The inauguration of illiberal liberalism
President Obama’s inaugural speech confirmed that he plans to keep waging an elite Culture War against ‘backward’ values.
Speeches at presidential inaugurations are rarely memorable, as they are usually couched in anodyne terms about national unity. That’s why few were prepared for President Barack Obama’s remarks at his second inauguration on Monday. Obama spoke in direct and partisan terms, sounding like he was still on the election campaign trail. Many commentators were surprised how assertive and unapologetic Obama was in putting his stamp on what modern liberalism means today.
His speech reminded me of the Democratic Party’s National Convention last September, when speaker after speaker brought up social issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion, while very little was said about policy matters like the economy. Values, they emphasised, were what truly distinguished their party from the Republicans. At the time I recall watching David Brooks, the New York Times’ opinion writer, on TV, arguing that the Democrats’ turn to social issues (with the continual use of phrases such as ‘a party that looks like America’, and supporting people no matter ‘who they love’) was an attempt to appeal to activists within the Charlotte, North Carolina arena. If used beyond Charlotte, argued Brooks, such rally-the-base speeches would turn off the broader electorate.
As it happened, in the campaign following their convention, President Obama and the Democrats relied heavily on social issues. The Culture War was once considered a Republican idea; now the Democrats were turning the tables and going on the offensive with their own Culture War. Indeed, these issues put Mitt Romney and the Republicans on the defensive, and were key to the Democrats’ victory in November.
Many then assumed that, game over, the Culture War might die down. These issues were just tactically deployed to help the Democrats forge an electoral coalition of minorities and women, and were thus no longer needed.
However, President Obama’s second inaugural speech shows that he does not view the Culture War as a temporary tactic. These social issues were not only an important tool for helping him get re-elected; they are now central to his party’s governing philosophy. It seems the Culture War will be a permanent feature of his second term.
Obama began his speech by stating that American exceptionalism is rooted in the idea that ‘all men are created equal’, found in the Declaration of Independence. Seeking to ‘bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time’, Obama then, in the heart of his speech, cited the issues that he believes America needs to address:
‘For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.’
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Obama posed all of these issues as ones of equality. Most liberals don’t see that Obama, Democrats and the media are waging a Culture War. They see the issues in their own terms. And posed in the abstract terms of equality, who could disagree? However there is a political agenda that is being dragged in under the cloak of ‘equality’. Although not mentioning them by name, Obama’s list includes two of the key issues that animate the Culture Wars today – same-sex marriage and gun control - and that Democrats are using to go on the political offensive.
Gay equality before the law is essential. Although Obama doesn’t mention gay marriage, everyone knows his line ‘the love we commit to one another must be equal as well’ is about that. The real question in that debate is not gay equality itself, it is whether full equality requires overturning traditional marriage. But what Obama and others do is crudely argue that anyone who is opposed to gay marriage is, by default, against gay equality. That approach shuts down real debate and writes off a large group of people (perhaps half the country) who are neither anti-gay nor supportive of same-sex marriage (and when Obama criticised those who ‘treat name-calling as reasoned debate’, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking of the New York Times editorial board, for calling those who vote against gay marriage ‘bigots’).
The other issue Obama included in his list is gun control, when he talked about keeping kids safe in Newtown and elsewhere. Gun control, of course, has nothing to do with civil rights, and has no business being lumped in with equal pay, voter rights and immigration rights. It is interesting that he sneaks in gun control in a roll-call on equal rights, given that he actually wishes to limit rights – Second Amendment rights. As is becoming more evident, Obama and his fellow Democrats do not view issues such as gay marriage and gun control merely as ones they can use to their immediate political advantage against Republicans – they now use them to try to press their moral authority over society by defining which views are acceptable for open debate.
There was plenty more in the speech for self-styled progressives to love, including criticisms of inequality, calls to defend social insurance programmes (Social Security and Medicare), and a long passage on climate change (‘We will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared’ – who knew that both God and the Founding Fathers were environmentalists?)
But for all of his confidence and assertiveness, the content of Obama’s message was ultimately empty. As Brendan O’Neill has noted there is a theatrical quality to the Culture Wars. Sure, Obama recently announced measures to control guns, but even he admits they are unlikely to be fully effective, perhaps saving just one life (has any other prior policy been justified on the grounds of saving one life?). Rather than conducting a serious debate that attempts to grapple with the complex roots of mass shootings, we get rushed-in measures that amount to a series gestures. Perhaps most worryingly for democracy, Obama – so secure in the rightness of his opinion – has announced that he will use executive orders to get around congress (an act of an ‘imperial presidency’ that the left would have crucified George W Bush for, but are happy to support Obama on).
But in a sense, all of the political maneouvering over guns isn’t the point, because the whole gun control debate is really an exercise in demonstrating liberal superiority over wacky, paranoid men in rural America who love their guns (which is a caricature used, once again, to write off huge swathes of the law-abiding and uneccentric population).
The Culture War is also empty because it does not deal with the realities of the world. It’s remarkable that Obama said nothing of substance about the economy or the country’s mounting debt. We’re in the midst of the weakest postwar recovery, with unemployment as high as when Obama gave his first inaugural speech, but you’d never know from his address yesterday. Nor would his two paragraphs on foreign affairs give you an idea of what America’s strategy is to deal with Syria or al-Qaeda in Mali and Algeria, or any other hotspots in the world.
In his inaugural speech, Obama emphatically made clear that he intends to push a modern liberal agenda in his second term. Perhaps we can now dispense with the longstanding fiction that Democrats are a beleaguered minority up against a powerful conservative elite. The Democrats are another wing of that elite, the one currently ascendant, and their version of liberalism constitutes the conventional wisdom of our era.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.