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Well, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom in our nation’s capital.

Students on spring break are sprawled out across the Mall, fleeing nervous chaperones and feeling their tired textbooks come alive.

And thanks to Friday’s melodramatic budget compromise, the parade went on. Giant flower petal floats and local marching bands cascaded down Constitution Avenue yesterday under the seasoned direction of Grand Marshall Atticus Shaffer, age 12.

The 3,000 cherry trees we celebrate this week were a gift from Japan in 1912; next year they turn 100. I wonder what these trees would say on their centennial birthday, if they could. First they might thank God they weren’t part of the initial batch of seedlings sent from Japan in 1910 which arrived diseased and quickly died off. They might also reflect on the stages in the relationship they symbolize – those warring young adult years, the internment in middle age, and the earth shattering tidal waves of recent weeks. Relationships between nations – like those between people – have their ups and downs…their hours of greed and their hours of need.

So too with political parties, it seems. For a fleeting moment this week the waters calmed and the liberals and the conservatives jumped in the boat at the same time. Ironically, the conditions for compromise were improved by the fact that more folks acted like themselves. The liberals aren’t busy triangulating and the conservatives aren’t going on about how compassionate they are. Instead, both sides seem content to mix a little pragmatism with the purity they openly profess.

Like the cherry blossoms, however, the sentiment will quickly fade. On Monday we will turn our sights to new fights…the debt ceiling, entitlements, education policy, Afghanistan troop levels, what comes next in Libya…all in the context of a budding presidential campaign. Say hello to the next two years.

Cynicism ought not overwhelm us, however. After all, it is spring – the season of creative construction, of new life and possibility.

And boy, could we use it. This recession, which has left 8.6% of our fellow citizens looking for work, came on the back of a generation defined by the phenomenon economists call ‘creative destruction’,  which in real life means the decline of the middle class. While capital flees to cheaper and more efficient pastures in this age of globalization, further enriching those at the top and giving rise to an emerging global middle class, the American dream dries out like a raisin in the sun.

Consider some of these fun facts:

  • The richest 1% of Americans now control 24% of the nation’s wealth. In 1915, at the height of the Guilded Age before the income tax existed, that figure was 18%.
  • From 1980 to 2005 80% of the total increase in wealth went to the richest 1% while wage growth for low and middle earners actually declined.  Check out this graph from the U.S. census bureau on income inequality trends from 1948 to 2000:


  • Warren Buffet, the world’s 3rd richest person figured in 2007 that he paid about 17.7% of his income in taxes, while his receptionist paid about 30%.
  • And General Electric managed to pay no taxes on the $5.1 billion it made in the United States in 2010. In fact, GE claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion last year.
  • By the way, in 1965 CEOs made about 24 times more than the average worker. In 2005 it was 262 times more.
  • Contrary to our beliefs about ourselves, Americans have a lower chance of moving out of their parents income bracket that do people in Denmark, Sweden, Germany or Canada. The worry that the United States is becoming more like Europe seems valid…not the Europe of today, however, but old Europe…that land of landed aristocracy that our ancestors crossed an ocean to flee.

And the spring looks increasing more like fall for our nation’s children:

  • American children are twice as likely to live in poverty than adults. So much for that ‘unfettered start and fair chance’ that Honest Able called for.
  • American students rank 17th in the word in science achievement and 25th in math.
  • But, at least our pets are living well. 1/2 of our dogs and cats are now overweight or obese, and spending on pets has risen at a rate of 6% during the recession. Just don’t tell that to the 1.5 million homeless kids living in America. Sometimes I do tremble for my country when I recall that God is just.

The political question of the age will be how we respond to this generational decline by promoting the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, in ways that are affordable, sustainable, and responsive to the competitive global economy that we created. After the Great Depression, new institutions were erected to do this job for an industrial economy. But those wineskins are aged and bloated and need to be updated before the only option left is to simply stop pouring wine.

The debate on the issue will be led by Midwesterners – Barack Obama of Illinois on the left and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin  on the right, perhaps with an assist from Mitch Daniels of Indiana who I predict will win the Republican nomination if he chooses to run.

Fortunately, Midwesterners know how to lead the country through the critical issues of the time. During their legendary Senate and Presidential debates,  Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas of Illinois facilitated the national discussion on slavery. Admittedly, these debates eventually gave way to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this month. Here’s hoping its not déjà vu all over again.

And so, we celebrate the arrival of spring – that season of possibility and creative construction, when both plants and people start to stand upright in the sunlight after huddling through the long, cold, lonely winter.

Its about time. It seems like years since it’s been here.

“One day at lunch last month, some Depaul House residents began teasing another guy who off-handedly admitted that he had cried about something.  In response to their ribbing, he refused to backtrack.  “I cry every night,” he declared.

“Why?” someone asked.

“Because I am alone,” he answered.

Excerpt from a newsletter written by the Executive Director of a national homelessness organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

____________________________

Loneliness does not traditionally top our lists of the most pressing social problems (especially in an economic crisis), but maybe it should.

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century British philosopher whose ideas about individual liberty, social contracts, and state sovereignty undergird modern political thought, called for a civil society for the explicit purpose of making life less, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Of course, we’ve long known that isolation is deeply damaging to the human being. For centuries, parents have disciplined deviant children with time-outs, and judges have condemned criminals to solitary confinement. But, neuroscientists are learning new things about the effect loneliness can have on human health and well-being.

For example, John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, finds that sustained loneliness increases our risks of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, sleep dysfunction, and depression. (By 2020, depression will be the 2nd most common health problem in the world. Global suicide rates have also risen steadily since 1950, especially for men.) In the centuries since Hobbes wrote, human beings have certainly grown more connected. Ironically, though, we still often feel alone.

Loneliness cannot, like some other matters of public concern, be addressed by legislative fiat. No law can guarantee every person the opportunity to be indiscrete with close friends. Surely, providing law and order and basic rights and capabilities can help expand human dignity and increase the odds of human connection. But the public servant cannot also be the social engineer.

Somehow, we must also take on increased responsibility for visiting each other when we find ourselves imprisoned behind bars, behind closed doors, or in the light of day. Since loneliness, in my experience, is an indiscriminate and universal attacker, it stands to reason that such visits would yield a high rate of return. The more we invest, it would seem, the more likely it will be that when our tree falls in the woods, as surely it will, someone will be around to confirm that our cries do indeed make a sound.

I, for one, will be pulling for True Grit to win Best Picture tomorrow night – not because it’s the best film of the year (since I haven’t seen all the nominees and know very little about film anyway I wouldn’t be a very good judge), but because I think it most accurately captures a sense of the current moment we find ourselves in as a people.

This is ironic, since True Grit is a remake of a John Wayne Western originally shot in 1969 that depicts Arkansas in the 1870s, whereas two of its competitors – the Social Network and Inceptionare explicitly designed to tell the story of our present and future.

True Grit’s prescience lies not in its portrayal of modern technology or culture, however, but in its examination of morality and truth in a disorderly world.

From the film’s first moments, Maddie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfield, who steals the show) encounters a violent world, which violent men take by force. As Maddie herself observes, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” When she reaches town to find a U.S. Marshall that might aid her cause, she encounters a coffin salesman interested only in making a sale, relatives who provide little emotional comfort, and a banker that tries, and fails, to squeeze extra profit out of her dead father’s estate.

In spite of her surroundings, Maddie maintains a laser focus on capturing her father’s killer and bringing him to justice. This leads her to Rooster Cogburn and, ultimately, on an epic journey into Choctaw country to pursue Tom Chaney.

Our world bears increasing resemblence to Maddie’s wild west. Previous generations could outsource understanding to a variety of institutions and dogmas that stood ready to provide a sense of certainty and explanation. Science, politics, economics, and religion all thrived on the claim that they could tell the right story. In science the gospel of ‘rational choice’ asserted that humans existed simply to pursue a predictable self-interest. This gospel spread to politics, where theorists like Joseph Schumpeter argued that democracy was simply the aggregation of fixed individual interests that could be predicted; to economics, where Milton Friedman argued that a company’s sole responsibility was to increase its profits; and, to religion, where neat linear theologies presented simple steps for achieving salvation. The individual’s job in this world was simply to sign-on to a few of these stories and tell them with conviction.

But these foundations have come crumbling down. New discoveries about human beings are disturbing our complete faith in rational choice.  Democratic movements abroad and at home are reminding us of the limits of government institutions’ ability to provide order. A singular focus on profit and self-interest in the private sector is sowing the seeds of corruption, greed, and decay.

Slowly, people are again starting to see themselves, and the institutions they erect, as inherently fallible, an outlook more consistent with the 19th century than the 20th. In this modern wild west, like the old one, good must be done by people themselves, if it is to be done at all.

I have a theory about what may transpire over the next few weeks with respect to the federal budget. Since I haven’t seen anyone else write it, I figured I’d take a stab at it.

As usual, the media is focused on the daily political blood and gore that sells newspapers. I suppose it is true that an individual tree – with its gnarled roots and rough bark – is always more interesting to look at than the whole forest – a bland sea of green.

There is a consensus in Washington that the time is now for a bipartisan deal on the current budget and long-term deficits. Both parties see the basic elements of a deal, and see doing it now, prior to the announcement of Republican presidential candidates this spring, as being advantageous.

For President Obama, a deal allows him to say he did what he always said he would do – pull together a broad-based coalition to take on the big issues of the day, however unpleasant. Doing it now, however, is imperative for him. A deal will unleash fury within his base, and he will need a year-and-a-half to re-energize it before 2012.

For John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders, a deal now has a double-effect: 1) It shows that Republicans are indeed willing to work with Democrats when they see that its reasonable to do so 2) It tees up the 2012 presidential race by creating a narrative that they’ve got the President on the ropes and that this deal, while important, doesn’t go nearly far enough. To do what is really necessary, they will assert, will require a Republican in the White House.

All know somehow that the deal must happen immediately, before any Republican presidential hopefuls announce candidacies. Once this happens, the President will be forced to weigh his actions in the context of potential opponents, and Republicans in Congress will be divided on who they are supporting and what these candidates want out of Congress to help their campaigns (compromise with a Democratic President likely not being high on the list).

The behavior of everyone here in recent weeks, I think, supports this view.

  1. If President Obama didn’t actually want a deal, but wanted instead to only be seen having tried, he would have included in his budget a big bold “Obama Plan” for reigning in entitlement spending as many have chided him for failing to do. But, he knows this was a trap. Had he done so, there would have been two immediate effects: 1) His base would have been in revolt. 2) Republicans would have said, no matter what the plan was, that it didn’t go far enough and, thus, they couldn’t support it. The result would have been a loss of support on the left and a lack of support on the right. Having been seen trying, the President could then have reverted back to a more conventional Democratic budget, similar to the one he did put out, but with a significantly weaker hand. Instead, by avoiding the question, Obama led everyone to beg the question on entitlements and has given the Senate the opportunity to take credit for providing the answer. As Harry Truman once said, anything is possible when you’re not preoccupied with who gets the credit. (As an aside, the President’s weighing in on the Wisconsin budget crisis lends more evidence to the fact that he is preparing to cut a deal. Generating headlines in the days before a major compromise about how he is getting the backs of labor and rallying midwest progressives doesn’t hurt his cause among the faithful.)
  2. If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell didn’t actually want a deal, they would have tried to keep a tight reign on their caucus, as they did over the past two years, in order to pass a Republican budget that was at least somewhat attractive to deficit hawk Democrats in the Senate. Doing so would have put pressure on the President to veto a reasonable sounding budget that had support both in the House, but also in the Senate. Instead, however, John Boehner opened the floodgates, allowing his House to pass a far-right budget that even cuts George H.W. Bush’s coveted National Corporation for Community Service and left Bob Gates pleading for funds to complete post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Iraq, lest we repeat our mistakes from the 1980s in Afghanistan (see last 5 minutes of Charlie Wilson’s War). Taking this latter approach had 3 outcomes for Boehner and McConnell: 1) It enabled John Boehner to be seen as living up to the budget-cutting mandate placed upon the Congress by the November Elections 2) It provided a huge freshmen class (87 total) of legislators with little experience significant practice in writing bills and working through Parliamentary procedure 3) It guaranteed a Presidential veto and tee’d up a bipartisan effort in the Senate that would split the difference between the House Budget and the President’s…something Boehner probably prefers in his heart-of-hearts.

This week the Congress is in recess. Legislators’ goal while they’re home will be to trump the virtues of their respective budget (President’s version or House version), and on denigrating the others’ (Republicans will say the President’s plan fails to cut enough spending and kicks the entitlement can down the road; Democrats will say far-right Republicans have taken a hatchet to the budget and, with little foresight or strategy, have cut things that are vitally important and have little to do with long-term deficits).

All the while Senators will begin to emerge from the shadows, working to appear as elder statesmen coming to save the republic from the brink and forge a high-minded compromise. This process was initiated Sunday by Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin on Meet the Press and will increase throughout the week. We will see more of names like Mark Warner, Saxby Chambliss, Judd Gregg, etc..

Then, in the first part of March, for a fleeting moment, everyone might just jump in the boat at the same time. A compromise that simplifies the tax code while expanding revenues, shores up social security by perhaps phasing in an increased retirement age, and makes some adjustments to Medicare and Medicaid might just pass the Senate and earn begrudging support from the House and the President. In return, the drastic cuts House Republicans proposed to education, border security, and foreign aid for FY 2011 and 2012 will be removed. The President will present himself as coming reluctantly to the deal, as a reasonable compromiser still disappointed that so little is being done for the poor. Republicans, likewise, will appear reluctant, taking every possible chance to say the deal doesn’t go far enough, but since a Democrat is in the White House, what choice do they have? To work, it will have to happen quickly, almost before everyone realizes what is happening. If left in the light of day too long, the zealous will start paddling their own J-Strokes, the boat will start going in circles, and everyone will end up wet.

The day afterwards, Republicans will begin saying that now the real work begins. Just think what could have been accomplished if we had the White House too, they will suggest. Democrats will express disappointment with the President and pressure him to return to his progressive base, fighting for advances in education and infrastructure and unleashing fury against the concentration of wealth among the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. Eagerly, he will take up this call. A few weeks later, Republican presidential hopefuls will begin to announce, and for the next year-and-a-half every Congressional vote will become fodder for 2012 campaign ads. Both parties will feel good about the terms of this debate and will be eager to engage in the long war.

Along the way reporters will have dramatized each battle and written human-interest pieces on the heroes and the villains. But nobody will have taken the time to tell the whole story of how the successful compromise came to be. And, when the hour for jumping together comes around again sometime downstream, we will look at the boat as if for the first time.

Or, I could just be wrong.

This week, machine challenged man, and machine won.

“Watson”, IBM’s new ‘question answering machine’ beat Jeopardy’s longest reigning champion, Ken Jennings, handily. After three days of Jeopardy-style trivia, Watson had amassed $77,147, compared to Jennings’ $24,000.

The scene was reminiscent of ‘Big Blue’s’ victory over World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. However, Watson did more than just compute probabilities faster than a human being – a defeat we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Answering jeopardy questions requires a more nuanced knowledge – the ability to solve riddles, read between the lines, identify subtle cultural references, and make educated guesses. In short, it requires the ability to interpret, listen, judge…more than just the computation of ones and zeros.

The implications for Watson are obvious, and perhaps endless. The day after Watson’s jeopardy victory, IBM executives announced that they are partnering with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to build a ‘physician’s assistant’ that will provide doctors with consultative advice on patient diagnoses. A company called Nuance Communications will add voice recognition to the tool, and it could be available to hospitals within 18 months.

For nearly three millennia, humans have searched for unique traits that render them unique among the animals. Among these have been reason (think Descartes, Kant, etc.) and language (the later Wittgenstein, Rorty, etc.). Watson, however, pokes holes in both of these ideas. In a sense, Watson has proved itself to be a reasoning animal that can aggregate information, make instinctual judgments based on sophisticated weighing of tradeoffs, and communicate those intentionally and intelligibly.

But there is more to the human experience, and Watson is far from replacing us. In Watson, I see an opportunity to be more thoughtful about what exactly it is that we do well as human beings and what it is we ought to own, cherish, and cultivate as uniquely ours.

As a first attempt, I see three areas where Watson falls short of its human competitors:

1)    Watson does not have the power to pose the question. Humans are still the inquiring animal – the inventors of the scientific method and the written language. As one story on Watson concluded, “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them.”

2)    Watson does not have the power to join with others in the collective pursuit of answers. Watson acts alone – aggregating and judging against its own set of data. Humans, however, can connect, organize, collaborate, and produce answers that are greater than the sum of their individual efforts.

3)    Watson does not have the power to make ethical judgments about its knowledge. It can tell you what the best answer to a factual question is, but it cannot tell you what the good answer is to an ethical quandary. Ethics is not the domain of humans alone (studies show that even dogs see injustice in the unequal distribution of treats), but its reasonable to assert that we still do it best. Perhaps Aristotle was right when he wrote in the Nichomachean Ethics that, “Human beings…choose the good.”

So, my dear Watson, you have a long way to go. You may have joined us as a reasoner and communicator, and we congratulate you. But until you can inquire, organize, and pursue the ethical good on your own terms, you will remain just what you are – a machine.

The current of events is flowing fiercely along the Nile River these days.

The ripples started this January when 98% of Southern Sudan’s residents voted to remain independent from Sudan and form their own country. Southern Sudan will officially join the community of nations in July, 2011. It will take work to build this new nation (the U.N. reports that a 15-year-old girl there has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school), but the future seems full of possibility.

From Southern Sudan, the ripples flowed north to Egypt – where we have all witness the 18-day revolution that changed the face of the Middle East, and the world.

This Friday, however, the current flows full circle to the Nile’s source – Uganda. Starting February 18, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect their President. Polls suggest that current President Yoweri Museveni will likely be re-elected to another five-year term. If he succeeds and completes the term, his tenure will reach 30 years. Museveni still enjoys considerable support from those that appreciate the stability he brought to much of the country after Idi Amin’s reign of terror. However, 3.5 million new citizens have been registered since the last elections in 2006, and 90% of these new voters are between the ages of 18-23. These young voters are more likely to be fed up with President Museveni’s increasing corruption and apparent desire to remain president-for-life.

Among other things, I will be watching to see how Uganda’s judiciary and military are able to serve as an impartial force to ensure that the elections are free and fair. As we saw in Egypt, the independence of these institutions in the face of an authoritarian executive is perhaps the most important factor in democratic transition.

Whether it begins this week or in five years, let us hope that this generation of Ugandans gets the opportunity to lead a genuine democratic transition to a post-Museveni era marked by peace and increasing prosperity. They deserve it.

In America, we’re pretty darn good at starting new things. But, we’re not always so hot at transitioning from one thing to another.

Our kids struggle with them (more kids fail 9th grade than any other grade because of the difficult transition to high school). Our young adults struggle with them (I speak from experience here – and apparently I’m not alone). And, our older adults struggle with them (know anyone who’s had a mid-life crisis?)

In foreign policy, our capacity to deal with transitions is woefully inadequate. Our war-fighting expertise is unparalleled, but our learning curve for supporting post-conflict reconstruction and democratic transitions is still high. We do have an “Office of Transition Initiatives” within the U.S. Agency for International Development, but its 2010 budget was $55 million. The budget for a new fleet of Marine Ones (the president’s helicopter) was $6.1 billion when the Pentagon authorized it in 2005. Of course, we are not alone in this. 30% of peace agreements signed around the world in the last few decades have been broken within five years. It turns out, transitions are just hard.

But, I think the age favors those who succeed in transitions. Change, as they say, is the only constant. Today the idea that we move through life, or that governments or organizations move through projects, in predictable, manageable stages is obsolete.

Everything around us, including us, is in flux. The Department of Labor tells us that the average adult today will change jobs ten times between the age of 18-39. The events unfolding in Egypt are testament to transitions in the global order. Technology is transitioning faster than we can consume it.

Succeeding in this world of transitions will necessitate that we adjust the way we educate our children, the way we organize our institutions, and the way we address problems at home and abroad. Our ability to support Egypt in its historic transition will be just one test among many.

Transitions may not be our strong suit now, but I’m confident. After all, were pretty good at starting new things.

There is talk these days from across the political spectrum, spurred by the events in Egypt, about ‘real democracy’.

Appearing on Sunday talk shows last weekend, Secretary of State Clinton called for transition in Egypt to “real democracy, not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or so-called democracy”.

Echoing this, conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote this week, “Our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time.”

Ironically, for more than a generation many leading political theorists have defined democracy exactly that way – one man, one vote, one time.

In 1991, writing about democracy’s “third wave”, Samuel Huntington stated unambiguously, “Elections, open, free, and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inesescapable sine qua non.”

Perhaps the Egyptian experience, coupled with democratic movements currently underway in Tunisia, Yemen, South Sudan, possibly next month in Uganda, and elsewhere represent a paradigm shift in our thinking about democracy.

During the first half of the 20th century, democratic success meant securing government of the people. Nationalistic and independence movements across Latin America, Africa, and Asia worked to expel colonial powers and secure a sovereignty of their own.

The second half of the 20th century saw a global preoccupation with elections – as exemplified by Huntington. Governments in the former colonies headed by foreign puppets, hereditary kings, or populist revolutionaries were rejected. Government by the people in the form of popular elections became the goal.

But, we have learned over the past few decades that elections, however important, do not in themselves bring about a democratic society. “Suppose the election is declared free and fair,” the late Richard Holbrooke reportedly said on the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, “and those elected are fascists, racists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to peace. That is the dilemna.”

Elections can be rigged explicitly through corruption and violence, or implicitly by co-opting or dividing potential opposition, stoking fears amongst disempowered voters, and appealing to foreign powers’ desire for stability. What’s more, regular elections can be quite consistent with the persistence of deplorable and deteriorating living conditions within the society.

Underlying the current calls for real democracy is an argument that democracies ought to also be for the people. Real democracies not only feature local control and regular elections. They are also home to governments that measure all activities against their ability, or likelihood, to elevate the condition of life enjoyed by the citizenry. These governments do not always have the capacity or luck needed to succeed, but they are committed to the continuous attempt.

Different leaders may have different ideas on how to proceed (i.e. rely exclusively on the private sector in hopes of a trickle-down; provide basic welfare to guarantee minimum social justice; forge a middle ground through regulation and public/private partnerships; focus on austerity; cultivate foreign aid; build a large military to provide safety; maintain a small military to save money; prevent immigration to put existing citizens first; promote immigration to encourage diversity, economic development, and innovation; and so on, and so forth).

In other words, in a real democracy, governments and politicians are only legitimate when their proposals are presented with the justification that they will improve the lives of those they govern. Anyone without this goal in mind is beyond the pale and without merit.

In one week we observe Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In one month, on March 4, we will commemorate the 150th anniversary of his inauguration. Perhaps it is fitting that the man who memorialized democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people in his speech at Gettysburg provide the historical backdrop for the new birth of freedom seemingly underway in our world today.

As I watch events unfold in Egypt, I can’t help but think of Uganda. At the surface, the parallels between Presidents Mubarak and Museveni are plain to see. Both are war heroes that brought stability to much of their country. Both forged strong ties with the West and leveraged this support to consolidate their own power domestically. Both have remained in power for 25+ years. And, for some reason, both made the decision to circle their wagons around their own survival rather than prepare their country for peaceful democratic transition.

It is puzzling to me why so many leaders decide not to take the high road. I am less familiar with the Egyptian case, but I know that President Museveni could still cement a positive legacy for himself in the eyes of mankind by stepping down and putting all his energy into leading his country through a peaceful and democratic transition. But, instead, he insists on forcing his countrymen to choose between his corrupt stability or the uncertainty of populist revolt. Why not ride off into the sunset and become a Cincinnatus or Washington? He could live well; books would be written about him; he’d probably win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, the reason for Mubarak and Museveni’s calculation probably lies in an under-appreciation for what is being asked of them. In the United States, we look fondly upon George Washington’s virtuous decision to step down from power. But, we often fail to appreciate that this decision was made without the fear that a democratic transition would result in fundamental social change in the country. Slavery and marginalization of native peoples ensured that any transition of power would occur within a limited pluralism. In other words, there was no risk that the country would go from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood or from Ankole to Acholi. Thus, by bracketing the voices of a large swath of the populace, there was less at stake for the United States in building the institution of democratic transition.

I wonder, if African slaves and native peoples had the vote in Washington’s time, would things have been the same? Would Washington really have stepped down so honorably if a free and fair election risked bringing to power an entirely different social group prepared to take the country in a drastically different direction? An even more interesting question is, would the elites around Washington – Addams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, etc. – have allowed Washington to step down? Or would they, like the elites around Mubarak and Museveni, have encouraged him to hold on to power and cultivate aid from donor countries to decrease dependency on local voice? Perhaps some of them would have worried privately that a Native American president might replace private property rights with communal tenure, or an African American president would implement a land-reform agenda to break-up enormous plantations. These founders, in turn, might have to flee back to Britain, or in exile to France or Spain. Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions, but it is interesting to consider them.

The American democratic experiment has been conducted gradually, incorporating new variables over time. We created democratic institutions while controlling for slavery; we industrialized while controlling for harsh labor practices and gender inequity; we promoted global democracy while propping up dictators from time to time.

The United States is a force for good and the world’s most successful democracy. But, the road to this point was long and full of litter.

The truth about the American experience ought not give the autocrats of the world an excuse for their spinelessness. But it ought to give us pause. As we ask nation-builders across the world to democratize in one, two, or even three generations, we should make it clear that we aren’t asking them to catch up to or emulate us, but to do that which we weren’t able to do ourselves.

Since World War II, our politics has fundamentally revolved around two traditions of thought. Last week Paul Krugman summarized this well in his column, A Tale of Two Moralities. The first holds that it is immoral for a wealthy capitalist society to allow its citizens to go without the minimum necessities of a human life: food, shelter, basic health care, and a decent education. Where this minimum threshold of welfare does not exist, the state must provide. The second morality believes that it is wrong for a government to seize a person’s wages or to define the terms of his/her behavior, which the individual alone ought to manage as a free and autonomous chooser of ends.

For Krugman, these two positions stand at fundamental odds. Common welfare and negative freedom are opposite poles. The New Deal is oil and the Reagan Revolution is water. Thus, our only choice is to prevent violence from entering the public sphere, and to fight ferociously within the law. “By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully,” Krugman writes, “but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.”

These two perspectives, oriented around philosophical welfarism and liberterianism, have their roots in European political thought. They are continental ideas retrieved and reconstructed for the American experience.

During the past two years President Obama has worked within this familiar dichotomy. He has been a man of the left – an heir to the New Deal and the Great Society, with health care reform marking his original contribution.

One  way to interpret his current activities is that he is attempting, however, to bring a third morality fully back into the American debate after a century of neglect – a tradition of political thought that is uniquely American and that Obama feels more natural within, but that he could not rely on practically in the face of an economic crisis or politically with a 60-vote majority in the Senate demanding legislative victories. This observation has already been made my many people, most recently James Kloppenberg in his Reading Obama.

Beginning in post-Civil War America, a variety of thinkers developed pragmatism based on their skepticism of those who seemed certain that God and right was on their side. These folks – John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes – sought humility in place of hubris and saw experimentation, democratic dialogue, and common sense as the keys to building a more perfect union. For these pragmatists, no fallible human being can alone answer the question, ‘how ought we to live together’? and no nation derives its greatness from some eternal divine favor. We all see through a glass darkly and need constant debate, continual experimentation, and simple hard work to become better as individuals and greater as a society.

Thus, in politics, these pragmatists did not begin with a vision of the good society and the ideal role of government (big or small), as we have come to expect of our politicians. Rather, they argued for enduring ideals of process – dialogue, fairness, education, hard work, and hope – and with the never-ending goal of elevating the human condition through innovation and collaborative effort. All methods of progressing on this goal were open to consideration and ruled out, through debate, by their inability to survive critical scrutiny or their failure to perform in practice. Questions of ‘big government’ and ‘limited government’ were secondary…the primary question was how to define the human condition and what actions could be reasonably taken to elevate it. Answers to these questions could result in proposals to add, and proposals to subtract.

In practice, political pragmatism can look, and be, weak, indecisive, and self-serving. Thus the reason it is often a dirty word in daily usage. Nonetheless, it is based on stronger intellectual foundations than the expedient willingness to compromise.

Perhaps the first pragmatic president, although he would not have known the word, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln believed that humans were superior among animals in their ability “to improve their workmanship through discoveries and inventions.” And, he remains our only President to hold a U.S patent – for a method of helping riverboats float freely over shallow water. He thought deeply of religion but sought constant flexibility in his faith, once declaring that he would never officially join any church until its only demand was to love God as he saw fit, and love his neighbor as himself. This, despite the fact that he could quote whole chapters of Christian scripture from memory.

And, in politics, as a Whig and later as an anti-slavery Republican, he eschewed neat political categories. He grew government dramatically, but in the service of a Civil War that expanded individual human freedom for blacks and retracted tyrannical government in the secession states. He argued vigorously for a national bank, protective trade tarrifs, and government funding for ‘internal improvements’ and public schools – but all with the goal of empowering the common man to improve his lot in a rapidly transforming world. He argued against President Polk’s invasion of Mexico, not out of pacifism, but on the reasoned argument that the evidence for the war was scant and that public funds would be best used elsewhere.

And, in a Message to Congress on July 4, 1861 – already in the midst of his first term – Lincoln declared his philosophy of government in the clearest terms he had to-date. “The leading object of government,” Lincoln said, “is to elevate the condition of men. To lift artificial weights from all shoulders. To clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all. To afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

This is a progressive, pragmatic vision. It asserts the government’s role in improving people’s lives…in making justice real. But it is also a vision of individual agency and empowerment – not of a perfectly elegant just society operated by select elites. Its objective is to promote the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, not provide for it.

It seems to me there have always been 2 President Obamas. One the heir to New Deal liberalism and  the other a modern Lincoln liberal of sorts, genuinely excited to build a new progressive era that works to elevate the condition of all men and women, and recalibrates government activities around the question of whether or not they serve this objective.

The 2nd Obama will dominate the remainder of this 1st term and will be articulated more fully than it has been to-date on Tuesday in his State of the Union address. He will call for adjustments to New Deal entitlements to accommodate the baby boom; additional public investments in education, infrastructure, and technology that empower individuals; revision of the tax code to both challenge the alarming trend of concentrated wealth among the super-wealthy and to lift artificial weights on the small business owner and the middle-income earner; military spending cuts to splinter the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower feared; a fairer immigration policy that embraces diversity and hard work; public-private coordination to spur energy innovation and fracture the oil oligopoly; and increased engagement of the citizenry within local communities to solve problems where we can, independent of government activity.

It will be an agenda of promotion, not provision. And, it will seem, to the observer, that Obama has compromised…that he is ‘triangulating’ between more government and less without a fixed operating principle, perhaps with two eyes on 2012. But, whether or not the effort succeeds or is at all laudable, it will be grounded in a consistent and originally American school of thought.

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