On Sunday, President Obama delivered the commencement address at Ohio State University. He once again gave voice to the essential element of his philosophy of government:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.
As Jonathan Tobin notes over at Commentary, Obama deploys the usual goon squad of strawmen here, with a false choice or two thrown in for good measure.
Tobin offers some valuable criticisms, but I want to add a few more.
First there’s Obama’s incredibly narrow vision of what constitutes civil society and self-government. Once again, Obama’s vision of America is one with only two meaningful institutions: The individual and the government. It’s the same formulation he made in his horrendous second inaugural:
No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.
As Yuval Levin noted at the time:
The individual acting alone or the entire nation acting through its government, those are the only options we have. The space between the individual and the state is understood to be empty at best, and at worst to be filled with dreadful vestiges of intolerance and backwardness that must be cleared out to enable the pursuit of justice.
Self-government is not captured simply by working through the federal bureaucracy in Washington. It starts, to borrow a line from “America the Beautiful,” with the need to confirm thy soul with self-control. It builds from there, through local communities, businesses, congregations, associations etc.
But Obama constantly collapses all levels of civil society and all appeals to community in order to equate them with support for federal initiatives in Washington. Either you’re with the administrative state or you’re on your own. As he said in his push for gun control “government is us.”
He’s not alone in this. Hillary Clinton defined civil society in It Takes a Village as just a “term social scientists use to describe the way we all work together for common purposes.” At the democratic convention last summer her husband took a similar tack.“The most important question is, ‘What kind of country do you want to live in?’ If you want a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility – a we’re-all-in-this-together society – you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
I write about this at some length in the new afterword to Tyranny of Clichés. And speaking of that, there’s the second problem with Obama’s commencement address: His contempt for the inbred American fear of tyranny. I like America’s instinctual fear of tyranny. It is single best bulwark against, you know, tyranny. It’s a bipartisan tendency by the way. Conservatives tend to fret most over government exceeding its Constitutional authority to encroach on civil society. The left tends to fret over excesses in the government’s constitutional obligation to protect our citizens from crime and foreign threats. Libertarians have an abundance of both concerns. Not surprisingly, I tend to find the left’s excesses more annoying than the right’s (“Oh no, the state is trying too hard to fight our enemies!”) but both instincts are healthy and shared to one extent or another by all Americans. It is the fundamental dogma of Americanness and I for one would hate to see it erode further.
Edmund Burke noticed this tendency in Americans even before we were, strictly speaking, Americans. From The Tyranny of Clichés: