Analysis of any State of the Union speech can be an almost-endless (and pointless) game of parsing, especially since so much of the annual address often consists of recycled material. One interesting hook in President Obama’s speech this week, though, involved his recommendation for how best to rally American society around his agenda. What began as routine exaltation of the U.S. military–the sort of fundamentally-decent-but-perhaps-grown-a-bit-shallow oblation every politician is required to perform–turned into something more:
[H]is remarks took a curious turn. He said: “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example. [. . .] He cited “the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.”
First, as William Kristol points out in a post at The Weekly Standard, whatever one thinks of this proposal, there’s the awkward fact that the culture of our military tends to clash with the goals of today’s liberalism rather frequently, whether the topic is more political, like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or more ethereal, like the military mindset of rigor and struggle as contrasted with the culture of soft politeness and safety-net expansionism held by many on the left.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, this conflation of “military” and “society” is worrying. The military isn’t a perfect analogy to our society, and nor should it be, for either group’s sake. Our military excels at its mission precisely because it has a circumscribed, specific role to play and can do so with relative freedom. “Society,” on the other hand, is almost always unmanageable to some extent, and in any event the burden of that Herculean task should not be allotted to our men and women in uniform. There is also the obvious point that a nation which holds itself out as a democratic, constitutional republic ought to be cool (though not unfairly or reflexively hostile) to any argument which gazes longingly on a unitary, command-based system of governance.
Perhaps most of all, though, Obama’s analogy betrays the decline, both internally and in terms of their cultural influence, afflicting American institutions. It’s hardly his fault—this slow breakdown has been occurring for the past several decades, at least—but the reality is that military is the only institution left standing in anything like respectable shape. It’s become the default (even preferred) metaphor for national unity and has remained universally acceptable in the face of cultural and political balkanization. We should certainly be thankful it’s holding out, but churches, schools, civic organizations, and families all might have also seemed natural points of comparison and analogy at one time in our nation’s history. They, in addition to the military, provided much of that shared national experience of sacrifice, ritual, and common reference that Obama yearns to rekindle.