Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Divided we Fall

It is hard to imagine there being much joy in the White House this morning. The Associated Press headline writer applied the adjective "epic" to the Democratic defeat in the Massachusetts Senate election. The lead paragraphs, in the story filed by Glen Johnson and Liz Sidoti, maintained the rhetorical darkness:

Republicans are rejoicing and Democrats reeling in the wake of Scott Brown's stunning triumph in a special Massachusetts Senate election that the GOP victor insists was not simply a referendum on President Barack Obama.

Still, Obama grimly faced a need to both regroup and recoup losses on Wednesday, the anniversary of his inauguration, in a White House shaken by the realization of what a difference a year made. The most likely starting place was finding a way to save the much-criticized health care overhaul he's been trying to push through Congress.

Meanwhile, Joe Garofoli, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that things are not looking much better for Obama here in California:

While 56 percent of Californians still support Obama, that's down from 65 percent in March, according to a Field Poll taken Jan. 5-17 of 1,232 registered voters in the state.

Obama's strongest support was among Bay Area voters, at 65 percent, while voters in the Central Valley were least supportive of him, at 46 percent.

Nationally, 50 percent of the respondents to a Gallup Poll this month supported Obama, while 44 percent disapproved.

In California, Democratic and independent voters are turning on Obama, especially on the health care issue. The poll found that 53 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of health care, while 39 percent approved.

Yesterday, when I was examining comments by Chronicle readers to make a case against the "wisdom of crowds," particularly when violence was concerned, I acknowledged that "one may encounter some useful insights" among those comments. One possible candidate for such insight came in a comment to Garofoli's story from a reader with the handle "starstuff." I found the observation potentially useful:

Such a brilliant orator, and yet he *still* hasn't taken control of the national narrative on health care or anything else. Still the Republicans manage successfully to frame (nearly) every conversation about (nearly) every topic.

As I see it, the whole Obama campaign was grounded in a spirit of unity, enabled by a host of strategies for bringing supporters together, ranging from good old-fashioned door-to-door encounters to the full power of the Internet as a "social medium." The post-election speech was, above all else, a celebration of that unity; and things really have not been the same since then. Thus, by taking control of all conversations, the Republicans have managed to apply all those Obama strategies, which were so successful in winning the election, in a judo-like maneuver to reverse their direction, turning those "engines of unity" into "engines of divisiveness."

I would argue that the Republican leadership has committed itself to winning the next Presidential election, and they have decided that turning the public against the Democrats will be more successful than trying to turn public favor towards the Republicans. My guess is that the main lesson the public has learned from the health care debate is that one can count on neither Democrats nor Republicans to improve matters. That is why I feel our greatest threat right now is one of succumbing to demagoguery through a general mandate, rather than through the usual Constitutional processes.

Divisiveness is sort of like entropy in the social world. Like entropy in the objective world of thermodynamics, it can only increase. However, in that objective world that increase can be checked by an expenditure of energy (which will never be 100% efficient). If "change we can believe in" is to be anything more than hollow rhetoric, a similar expenditure of "social energy" will be necessary to check the inevitability of divisiveness. The sooner Obama realizes that he needs develop a new strategy to muster that social energy as effectively as he had summoned it to get elected in the first place, the more likely will he have the power to satisfy those who brought him into the White House.

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