Have you ever criticized someone for being a certain way, only to reflect on it later and realize that you’re often guilty of the same thing?
I’ve recently engaged in some political introspection that I think might be worth sharing. I’ve found that what bothers me most about Barack Obama’s leadership style is something I do myself, and much of what frustrates me about the Tea Party is something I’m just as guilty of. I’ll explain what I have in common with these groups, but then defend myself by explaining how in my case, it’s different.
Is your hypocrisy-detector functioning? Then here we go…
Obama and Me
From the very beginning, Barack Obama presented himself as a unifying figure. In giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he catapulted himself to national fame with these words:
Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
His desire to rise above petty partisanship and bring the country together was one of the most admirable qualities he had as a presidential candidate, and it’s undoubtedly what drew a lot of right-leaning independents to vote for him in 2008.
The problem is that he actually tried to put this philosophy to practice when he became president, and not only has it failed miserably but it’s resulted in legislation being weakened to the point of impotence. In the name of “changing the tone in Washington”, Obama began his presidency by weakening the stimulus bill and loading it with tax-cuts in order to try and win a few republican votes that he didn’t get anyway. He tried to reach across the aisle on health care reform, and drove his presidency into a ditch by abandoning the public option. He managed to get Lieberman and a few other corporatist Democrats on board, but not a single republican, and average conservatives are still convinced that the bill is the End of America as we know it.
But as much as I want to scream, “No! Don’t compromise! Fight! Fight them with everything you’ve got!” I have to acknowledge that I too have a natural inclination to seek out the middle. When I debate someone, I’m not so much trying to win an argument as I’m trying to explain my position to the other side, to better understand theirs, and hopefully to find common ground. In fact I’ve taken some criticism from Team Left simply for suggesting that we try to reach out to conservatives and work together against the common enemy of corporate influence in government.
So how can I justifiably condemn Obama for a personality trait that I share with him?
The difference: I’m not the President of the United States. When I debate someone, there’s nothing at stake but our own points of view. The strength of the economy is not on the line. No lives depend on the outcome.
And more importantly, I’m usually not arguing with people whose primary goal is to destroy me. I’m all in favor of negotiation and compromise, but not if the other side isn’t acting in good faith. The republicans who signaled that that they might vote for a bill if Obama was willing to give up this or that were never interested in making the bill better—they only wanted to make it worse so that it would be easier to kill, and easier to campaign against if it passed. In some situations, compromise is the last thing you should do.
Which brings me to…
The Tea Party and Me
I am significantly to the left of the establishment Democratic Party, just as the Tea Party is significantly to the right of the establishment Republican Party. Just as I want democrats to be more liberal, the Tea Party wants republicans to be more conservative.
I hate this about the Tea Party. They are pushing the Republican Party so far to the lunatic fringe that even Ronald Reagan wouldn’t pass their ideological purity tests. Many say they’re hurting their own cause, as far-right candidates like Sharron Angle stand a much worse chance of winning a general election than more moderate, mainstream republicans. But they care more about their ideals than the success of a political party.
And this is a trait I share with them. If it were up to me, the progressive movement in this country would go after Blue Dog Democrats and corporate shills like Blanche Lincoln with just as much ferocity as we go after republicans. The Democratic Party, because it is so full of moderates and centrists, never draws a line in the sand and sticks to it. Even when the progressive caucus in the House of Representatives announced that it wouldn’t vote for a health care reform bill without a public option, they all eventually caved. Had they stood their ground, the bill might have died but at least everyone would understand that health care still needed to be addressed and that if any president wanted to accomplish anything in that area, they’d have no choice but to include some form of a public option.
To be clear, I’m perfectly willing to compromise and negotiate for the sake of the greater good. And when all was said and done I did think that passing the health care bill in its current form was better than nothing (lives did hang in the balance, after all). But I think that certain things should not be compromised—the things that are most essential. The public option was the most important part of the health care bill because it was the seed that could have grown to completely change the system, and I would have raised much more hell about it before considering voting for a bill without it.
So how can I justifiably condemn the Tea Party for demanding too much ideological purity when I often do the same?
The difference: My opinions are based on facts and logic. I don’t want to paint the entire Tea Party with too broad of a brush, but it seems to me that most of them get all of their information from conservatives propaganda outlets like Fox News. They are duped into believing that what they are hearing is actual news, “fair and balanced” and that the information they get on TV is all the information they need.
I get most of my news from liberal sites like the Huffington Post, but there’s a fundamental difference between getting your news online and getting it from TV. Watching TV is a passive exercise. You just sit there and let the talking heads tell you what’s going on and what you should believe about it.
Conversely, getting your news online is a very active process. Not only do you select what stories to read, but you can follow the links within those stories to do your own research and fact-checking when you’re so inclined. Furthermore, you can comment on the stories, thus inviting anyone who disagrees with you to challenge your opinion. Even on sites like the Huffington Post, there is a strong conservative presence in the comment threads and you often have to defend your opinion—which in turn motivates you even more to have your facts straight.
So…am I a hypocrite? How many contradictions did you spot? I said I’m a lot like Obama in that we’re both inclined to reach out to our ideological opponents, but I’m also a lot like the Tea Party in that we want leaders who will fight hard for our own ideological principles. I justified my criticism of Obama because when I reach out there’s never anything at stake and my ideological opponents don’t have any ulterior motives, and I justified my criticism of the Tea Party because my ideological principles are rooted in facts.
I’ll now open up the floor to anyone who wants to challenge me, though I warn you that I might try to reach out and find common ground.