Dueling editorials today from Paul Krugman and David Brooks, both riffing off Mr. Obama’s Tucson speech. They agree that his speech was superb. They inhabit different universes – proving Mr. Krugman’s argument – when it comes to defining what should follow those inspirational words.
[W]e are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.
Mr. Brooks begins with a moment of reality, then retreats into an overtly Christian explanation of our woes:
Speeches about civility will be taken to heart most by those people whose good character renders them unnecessary. Meanwhile, those who are inclined to intellectual thuggery and partisan one-sidedness will temporarily resolve to do better but then slip back to old habits the next time their pride feels threatened.
Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.
Mr. Krugman gets down to brass tacks:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
Instead of addressing that reality, Mr. Brooks, like a medieval bishop or a Second World War papal nuncio, has a philosophical debate with himself. He ends with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr to the effect that “we” will never achieve the change we desire in our lifetime, which means that only hope and love will save us.
Notwithstanding his explicit invocation of Christian themes (notably excluding social justice), Mr. Brooks’ argument has the effect of digging his patrons an escape route instead of setting out expectations that we hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for achieving.
Bobo’s bottom line could have come from a 1960′s Nixon speech. While appearing to be bipartisan, he invokes longstanding conservative angst about hippies, feminism, social equality and social change :
[P]eople have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. …So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth….Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents.
Brooks’ explanation is that we’ve forgotten how to be modest. His proffered fix is that Congress pick a bipartisan project like comprehensive tax reform to get both sides talking to each other in a civil manner. Little wonder that the title for his piece was, “Tree of Failure”.
Mr. Krugman offers a pointed reminder for all our leaders that it is their moral and political responsibility, not a legal requirement, that they avoid violence and violent language. And he offers a special reminder for the guy to whom the Attorney General reports:
We need to have leaders of both parties — or Mr. Obama alone if necessary — declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds. We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.