Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Know Nothings

About 150 years ago, there was a political party called the American Party, who were nicknamed the Know Nothings. You can read here about their platform, which isn't really the subject of this post.

I increasingly fear that the Know Nothing label could be applied to the current leadership of my Republican Party. Widespread Republican opposition to President Obama's first-day-of-school speech to schoolchildren seems to be based mainly on a misunderstanding on the part of those GOP leaders about a president's roles as, on the one hand, head of government, with the related role of being head of his political party, and, on the other hand, head of state.

Obama's school speech is clearly made within his role as head of state. I did not find anything in his remarks about policy questions on which the parties differ. If there's an incipient kids-shouldn't-do-their-homework party arising among the American body politic, it has yet to make its presence known.

He avoided such controversies as the role of teachers' unions and the traditional public funding vs. charter schools vs. vouchers debate. Opponents of federal funding of education could differ with his statement that the head of the federal government is "working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn." But the Republicans can hardly criticize that, in light of their strong support of federal funding when they were in power, earlier in this decade.

Children in school should not be taught to uncritically accept everything a president says or does. When I started school during the 1960s, our country was emerging from an era during which the message was conveyed that something close to such uncritical acceptance was proper. With all that's happened in the meantime, I don't think we need to worry about anyone being indoctrinated with such a message today.

On the other hand, I don't think we want to convey to students the message that they should not listen to the president.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of Obama. But I don't think it does either the country or the Republican Party any good to look for something to criticize in absolutely everything he says or does.

I see it as incompatible with the role of loyal opposition to seek to undermine the legitimacy of the incumbent president as head of state.

UPDATE: Here is a commentary from the U.K., where the roles of head of state and head of government are attached to different offices (queen and prime minister, respectively), agreeing with my argument that a confusion about those two roles in the U.S. (where both of those roles are handled by one person, the president) is at the heart of this controversy.

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