I tuned into President Obama’s 2014 SOTU for a while last week – mainly because my daughter was tasked to watch 15min minimum for school, a limit to which she adhered to precisely – and was struck by how futile the speech seemed. It isn’t Obama’s fault any more than it was Bush’s fault during the previous Administration that these things are only watchable by diehard fans or diehard opponents. To someone like myself who voted for Obama and strongly supported him, am still genuinely in admiration and excited about him being in office, but is basically a realist about the limits of Presidential power, the SOTU is an empty shell – a COTUS-required exercise wherethe President defends his policies and lays the groundwork for his agenda in the upcoming year. Obama being who he is, he still tried to appeal to the unity of the American people, a theme he has consistently sounded ever since he burst onto the national stage with that incredible, unforgettable keynote at the DNC convention in 2004. The problem is that Obama’s ideas can not survive our political process. There’s something truly broken with our politics, and I found an incredibly insightful analogy for why it is broken this morning, in a Vox.com essay about What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest – namely that politics isn’t like a family, or like a business, but rather it is like football:
Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game. You ever think about why football games are they way they are? You have all these guys hitting each other so hard they cause each other permanent brain damage. So why do they do it? …
They do it because that’s how the game works. They do it because the rules are you line up in front of the other team and then you hit them as hard as you can. They do it because, for one side to win, the other has to lose. And they do it because, if they don’t do it, they’re off the team. Football has no place for conscientious objectors.
The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.
If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.
This might sound like we’re all soulless, power-hungry careerists just trying to grab power, but we’re not. Everyone in this room believes their ideas will make this country a better place. Everyone here believes the best thing that can happen is that their side gets the power to put those ideas in play and make people’s lives better … This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.
Put more succinctly, American politics is a zero-sum game between two teams, and the score of that game (elections) has nothing to do with the health of the spectators, and everything to do with the job security of the coaches and franchise players. As the essay says, elections don’t change this – they only swap out the players, not the rules of the game.
This makes me wonder about what the community of Islam is like. We also have a concept of unity akin to “united states” – the Ummah. Is the Ummah a zero-sum game? For some of the players, yes – those who have a very strict vision of what Islam is, and seek to impose that idea on everyone else. And there’s the rest of us, who just want to play the game for the love of the game. The problem is that just like politics, those with the zero-sum view have an inherent advantage over the ones who do not – and over time, they exert greater and greater asymmetric influence over the infrastructure. This is as true of gerrymandering districts as it is of funding imams for mosques.
There does need to be a “zero-sum” response to some degree. For example, the rise of the committed political left, an activist class in US politics that was born during the Bush Administration and empowered by blogs and the web. However, without wholesale commitment of the entire Left to this political jihad, the way the Right has, they will always be at a disadvantage. This is why we have seen Republican presidential candidates increasingly pander to their base’s right wing to get the nomination whereas Democratic ones tend to dismiss the Progressive Left and play for the middle. The Tea Party has far more power and influence than the Progressive Caucus. That’s the price we pay for our principles.
What is the lesson for Muslims here? Do we need a “liberal” response to the wahhabist/extremist faction? There isn’t an easy answer here. It’s something we have to consider and discuss, as a community. As an Ummah, if that word is to ever have any true meaning.