Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

SOTU and the Failure of Politics

Bradford Littlejohn


By Bradford Littlejohn

February 14, 2014

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama surprised many observers with his not-so-veiled threats to sidestep Congress and act unilaterally when possible:

The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress. . . . Some [of my proposals] require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do. 

At several points throughout the speech, he announced his intention to use the extensive bureaucracy and discretionary power of the executive branch to take action where Congress had failed.

Needless to say, such remarks provided an easy target for criticism from the right, which characterized his message as “my way or the highway,” and as more evidence of the overgrown power of an executive branch that needs a Congress ready to check and balance it. Obama’s remarks are part of a broader strategy shift among Democratic leadership fed up with Republican stonewalling, and they mirror the controversial decision of Senate Democrats a couple months ago to stop Republican filibusters by lowering the threshold for appointee confirmations. Such moves reflect a calculated gamble that most Americans are more fed up with inaction than they are afraid of unilateral action.

Whether or not it proves successful, the trend should be deeply disturbing to people on any part of the political spectrum. Democrats may temporarily benefit from this more aggressive approach, but if and when Republicans regain the White House and/or Senate, Democrats will no doubt regret the precedent they have set. And while critics on the right have certainly overplayed the “tyranny” card in recent years, to the point that the charge has become almost meaningless, they are certainly right that this is how the slow road to tyranny often begins: a powerful leader ignores constitutional checks and appeals directly to the masses for support while taking matters into his own hands. 

However, we should note that it is not quite true that this is how the road to tyranny begins. “It takes two to make a quarrel,” as parents admonishing finger-pointing children will say. [J1] The first step, the condition that enables a leader to find public support for unilateral and even unconstitutional action, is a state of political paralysis or even civil war. Hitler’s rise (to take what has become a favorite bogeyman of the right) was preceded by the dysfunction and political impotence of the Weimar Republic. The same Republicans who are now complaining that the president will not work with them are the ones who in 2009 announced their intention to obstruct his every move and expressed their hope that he would fail (as Jon Stewart merrily pointed out in the post-SOTU episode of The Daily Show).

In the rhetoric surrounding the government shutdown showdown last October and recent strategy discussions, hard-line conservatives have repeatedly used the language of war to describe the effort to oppose Obama (and complicit members of the Republican establishment). A recent article in The Federalist, for instance, calls upon Tea Party supporters to take up the mantle of the American revolutionaries and be another David that decapitates the establishment Goliath. Of course, there are times when politics degenerates into a kind of war (or even a full-fledged war), and “self-defense” may be justified, when rights must be weaponized in order to be defended. But in determining a just war, it matters a great deal who fired the first shot. In this case, that would seem to be the Republicans, with their pre-emptive declaration of hostilities against the Obama administration in 2009. However, many on the right will argue that the contest with Obama is but the latest battle in a long-running war against Big Government, a war in which the federal government fired the first shot by encroaching on the liberties of the American people. 

Regardless, of who “fired the first shot,” the recognition that a state of war exists—especially within our own nation—is a sobering acknowledgment indeed, more sobering than most seem prepared to accept. Political war is not simply politics as usual, or even “politics by other means,” but a sign that politics has failed. Our acknowledgment of this should stimulate all parties to move beyond finger-pointing and urgently seek means of reconciliation.

-  Bradford Littlejohn has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Theological Ethics. He researches and writes in the areas of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, and Reformation History and also works as Registered Investment Advisor in the state of Idaho. He is managing editor of Political Theology Today and a regular columnist for several blogs.

 [J1]I flipped the sequence of these two sentences since the original order implied that two making a quarrel was not how the road to tyranny begins. The current order makes the first sentence transition from the final thought of the preceding paragraph, and the second sentence transitions to the next thought.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”