Thursday, October 28, 2010

Jon Stewart, President Obama and the vote of confidence

I had the opportunity to watch President Barack Obama on The Daily Show this evening (the video should be available within the next day or so on the Comedy Central or Daily Show websites). But something Obama said, almost in passing, struck me - I was, in a word, humbled.

He said that, during this upcoming midterm, voters needed to look ahead not to the next election, but to the next generation.

This point is obvious, but how many of us actually consider it? In a culture where immediate gratification is everything, where it seems few people have the patience to work out the biggest issues that have faced our country since the Great Depression (and thus are quick to back out of supporting any particular cause), have we forgotten that it's not just about us, not just about right now? I voted for Obama, and I continue to support him and his administration because I believe in what he says and what he does, but I know that these things take time. Reasonable people understand that these things take time. And yet, two years after Obama's election, some Democrats are scrambling to disassociate themselves with his campaign. Why? They're catering to that immediate gratification. They're bowing to the whim of the fickle general public (if you don't believe me that the public is fickle, consider parachute pants) because they sense frustration with the tempo of those changes the campaign promised, instead of standing up and saying "it will happen, but it will take time."
Jon Stewart asked President Obama (I paraphrase), "if you could go back to your campaign, would you still say what you did, would you still say 'Yes We Can,' or would you be more pragmatic, knowing how difficult this has been?"
Obama replied, "I would say 'Yes We Can,' but it won't happen overnight."

I want to start a discussion. Is it possible that the fickleness of the voting public of recent years, the way the political parties seem to bounce back and forth in power, is being exacerbated by the nature of our 'culture of immediate gratification'? Because we expect results and expect them right now, are we unconsciously setting the standards we expect of our elected officials too high (in terms of achieving goals and campaign promises)? Or are we just as we always were, only now able to hear about it faster? Are we more selfish now (because the focus is on "now" and not "later"), such that we can only see the next election, and not the next generation?


  1. Let me suggest that the problem is not long-term or short term, but a more basic ignorance of the issues involved.

    1. Climate change. Insofar as climate change denial is ascendent, the long term issue is off the table. Ignorance, or at least denial, is bliss.

    2. Debt. As long as voters fail to understand the nature of the federal debt (which can more accurately called public savings), Republicans can make the case that we are selling our children's future down the river for our present (government) consumption. But in fact, this is completely false. The money issued as debt is already in the monetary system, as savings by all who own bonds. They can always sell their bonds and convert them to cash to spend when they wish. There is no solvency risk or reluctance by the government to honor bonds. So the macroeconomic effect of the federal debt is identical to having issued the same amount of cash, which these savers have put into their mattresses. We never have to "pay it back".

    So the problem is intellectual, not moral. At least mostly. There is the issue of plain bigotry against a president that a fair swath of America subconsciously view as "other" and "alien". But on the whole, the right plays on long-term fears (social security solvency, debt, cultural loss and change) as much as the left. The difference is how (or whether) those fears are intellectually supported.

  2. Burk, good to hear from you. I absolutely agree that there is a problem of public ignorance (and that's not just the PhD in me talking).
    What I fear is that there is a 'moral' or psychological undercurrent that makes this ignorance truly dangerous. Because we're instant gratification, because we're on the move and immediate access and talking points, we're "too busy" to concern ourselves with solving that problem - in other words, there becomes an aversion to making ourselves less ignorant, or else we trick ourselves into believing that the "teach the controversy"-style slogans we hear on TV are enough information to displace our ignorance.

  3. Hi, Kelley-

    Yes, I agree with that too. Democracies through history have been fragile, open to demagoguery and other forms of corruption, especially by the rich. We have staked ours on an educated citizenry, and how is that going? Not entirely well, to judge by the bilge flowing out from fox news.

    In part it goes back to the temperamental segment of the population that hungers for authority, stability, hierarchy, and certainty and denigrates educated criticism and egalitarianism.

    But another thread is the long-term Republican economic program that has gradually disempowered the working and middle classes by destruction of unions, casualisation of labor, reduced public goods, rising insecurity and rising inequality, all leading to the lack of time, attention, and civic involvement you point to (as well as the financial crises and banking frauds we now are saddled with).

    One would think there would be revolt right about now, just not by the right!

  4. It's strange to me how the zeitgeist of a nation can change so drastically, even when based upon the same fundamental belief. Consider the founding of the United States - we believed in freedom from tyranny, for which we banded together and were willing to fight. These days, we believe in freedom still, but we're not entirely certain freedom from what. Our government isn't tyrannical, but since our concept of "freedom" has grown so nebulous, we now fight each other for whatever we think freedom is. Starting from that concept of freedom, we've flipped from togetherness and equality to polarization and selfishness. (I know it's a broad generalization, but it seems reasonably true.)

  5. Yes, unfortunately, it is just the nature of large societies and the human condition that we are not free in fact, tethered as we are to home, institutions, state, etc. and so on. So the myth/ideal of freedom is somewhat damaging if taken in a naive and literal-minded way, providing a noble-sounding hook on which to hang any kind of grievance a person many feel oppressed by.

    Large societies also create complexity, which especially in economic affairs leads to grievous ignorance and corruption. Here are some extra notes on banking.

    Some people are still pining for the gold standard, after all. It is mind-boggling.

  6. I'm sure there must be some general psychological trend imparted by a society in which all things are expected quickly, but its certainly not obvious how much of this propagates directly.

    Perhaps the problem of expecting things to happen quickly is also exacerbated by the huge amount of information we have at our disposal. At one time, 50 years perhaps seemed much longer (in a retrospective manner), than it seems today. For example, television, film and radio bring a reality and awareness of the past which otherwise would seem much more remote. Consequently, the public is able to observe social change (which typically occurs quite slowly, with a timescale of generations) effectively replayed at higher speed. Perhaps this yields an attitude of expectation of faster change than has ever been typical before.

  7. A friend of mine made the point that it appears people take significant issue with the way the government affects them personally. For example, pensioners argue against changes to Social Security, construction workers are concerned with money spent on infrastructure, teachers on education funding.
    I think, for all the abstraction that human minds are capable of, we still must start on the most personal level. That in itself isn't the issue, but if we are unable or unwilling to extend that personal need to a public need, then we're ultimately hurting ourselves.

  8. I've been chewing over this since the original post went up...and probably much longer, actually. Kelly made a point in response to me that "[personal focus] in itself isn't the issue, but if we are unable or unwilling to extend that personal need to a public need, then we're ultimately hurting ourselves." (Yes, that was me commenting that we're a bunch of selfish Americans.) And I think that there's a key point in there - the extension beyond ourselves. The capability to expand the focus. I think human nature has a whole array of traits that, if responded to and encouraged in their most infantile form, are very negative, but if carefully nurtured and stretched, can become something very positive. And I think our government has a tendency to do the first. It's a sort of instant gratification thing in itself. The desire for instant gratification could be very beneficial if it gives us extra motivation to pursue what we want - and to work together, to stretch beyond ourselves, to get it. But politicians get a sort of instant gratification response back - an immediate popularity boost - when they provide instant gratification to their constituents. It seems it's a vicious cycle. Because another consequence of that is we demand more and more immediate results; politicians have to fulfill more and more to keep us on their side. Satisfaction from instant gratification is never as great and enduring. And then we're also more likely to "jump ship" - to change loyalties to whoever we think will give us instant gratification on any given day.

    I consider myself very moderate politically, but I'd like to throw out an argument for why small government is better than big government. I give the "I'm moderate" caveat in hopes that people might be more willing to consider instead of immediately shutting down in response to anything remotely "Republican." It seems that's the way political news goes lately - Republicans refuse to consider anything remotely "Democratic" and vice versa. And our president - who I very much like - is caught in the middle.

    Sorry. Tangent. It's a big frustration of mine lately. To the argument. I think the danger big government creates is that we begin to expect the government to solve all of our problems. We don't try to take care of anything ourselves. I'm going to draw a parallel to parents and children. Nearly every parenting resource I have (yes, I am a parent) recommends that we intentionally NOT solve all of our children's problems for them; that as much as possible, we stay out of issues and try to let our children resolve them. If they're fighting, we should let them work out the arguments themselves. If they're struggling with something that's a little too hard for them (tying shoes, doing a puzzle, whatever) we need to let them try, to work on it themselves, or they'll never learn. And of course, they need to learn. The only time we're supposed to step in is if they're in immediate danger. If a fight is about to turn into severe physical harm, step in.

    I expect some people will bristle at the parallel between themselves as children and the government as parents, but I think it's a pretty accurate comparison. And I think when we begin to expect the government to solve all of our problems, we are regressing toward childish mentality. Isn't the entire mantra of "grow up," "be an adult" based on responsibility?

    I am not saying that government has no role in our lives. Children need parents. Obviously, there are some things that parents need to take care of. And there are some things the government should be responsible for. But I think we are in danger of expecting that they should take care of everything.


  9. Hi, Meghan-

    This is very finely argued, but I have to ask.. can you solve inflation? Can you solve unemployment? Can you solve market failures on wall street and in health care? The government exists to solve problems that are communal by nature. No one individually can solve climate change, if the laissez-faire market drives us in the opposite direction.

    Is government big? We are big. We are 300 million people, for heaven's sake, and many of our communal issues require wisdom and collective action. Were our founders shy about big government? They saw the consequences of little government in the Articles of Confederation- a complete disaster.

    So, I would like to suggest that we elect our best people to take their best shot at solving our collective problems, not run away from them. And letting the "children" learn their own lessons through, say, extended unemployment, seems a rather callous approach, especially when that unemployment was caused by the top end of town engaging in fraud. In short, the analogy is somewhat flawed, and it would be helpful if you fleshed out your proposal with some more specifics.

  10. Obviously, these things have to be taken in moderation (any metaphor can only go so far). One can't legitimately count "continued unemployment" as a minor issue that the "children" have to work out themselves, but something like which governmental department is in charge of maintaining informational road signs is something that the "children" can solve on their own.
    I find the big government vs small government argument interesting. What we want is a balance, but where is the optimum? While a socialist government is good inasmuch as it approaches egalitarianism, if we don't constrain it somehow we end up with The System, in which no individual visionary can affect change. Conversely, we want to limit power enough that we don't end up with a dictatorial or despotic government. It seems to me that the Founding Fathers struck a reasonable compromise, but that the current trends (polarization of the electorate) force these two extremes even farther from one another. But balance is the key, and is always the key. We have to find the proper balance between solving our own problems, and banding together to solve the larger ones.
    To bring this back to the original topic, Meghan's metaphor is apt - when you bite your tongue and let your kids work out their smaller issues themselves, you're preparing them for their long-term futures. When we vote for health-care policy reform, we're (hopefully) looking toward how the system will serve not only ourselves, but our children and grandchildren. But in politics as in parenting, we see a lot of immaturity, and in both cases the solution can come about through the correct mindset.

  11. (Let me begin with a caveat that I have only intimate knowledge of the British political system, and claim gargantuan ignorance of the US system.)

    It seems to me that the argument is liable to become clouded if the greater specificity is not insisted upon. The terms "big government" and "small government" do not explicitly define the specific scope of responsibility that the government undertakes, and it seems that this is the cause of the questioning Burk proposed following Meghan's post. To my mind (and my point is, many different interpretations are possible), "big government" implies a bloated civil service, which dictates the structure and complexity of bureaucratic mechanisms, but implies very little about the issues that the said government (ie the elected members of the Congress and the Senate) set out to address. Britain has been plagued in recent years by this "big government" issue, where the unelected component of the government (the civil service) has bogged down both political and public life. This is the kind of government that dictates the acceptable curvature of cucumbers, and imposes the units in which retail items can be sold (heaven forbid one can buy a pint of milk!). In this sense, I believe "big government" is a terrible thing.

    An alternative definition of "big government" is the societal scope which the government adopts, such as state involvement in health care, retirement, unemployment benefits, public transport, environmental preservation etc. In the sense of these issues, which are too vast for any individual (or local organisation) to deal with effectively, "big government" is crucial.

  12. I hate to interrupt such a civil, intelligent discussion with a snarky article like this, but I think this guy has a point about why (especially young) Democrats are so impatient for results and why they couldn't be bothered to vote in a midterm election.

  13. See what happens when you wallow in hollow disappointment, trudging all over your liberal arts campus and refusing to vote in a rather important mid-term election, all because your pet issues and nubile ego weren't immediately serviced by a mesmerizing guy named Barack Obama just after he sucked you into his web of fuzzyhappy promises a mere two years ago, back when you were knee-high to a shiny liberal ideology?
    Fantastic! This is a totally valid point, and one that Obama made during his interview (before the election) - that those of us who believed in him and the Democratic party message before need to continue to support it (one vote isn't enough, essentially).

  14. I'm a bit rushed today, but as all of you responded so quickly, I at least wanted to say something.

    In the arguments about "big government," I've realized I made the mistake of unconsciously assuming that everyone has the same frame of reference I do. I'm so used to hearing "big government" in media with the implication that it's the government that gets involved in everything, much along the lines of what "Evil Dr Pain" described. Meddling seems an apt word. That argument that I proposed had only been swimming around in my brain for a few days, so I don't have it completely fleshed out. And I very rarely believe in absolutes or extremes. Meaning, I don't think that small government is absolutely better and that everything should have minimal government involvement. It's what Kelly said - there is a middle ground, an ideal balance, between "big government" and "small government." What had come to light in my head a few days ago was what I see as a danger when we start to tilt toward the "big government" side.

    Can I, as an individual, solve anything? Any social problem that involves more than a handful of people will require more than just me. But I think there's a danger in saying that the problem is bigger than me so it's the government's job to solve it. It's the same danger in saying my one vote won't change the outcome, so why vote?

    Burk said "communal issues require wisdom and collective action," and I agree! But wisdom and collective action aren't the exclusive property of the government. What I see as cause for concern is when we begin to view the government as the solution, as the problem solver, for *everything,* we cease to believe in our own wisdom and collective action.

    Furthermore - and I think this is a point Dr Pain was making - the more the government is trying to fix, the more thinly it is spread, and the less time it has to focus on the really big issues where it could be most beneficial. It ends up wasting its resources and getting bogged down.

    I would propose that we think carefully about where we want our government to focus its time and resources, and simply be mindful that we're not adopting a helpless attitude that we're not capable of anything.

    I read recently that one small part of the health bill requires small businesses to have a private room where new mothers can pump breast milk. It's things like this that should cause us to pause. Of course it's a good thing for new mothers to have a resource like that, so it's not a bad idea. But should the federal government have to pass a law so that every small business "supports" mothers?

    There's also discussion about whether it should be against the law for a parent to smoke in the presence of his child(ren). This walks the same tricky line as other smoking bans. I can't solve the problem of children being subjected to secondhand smoke. But does that immediately mean the government should be solving it by making it against the law? Or is this an instance where it might be much more effective if people felt empowered to take action in their communities, through education and resources and maybe even by offering "smoke break" babysitting?

    I don't think we'll ever all agree on exactly what the government should and shouldn't be involved in. But I think it's legitimate to expect that we consider how effective government involvement is *and* what we can still do, whether it be alongside or outside of government.

  15. Well said! I think it's promising to see people discussing these things, but it's not enough... we need to make our voices heard, to act, so that the future can be better than the past.


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