After every State of the Union and rebuttal, operatives and journalists go on a noble mission to "fact-check" what's been said. As these convenient "facts" become easier for anyone to Tweet in reinforcement of their particular worldview, we Americans observing at home are asked to buy into the platform outlined by either side for another year. In a special year like this one, we even get to vote the liars out of office if they don't live up to their promises.
What happens, though, when thoughtful people acknowledge that this model of assessing the health of our nation and setting its agenda is crumbling apart? Furthermore, what would happen if instead of dissecting the disses and assertions, we stepped back beyond The Jobs Narrative we're being told is the most important thing at stake this Election Cycle and considered what is really going on in 2012?
Partisanship may be rampant, but the usefulness of political parties is so Old Media. Sluggish, massive institutions like political parties that want everyone to espouse exactly the same beliefs are not conducive to a world where small groups have the power to organize and raise funds on their own. Regardless of who was standing up or sitting down, or if Boehner was scratching his nose while Biden was clapping, Tuesday's presidential address to Congress still comes amidst a global dynamic in which Time magazine has just recently named "The Protestor" as Person of 2011. Establishment Washington and the media that hangs on its every tactic is producing a fine horse race for public consumption. However, as President Obama kicks back on the sidelines watching Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich grind it out in overtime, something bigger is still happening in America.
It's not 2008 nostalgia. It's not simply class warfare.
We are re-evaluating the American promise after a period of progress. Newt Gingrich said it best after winning the GOP primary in South Carolina last weekend. He said he was the candidate who could restore a nebulous term he called "Historic America." From a Republican framework, that means a country based in self-determination, social mobility, limited government and security. Democrats would be quick to point out that in this "Historic America," equal rights and access to opportunities were only bestowed upon land-owning white men, and that limited government doesn't tell citizens who they can marry, authorize bailouts for bankers or fuel the military industrial complex. They're both right.
I was living in DC for the midterm elections, and the biggest takeaway from the experience was that political types are more comfortable with polarization than acknowledging the truth in what an "opponent" says. Seeing the gray areas does not get your 501c3 funded, doesn't get click-throughs on your email alerts, doesn't get your spokesperson booked on cable news networks and doesn't get your candidate elected. It's surprising, though, how many of the political operatives are truly robust thinkers. Corner them at a cocktail party, and when they're not busy trying to get Mike Allen to mention them in Playbook they virtually all acknowledge the complexity of the issues we face as well as the need for transcendent solutions. Then they go back to business as usual.
While this all plays out, our nation is in a period of realignment. It's as though self-identified Democrats are clinging to the beliefs and strategies of the 1960s while their Republican counterparts glorify the 1980s. Meanwhile, a large part of the general public -- business leaders, philanthropists, community organizers, the creative class, and the group dubiously known as "Regular People" -- have moved on to the 21st Century.
These terms that mean so much to passionate ideologues, like "privilege" or "personal responsibility," do not really belong to either side, and desperately need to be updated. Being a liberal does not make a person a socialist, and being conservative does not make someone a racist. Having a desire to set a threshold of decency for a society's lowest earners does not make a person wasteful, nor does wanting the 30% of your income the government takes for taxes to be spent on innovations in sync with your value system make someone selfish or un-civic. Acknowledging this country's history of exclusion, wanting a solution to institutional racism, and seeking to stimulate opportunity among people who have struggled is patriotic and entrepreneurial. Asking the government to reduce our nation's debt, spend responsibly, protect our safety and set a standard of moral inspiration is not class warfare or religious fanaticism.
Unspoken at the heart of all of this is the fact that many reasonable (non-birther) people in this country truly believe that the election of Barack Obama means that we now live in a post-racial world, and that the American promise has come full circle. Is this naïve or delusional wishful thinking that disregards two centuries of organizing, strife and delicate law-making? Is it irrefutable proof that the system works, albeit slowly, and a culture of victimization is harmful to our nation's future?
At some point during 2012, our collective need to redefine the way we address these questions will explode. How President Obama and his challenger respond will pull at the heartstrings of not just the roaring generation of young people who are accustomed to demographic and cultural shifts and turned out in large numbers last cycle, but also their predecessors who fought for our current progress.
Honestly, America, is it that hard to admit we've done well? That we've resiliently rallied back from 9/11, and that beliefs presented by both sides have propelled us forward? That we have a long way to go, but are at the precipice of a tremendous opportunity to build a new economy? That it must be imagined boldly and implemented scrupulously across our comfort zones and any obstacle that obfuscates our collective path?
That is the state of the union I see, and that I hope individuals will hold our leaders accountable to at the ballot box.