Barak Obama will “bring us together” – but why, exactly?
There is an important lesson to be learned from the word used in the British House of Commons to describe a vote: they call it a “division”. The House “divides”, in other words, when it is necessary to make a decision about something. When the vote is thought to be close, those voting in favor of a bill file to one side of the House lobby, while those in opposition file to the other side. This antique and somewhat cumbersome procedure visually illustrates an important point: governing is about choosing, choosing is about dividing, and dividing means some of us go one way and some of us go the other way. On the most serious issues, the numbers on both sides will often be roughly the same. That’s what democracy means.
This is not the only way to govern, of course. We could have one guy make all the decisions while the rest of us minded our own business. This would at least have the advantage of hiding our potential divisions: since we would have no reason to have an opinion, we would not be expected to express an opinion, which would mean fewer arguments at the dinner table, at cocktail parties, or in the streets.
We need to remember this during our own election season, because there has been a lot of loose talk lately about “overcoming divisiveness” and “coming together” and “bridging gaps”. The people who talk this way need to explain what they mean, if indeed they really know what they mean.
These thoughts are inspired more particularly by the presidential run of Senator Barak Obama, the momentum of whose campaign seems to be based entirely on the magic of overcoming our divisions: of race, gender, age, and class. But before we all get herded together into one big happy tent, it is entirely appropriate to ask: What is the purpose of this exercise? Why should we come together? Is it just so that we will be nicer to each other? Will there be some kind of mass epiphany? (“We are who we have been waiting for,” he recently said, making everything clear at last.) Or are we coming together for a reason that has some plausible connection to self-government?
Since governing is about choosing, here are some questions for Senator Obama, but more especially for his many supporters. Will taxes go up or down? Will we stay in Iraq, or leave? Will we spend more money or less money on our military? Will the army get bigger or will it get smaller? Will we or won’t we adopt the Kyoto strategy of mandatory caps on economic growth in order to combat climate change? Will we see more liberals or more conservatives on the federal bench? Will the Patriot Act be extended or repealed? Will we have socialized medicine or not? And so forth.
This list could obviously be much longer, but the point is clear: When it is necessary to choose, it is necessary to divide. There are only two ways to avoid this necessity. Either we can all agree (in which case the subject is likely to be something trivial); or we can pretend that there is nothing to divide about, that is, no choices to make. Senator Obama’s campaign is fully engaged, at least so far, with the latter alternative. The Senator’s standard stump speech talks about how “we are tired of fear” and “tired of divisiveness”. The response to being “tired of fear” will apparently be to pretend that there is nothing to be afraid of. And we will get beyond divisiveness by pretending that there are no choices to make, i.e., nothing to divide over. Nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to choose: Is this what they mean when they talk about The Dream living on?
For most of our history we have been blessed with a two-party system that made it inevitable that, when we divided, one side would have a majority, even if a small one, and could therefore govern. Instead of a campaign based on the fantasy of overcoming divisiveness, it would be good to learn what choices Senator Obama thinks we should make. He could use the practice. Just in case he gets elected and has to, you know, divide us.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here