President Barack Obama greets an eager crowd following his State of the Union address - themed "Winning the Future" - on Tuesday night. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
-Langston Hughes, "Democracy," 1949
Last Saturday, as an inadvertent prelude to the State of the Union address, I visited my sister in Gary, Indiana, widely known as one of the worst places in the country to live. (The rumors don't lie - in fact, Gary was featured in the History Channel's "Life After People" series as a glimpse of what Chicago would look like after the extinction of the human race.)
My sister lives off of Grant Street, in a trailer park next to a junk car lot, along a set of railroad tracks that are rarely graced with the rumble of a train. Perched on the side of the tracks is a small wooden marker circled by balloons and plastic flowers, a memorial for a child from the trailer park who died at the spot.
Grant Street, home of the bar where the Jackson Five played its first gig, is now lined with boarded-up storefronts and decaying homes. The car lot is one of the few businesses whose lights are still on, and it's frequented by jobless Garyites (my sister included) looking to pick up scrap metal for a few dollars per day.
We crowd into my sister's trailer. A neighbor drifts in to store food in her refrigerator - his electricity has been shut off - and she tells us of park residents who don't have water, others who don't have heat. (It's currently 6 degrees outside, and dropping.)
Public transportation in Gary barely deserves the label. A bus is scheduled to circle through every hour on Grant Street, but we never see one, and my sister says it sometimes never arrives. In a place where public services are needed more desperately than almost anywhere else in the country, many people are cut off from jobs not only because of the ghastly state of the economy, but because they're rendered functionally immobile.
Many of Gary's residents are, in essence, politically invisible: A host of Gary-area voters were purged from the rolls in recent elections, for reasons that remain unclear. Beyond that, thousands of potential voters are incarcerated, or simply eschew the political system because their energy is funneled into fulfilling basic needs. When the heat is off and the tap runs dry, waiting hours for a bus downtown to procure a state ID often ranks low on the to-do list.
The recession didn't do this to Gary; it's been on the downswing ever since the steel industry started waning (not long after the city was memorialized as the not-to-be-beat hometown of "The Music Man"'s Harold Hill). The recession just hammered in the nail of hopelessness, as it did for many, many cities - and for millions of vulnerable people - across this country.
But the White House isn't seeing Gary, or any of those other places where basic necessities are truly scarce, where jobs are so few and fleeting that many have simply stopped looking, where hope for a hand from the government is dying or dead. And in his State of the Union address, Obama made that vast oversight - or, perhaps, that triangulation-driven choice of calculated neglect - abundantly clear.
In the rousing SOTU, Obama spoke of "winning the future" through innovation: supercomputers that squeeze extra mileage out of nuclear plants, applications that allow firefighters to download designs onto their handhelds, the wonders of near-universal high-speed wireless Internet access. But in a country where one in three Americans don't earn enough to cover their minimum expenses, the president didn't utter a substantive word about the poor.
"In America," Obama told us, "innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It’s how we make a living."
If only every American had that option.
It's debatable whether America is the "greatest nation on Earth" (as the president assured us it was in nearly every bullet point of his speech), but one thing is for certain: this country is chockfull of poor people, and most of them are not yearning for a "face-to-face video chat" with their doctor. They're lucky if they can see one at all, let alone the same doctor twice in a row. Most of them are not small business owners who dream of "selling their products all over the world." Many just want a job that's more reliable than collecting scrap metal by the side of an abandoned main street.
In his State of the Union, Obama did allude to the existence of some unmentioned "others." "We may have different backgrounds," he said, "but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything’s possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from."
However, the president seems to have forgotten a large and growing contingent of Americans: those who no longer share that dream of boundless possibility, because their government is not providing them with any proof that it might come true.
In fact, when President Obama spoke most forcefully of uniting our shared desires - of "coming together" - he was referring to a freeze on domestic spending, including funding for some of the very social programs that could begin pulling places like Gary out of the hole. ("I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs," he said, and my heart sank.)
The president spoke of our "democracy" as "contentious and frustrating and messy," but ultimately, the element that sets us apart from – and above - the rest of the world.
So, in the context of the State of the Union, and of Washingtonspeak on the whole, what does "democracy" mean? This brand of "democracy" certainly does not include the voices of the poor - the people who are disenfranchised due to their lack of access to basic necessities, the people who, more than anyone, need their government to care. This spectacle of contention and frustration and mess is ultimately a battle between a narrow sliver of very similar perspectives.
Obama's call to action on deficit reduction, which encapsulates the message of much of the rest of his speech, provides a glimpse of the White House's grand democratic vision:
Now is the time for both sides and both houses of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - to forge a principled compromise that gets the job done."
Does "working together," then, connote simply uniting the voices and interests of "moderate" Republicans and "centrist" Democrats, in Congress and in corporate America?
In his 1949 poem, "Democracy," Langston Hughes points to a truth that reverberates eerily these 62 years later: "Democracy will not come/Today, this year/Nor ever/Through compromise and fear."
Is it possible that our president, who spoke so ardently of national transformation just two years ago, could be equating democracy with its opposite - the kind of "principled compromise" between the few that tosses the needs of the many to the wind?
This is the logic of the December tax deal, which granted the wishes of the wealthy while according the not-so-wealthy barely a vague acknowledgment of their interests. It's the logic of Congress's refusal to even begin debate on the Employee Free Choice Act and a slew of sorely needed labor reforms. It's a logic that rings hollow and discordant in places like Gary, Indiana, and it sure isn't the logic of democracy.
We must not let ourselves fall prey to this degraded conception of democracy: a decisionmaking process that brings together the weakest, narrowest, least courageous impulses of humanity, and operates on the grounds that participants abandon their highest ideals - along with the urgent needs of vast swaths of society.
A real democracy represents Gary, Indiana as boldly as it represents Washington, DC.
"The idea of America endures," the president concluded Tuesday night, against the backdrop of a near-teary John Boehner. "Our destiny remains our choice."
The question is, for whom does the exalted idea endure? And who is the "our" whose "choice" is deciding America's destiny?