“progress is not inevitable”

…progress is not inevitable. It’s the result of choices we make together. And we face such choices right now. Will we respond to the changes of our time with fear, turning inward as a nation, turning against each other as a people? Or will we face the future with confidence in who we are, in what we stand for, in the incredible things that we can do together?

Barack Obama, 2015 State of the Union

As Aristotle would have advised, Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address last night was a deliberative speech in the grand style. Not a statistical deluge of policy particulars, but sweeping language about future problems. He reassumed the persona of law professor, but certainly one of the large lecture hall or the legislative chamber, not of the seminar table or the forensic court.

When Obama read the above quotation, perhaps on account of this professorial demeanor, I began to consider his speech in light of some of the political philosophy I’ve been reading with my Columbia students over the past two years. My sense is that several thinkers would view Obama’s understanding of democratic progress differently: on the one hand, someone like Plato might see such change as unstoppable slippage into tyranny, and on the other hand, someone like Hegel (or maybe even Smith) might see it as a kind of genuine progress that we only appear to choose at all.

Immediately preceding Obama’s consideration of progress here, he lists some of its elements: economic recovery, health care reform, the mass legalization of same-sex marriage, and others. It’s worth considering whether and how we choose to make the specific political and cultural changes the president speaks of. In what sense are these changes actually chosen at all? In what sense is Obama’s State of the Union itself merely der Geist seiner Zeit?