By the end of his presidency, with an approval rating hovering near 25% and the nation caught in the midst of a deep recession, the administration of George W. Bush was, for many of his critics, one defined by a cruel imperialism and a bullying of domestic opposition. Eight years later, at the end of the Obama administration, President Obama’s detractors would view his time in office as a period of willful American decline, filled with apologies for and retreats from any commitments to the idea of American greatness. Each man was the victim of the conventional canards of left or right. And each man may indeed have fallen short of perfectly representing the ideals their opponents valued. But the callousness of the years that have followed shine a light on what was inspiring about both men’s vision of America and the need for both Democrats and Republicans to embrace an Americanism that weds the values that underscore the moral foundations of both the right and the left. In other words: a politics of patriotism and empathy.
Today’s Republican party is caught in a conversation—perhaps a bitter argument—between the conservatism that animated the Tea Party and the Reagan waves before it and a populist nationalism that helped power a less philosophically orthodox Republican administration into the White House. Those on the traditional conservative side of the argument voice concerns akin to what they have long been: concerns over debt and deficits, size of government, economic freedom and the defense of religious liberty. Meanwhile, many on the populist nationalist side stress economic patriotism and protectionism, vigilance towards the perceived threat of unchecked immigration, and a deep skepticism towards international commitments.
Today’s Democratic Party, on the other hand, struggles to find its center between two forces. One is an established liberalism that values equality of opportunity, sees diversity as an intrinsic good, and which seeks to use the tool of government in partnership with industry in order to achieve these ends. The other is a philosophically purer social justice oriented progressivism that is committed to the principle of equity over mere equality of opportunity, that views success in the political landscape as requiring the reduction of white patriarchal influence on society, and whose economic program is not easily distinguishable from that of a Democratic Socialism that still feels alien to most Americans.
There is then not only a tension between parties today, but a polarizing tension sharpening within them, and surely powerful arguments can be made in support of any of these perspectives to their subscribers. But in none of these divisions do we witness a concern for healing the civic wounds of our society. In none of these inter or intra-party arguments do we hear a desire to highlight the higher values of all Americans in an attempt to solidify our union. Neither on the left nor the right today do we see reflected the higher idealism of either Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
Though it would be obscured by the trauma of later events and many controversial decisions, the advent of George W. Bush to the presidency represented the (brief) ascendance of what he called ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ within the Republican Party:
“I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people’s lives.”
The substance of such a conservatism was borne out not merely in words but in policy. The expansion of prescription drug coverage for low income seniors, education reform that explicitly sought to close racial disparities in academic outcomes, an attempt at amnesty for undocumented immigrants and the most expansive commitment of federal funds to the combating of AIDs in Africa in this history of this nation all testified to this animating sentiment. Perhaps these policies were practically flawed. They say nothing of course of the various other reasons why liberals and conservatives were critical of George W. Bush’s presidency. But the Bush vision was not all wars and tax cuts. It was in part guided by a sense within the conservative movement that the liberal aims of a fairer America sensitive to the plights of the underprivileged (here and abroad) were largely justified but best served through more conservative ends, including expansion of school choice, empowerment of socially conscious ministries through faith based partnerships and the like. As Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson argued in defense of compassionate conservatism, “We were focused on outcomes for individuals—African American children in failed schools, and addicts in need of treatment—not just procedures…” So Bush declared in his nomination acceptance speech in 2000: “the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” One does not have to have approved of the larger record of George W. Bush’s policies to appreciate his recognition of compassion as a virtue by which our civic life should be guided.
If the recent-most years of our political reflections have undervalued George W. Bush for his empathy, it has certainly undervalued Barack Obama for his patriotism.
Though some prominent Republicans, including his first opponent the late Senator John McCain, famously defended his love of country, Senator and then President Obama’s patriotism was oft questioned. Some of this, surely, was as a consequence of Obama’s relationships with figures such as Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright, who famously criticized America in profane terms. Some of this was a hyperbolic reaction to perceived gestures of presidential emasculation in the face of foreign powers (like Obama bowing too low when meeting the emperor of Japan). But much of it had simply to do with a longstanding view of left-wing politics as being rooted in anti-Americanism.
Yet Barack Obama showed himself to be a political figure who placed high emphasis on the value of patriotism—as well as an awareness of the danger that comes with allowing ones frustration with ones government to turn rational criticism into sour contempt. As a candidate for president, Obama described the contemporary arguments over patriotism as descendant of the culture wars of the 1960’s, denouncing not only the tendency of state power to associate patriotism with support for its own interests, but also the “so-called” counter-culture of the time for attacking America’s symbols, burning flags, in some cases questioning “the very idea of America itself,” and maligning servicemen returning home from the war in Vietnam—“something that remains a national shame to this day.” He summarized his feelings about this loss of perspective in this way:
“I believe those who attack America’s flaws without acknowledging the singular greatness of our ideals and their proven capacity to inspire a better world do not truly understand America.”
President Obama’s view of patriotism was not limited to that which applies to our men and women in arms. It included the activist who was willing to speak truth to power in the name of uplifting the nation. He adopted Mark Twain’s definition, who said that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Perhaps there were times that Obama erred too far on the side of chastising this country’s imperfections, as some of his critics suggest. But patriotism was a value that Obama spoke to, relentlessly highlighting the greatness of America both in terms of its defense of freedom abroad and its progression towards a more perfect equality at home.
In this he was not unlike George W. Bush. And George W. Bush was not unlike Barack Obama. In general, patriotism is looked at as a theme of the right, whereas compassion and empathy are viewed as values of the left. Yet American greatness is exemplified in the balance that exists between a patriotic devotion to our country’s interests and an empathetic commitment to the well-being of all of our peoples. Indeed, these two values are ultimately one.
Perhaps then this is why presidents Obama and Bush, like other former presidents, have been able to stand together in fraternal allegiance to this American creed. It is a creed that upholds the greatness of our society, not because it is rich or strong, but because in her highest ideals America has shown herself capable of advancing the human cause of freedom, dignity, justice and equality. It is a creed that says our dedication to the greatness of America is but the measure of our dedication to the good of one another other.
John Wood, Jr. is a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, a contributing writer to Quillette and Areo Magazine, host of Transcending Politics and Director of Media Development at Better Angels. Follow John on Twitter @JohnRWoodJr.