I hope Charlie Pierce is right:
The president’s second inaugural address was as clear a statement of progressive principles as a president has given since LBJ got up there and shoved the Voting Rights Act and the words “We shall overcome” right up old Richard Russell’s ass in 1965. I will grant you that it was draped early on in some completely predictable boilerplate about “outworn programs” and about how we shouldn’t think “all society’s ills” can be cured through government action. But that was only a little deke to get Brokaw looking the other way. The president then went top-shelf on his audience.
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword (Ed. Note: Lincolnosity!), we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune … we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.
The speech was a bold refutation of almost everything the Republican party has stood for over the past 40 years. It was a loud — and, for this president, damned near derisive — denouncement of all the mindless, reactionary bunkum that the Republicans have come to stand for in 2013; you could hear the sound of the punch he landed on the subject of global warming halfway to Annapolis. But the meat of the speech was a brave assertion of the power of government, not as an alien entity, but as an instrument of the collective will and desires of a self-governing people.
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. That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.
We are not free because we are individuals, the president told them, daring them to hold two ideas in their heads at a time without their brains leaking out of their ears. We are free because, as individuals we work together in the creative act of self-government to produce a viable political commonwealth in which that freedom can thrive and prosper, and the primary instrument of that commonwealth is the government we devise out of it. That government must be allowed to function. That government must be allowed to operate for this freedom to be generally achieved.
Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time. For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
We will wait and see, of course, what happens once the scaffolding and the bunting comes down, bearing in mind always the scriptural caution about faith without works being dead. But, for an afternoon, anyway, a Democratic president reclaimed the language of freedom from those for whom it means merely lower taxes and more guns. He reclaimed government as a manifestation of a country’s aspirations, and not as an anchor on its progress. And he refuted, with precision and neatly camouflaged contempt, many of the most destructive ideas that have poisoned out politics for nearly four decades now. He did nothing less than redefine patriotism in a progressive way. That is already bothering all of the right people. This, I tell you, is what gives me hope.