One of the things that Barack Obama delivered in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, which has to rank among his truly great speeches, was a powerful restatement of his central orienting vision of political community and democratic citizenship, which he first presented during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008. After all the trials and tribulations of his presidency, it’s clear that he still remains committed to that vision, like it or not. In fact, anyone who follows Obama’s speech closely and compares it with some key speeches he gave in 2008 will notice that he went out of his way to emphasize some of the continuities.
As we listened to Obama’s speech, we were both reminded of a piece that we wrote way back in 2008 titled “Obama and the Progressives: A Curious Paradox“. We think the points we were making there remain timely and relevant, not only for understanding Obama but also for illuminating some crucial issues and challenges facing democratic politics today — especially in the context of an election contest against the threat posed by Trump and Trumpism. So we offer some highlights from our 2008 piece as food for thought. (Anyone who’s interested can find the rest here.)
[….] People often talk about Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but what’s the content of that rhetoric? To put it in terms that the Founders would have understood immediately, Obama has made civic patriotism and republican virtue central to the message of his whole campaign. He has consistently championed a politics of solidarity, active citizenship, national community, and the common good. Like Lincoln, Obama portrays the United States as a nation defined by certain constitutive ideals and charged with the project of imperfectly but continually striving to achieve, extend, and enrich these ideals in concrete ways (“in order to form a more perfect union“). Furthermore, Obama affirms and celebrates “the promise of America” (adding that “I know the promise of America because I have lived it“) while insisting that to fulfill that promise requires constant effort, civic engagement, shared sacrifices, and conflict as well as cooperation.
The most crucial requirement (“the great need of the hour,” in a formulation borrowed from Martin Luther King) is active moral and political solidarity — not only to empower oppressed and underprivileged groups, but to bind together and revitalize a more comprehensive national community.
(Obama is popular around the world, but it’s no accident that he drives some hard-core anti-Americans up the wall. For example, the Australian/British journalist John Pilger dismissed Obama as “a glossy Uncle Tom” who believes, along with Clinton and McCain, that “the US is not subject to the rules of human behaviour, because it is ‘a city upon a hill'”– whereas in reality it is just “a monstrous bully.”) [Update: In 2016, Pilger prefers Trump to Clinton or Sanders.]
Historically, those themes have often been prominent in American politics, including progressive, reformist, and radical politics. (Let’s not forget that the Pledge of Allegiance, which Obama has pointedly quoted, was originally written by a Christian socialist.) But in recent decades they have become increasingly unfashionable in some quarters–including those that have produced many of Obama’s most passionate supporters.
Nowadays many (not all) self-styled progressives distrust any patriotic talk and regard appeals to solidarity and the common good as mystifying bunk or dangerous propaganda. Instead, serious discussion of politics is supposed to focus exclusively on competing interests, and much allegedly progressive discourse has gone beyond valuing diversity to supporting an irreducibly fragmented “identity politics” based on fetishizing “difference.” (The main alternatives to balkanizing ultra-“multiculturalism” — more accurately termed “plural monoculturalism,” as Amartya Sen points out –are often varieties of abstract legalism or cosmopolitanism equally allergic to the notion of national community.) From this perspective, Obama’s invocations of “the American people’s desire to no longer be defined by our differences,” and his expressed conviction that “this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one,” should sound heretical. Ditto for his insistence that we have and must pursue “common hopes” that reach across our differences, aiming for more inclusive solidarity and effective recognition of the “larger responsibility we have to one another as Americans.”
Put bluntly, the core of Obama’s message would appear to be completely incompatible with the proclaimed beliefs of many of his most ardent progressive supporters. (And we haven’t even mentioned the religious imagery of compassion, covenant, and redemption — analyzed thoughtfully and provocatively by Philip Gorski — with which Obama sometimes links his political message.) So what gives?
Three partial explanations, not mutually exclusive, strike us as plausible. First, the fact that Obama is African-American probably helps to make his appeals to American civic patriotism (along with his religious imagery) more acceptable in progressive circles than they would be coming from a white candidate. Second, some of Obama’s supporters — and critics — probably assume that all this stuff is just empty campaign rhetoric that Obama doesn’t really believe himself. We suspect they’re wrong about that.
But the most interesting fact is that many of Obama’s progressive supporters don’t simply accept or tolerate his message. They are moved, thrilled, and inspired by it. As Gorski perceptively noted, this response suggests that Obama’s message speaks to profound hopes, concerns, and emotions that — for good or ill — run deeper than explicit beliefs and positions. We hope so. For decades progressive politics in America has too often crippled itself by unilaterally surrendering the discourse of national community and the common good–and, with it, some of the key animating principles of active democratic citizenship. (Todd Gitlin and others have rightly decried this folly.) If Obama can help make these notions respectable again for self-styled progressives, that alone would be a valuable contribution.
Postscript: Of course, a full assessment would have to take into account some of the disappointments and shortcomings of Obama’s actual presidency, and consider whether and to what extent they might have been linked to the ways that Obama tried to implement this orienting vision in practice. Among other things, it’s clear that for a while Obama had unrealistic hopes about the prospects for working out constructive compromises with the Congressional Republicans. He underestimated the extent to which they would respond to his presidency with a strategy of unrelenting, indiscriminate, monolithic obstructionism and intensified partisan polarization, and he did not foresee the political effectiveness of that un-civil, un-civic, and irresponsible strategy, damage to the country notwithstanding. That strategy also, by the way, had the unintended side-effect of helping deliver the Republican Party to Trump. But addressing those issues adequately would require a lengthy discussion that can be put off to another occasion. And those errors and setbacks do not, in our view, undermine the validity and value of Obama’s central message.