"Political Calculus" Making sense of mixed emotions, inalienable rights, and the Inaugural Address


“Harmonize your expectations with your aspirations!” is what I wrote Monday morning, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the day of President Obama’s second Inaugural Address as our giant Backbone marched through DC streets with a primarily anti-drone, Inauguration day demonstration.

Arc of Justice

We participated on the principle that the sympathetic President Obama should be held no less accountable for his failures and violations of law as the despicable figurehead G. W. Bush. And it was MLK Day, a day to stand up for our highest aspirations and deepest principles. So, while our giant spine was protesting moral and policy failures in DC, our We the People and Earth celebrated Dr. King, social movement and our place in journey along the the arc of justice.

After a very long day, I finally got a chance to sit down and listen to the inaugural address. I replayed it a number of times with competing emotions of skepticism and admiration. I am clearly no apologist for the Obama administration, nor a person who invested my hope for change in his presidency. Yet, as valid as the many critiques of President Obama are, i.e. his support of NDAA, counter -productive, illegal drone assassinations, the TPP, a general allegiance to Wall St., (the list goes on), I was still very impressed by his speech, his use of language, and the construction of his arguments. Hope? Audacity?

Despite my skepticism, I found it fascinating and hopeful. Most interesting to me was that while President Obama used “We the People” from the preamble to the US Constitution as a theme, he was really grounding the appeals within his speech upon the “self-evident,” inalienable rights that formed the foundation of the Declaration of Independence.

The US Constitution, came into being through clever maneuvering to strengthen central government. Amongst other things, Federalists and anti-Federalists argued whether natural rights and liberties were guaranteed or granted by government. The Bill of Rights was the compromise that enabled the Constitution to be ratified.

Power of Love

So, though Backbone also utilizes the Constitution’s opening words We the People to create a sense of shared identity, it is the Enlightenment based concepts of social contract, natural law, and inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence which remain the philosophical foundation of our movement for universal human rights. A social contract based on universal human rights is the counter vision to corporate rule, investor rights and and the trashing of people and the planet in service of the paradigm of profit with impunity.

If nothing else, social movement progressives should feel affirmed that the rhetoric used by the President to articulate his vision in his second Inaugural address is at the very least, aligned with us at in its philosophical foundation. We should celebrate that the universal human rights framework is alive and well. Whether President Obama’s actions live up to his language is yet to be seen. But this language would not have been used at such an important moment were it not considered the true underpinnings of our social contract and the deepest penetrating political rhetoric in our society.

We the People in
  Seattle on MLK Day 2013

So, how do we… or rather how do I, as a movement oriented progressive hold the complexity of these seemingly contradictory impulses? How do I simultaneously critique and admire without artificially exiling one emotion as too naive, nor abandon my principles and divorce my expectations from my progressive aspirations?

Here is something that helps me and I’d like to share it with others who also feel this dilemma. In my presentations and workshops, I often take people through a deconstruction of the term “Political Calculus”. I believe it clarifies roles, and deepens our understand the dynamic relationship implied by the statement “When the People lead, the Leaders follow.”

“Political Calculus”

  • Politics for politicians is the “Art of the Possible.”
  • Calculus is the mathematics of changing variables.
  • Thus political calculus is the political calculations of what is politically possible in an emergent and changing world.
  • Real Change Requires Spine

The politician’s role is to have their finger in the wind, and pushing the buttons on the calculator of political expediency/exigency/self-preservation.

Our role, as change makers, social movement activists, organizers, and cultural workers is to change the social/political/economic variables and expand the scope of what is politically possible in tune with our principles and aspirations. Simultaneously, we must make politically toxic the world view that we oppose, lessening its appeal, reducing its claim in the territory of the politically possible.

A lofty speech by the President may inspire hope or trigger our justifiable skepticism. Regardless of your response, let us be emboldened in our work to grow a movement that continues to change the variables. Let us recommit to expanding the territory of what is politically possible, and the rhetorical purchase and mandate for policies that affirm universal human rights, the rights of communities, and the preservation of our biosphere. Let us raise our and others expectations to be in harmony with our deepest aspirations.


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