. The Public

03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Benjamin R. Barber Democratic Theorist; Author, 'If Mayors Ruled the World' (Yale University Press); Founder, Global Parliament of Mayors

Staring into the swarm of politicians attending his State of the Union, President Obama seemed to be channeling Scott Brown, warning that for decades: "Washington has been telling us to wait." Although he'd been in Washington for a year, he was "us" again, as he had been during the campaign (as every President since Carter has been during their campaigns!) Back in campaign mode where he feels comfortable, again running against Washington, he was excoriating the business as usual partisanship of Congress and the insularity of Washington that were angering the American people. He even announced he was heading out of Washington to Tampa for a speech, clearly intending to put as much distance between himself and the Capital as he can in the coming weeks.

The President's distancing from Washington started last week when, shook up, he identified with Scott Brown's unexpected victory in Massachusetts. Speaking as he often does more like a political science professor studying the Presidency than like the President, Obama insisted "the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office." He went on to cite that anger and resentment in the State of the Union, admitting he himself bore some "blame" for inadequate communication. In making the people's fury at Washington his own cause, he hit the nail on the head, and then drove it into the walls of Congress -- without however recognizing the daunting significance of what he was saying.

Scott Brown was elected against all odds not just because of health care, and not simply because Martha Coakley ran a complacent and foolish campaign, but because the American public has for thirty years been voting with vigor and virulence against... the American public. The public calls it "Washington" or "politics as usual" or "government" but the target is the Republic -- the public's democratic right to control its own destiny through public institutions and the "people's representatives" the people elect. The real struggle today is the struggle of the people against the public.

Pundits predicted Coakley's election would undo the majority's capacity to rule, but as the President pointed out last night, this is absurd. The Democrats still have a remarkable 18 vote majority in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House and they continue to occupy the White House even though its occupant may prefer to be elsewhere, out among "us." The problem is not with messy democratic politics but with the prevailing ideology of anti-politics that makes "Washington" a swear word and decouples "us" from "we" -- decouples the government "we" elect from the "us" that stands over and against Washington.

Fear of central government and distrust of political power go all the way back to the Founding. The American majority has never trusted the American majority. But it's gotten much worst recently. Ever since Jimmy Carter ran against Washington and Ronald Reagan proclaimed that government was the problem rather than the solution, Americans have perversely seen themselves as their own worst enemy. Anti-political ideology is everywhere -- in California's current financial plight, which goes back to Proposition 13 when the democratic referendum was used to enact a prohibition on the payment of taxes; in our bias against politicians, as if they float down from Mars rather than being our chosen delegates; and even in term limits, another sign of self-doubt where, like addicts, we hide the bottle of electoral alcohol from ourselves.

For a time in the 1980's, distrust of democracy seemed like a Republican prejudice, but the late 80's Democratic Leadership Council, presided over by Bill Clinton before he became President, made its peace with big business , and by 1994, President Clinton was echoing Ronald Reagan, announcing that the "era of big government is over." He then dismantled welfare and deregulated new media -- the new digital "public airwaves" that were once thought to belong to the public.

The new bi-partisan consensus agrees public is private and citizens just consumers. Those public airwaves? Let BIll Gates and Jeff Zucker run them. National security? We have DynCorps and Xe Services (aka Blackwater). Public option? The insurance companies can take care of it. Public goods? That's what markets are for.

The Supreme Court has just anointed the market's civic legitimacy by removing all limits on private corporate money spent on public elections. The aim of the First Amendment was to secure equality via multivocality. The Court's decision does precisely the opposite, privileging the powerful and skewing free expression. This decision is not however an aberration but a perfect expression of the people's current conviction that unleashing private money is itself a public good -- which is why Justice Alito was shaking his head in disbelief when the President criticized the decision in front of Congress. They may rag at banks, but the reality is that most Americans today fear their own public institutions far more than they fear private corporations deploying bottomless treasuries in the name of special interests, something Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell captured in his response to Obama when he said we have to "restore the proper, limited role of government at every level."

The conventional wisdom calls the rage of the American public against the Republican Party last year and the Democrats in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts this year "populism," and pundits are asking today whether the President is trying to restore his own "populist" credentials. But when a democratic people rages against its chosen representatives and runs political campaigns against itself, when politicians who spend years in D.C. and define what "Washington" is then vilify it at every turn, it suggests not populism but democratic self-betrayal. It's not just that government serves us and protects us: it is us; which makes the antagonism to government a kind of civic self-loathing. When we vote against incumbents , we are really voting against ourselves incarnated as politicians, against what we did as citizens last time around.

If President Obama (or Senator Brown for that matter) hopes for a second term, he will have to persuade the public that the public interest is worth fighting for and that voting for and then throwing out the politicians they elect is not the meaning of citizenship. He will have to close the great divide he has helped create between Washington and us. Because both the President and the junior Senator from Massachusetts are now part of the establishment they ran against, and have joined the company of Washington insiders. In this era of the public versus the republic, unless they challenge the insidious politics of anti-politics with its virulent populism of self-betrayal, they are themselves likely in 2010 to become the public's newest public enemies.