alien & sedition.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
  Dreaming Big Dreams: How Obama Could Change the Game

Right now we’re stuck in a 51-49 paradigm, electorally speaking. This suits conservatives just fine. They’ve only ever had one truly unifying, game-changing star in the modern era, and he was an actor – and when his magic disappeared, they resorted to the Atwater-Rove approach: divide and conquer. It’s a truism that conservatives win by dividing America, while progressives can only truly win by uniting it. We can muddle along, hoping to hold our blue states and swing Ohio, and we might win next time, but the math won’t change and in four or eight years the conservatives will be back, governing with undimmed arrogance, no matter how small their margin of victory – because for them, power is its own mandate.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the Whigs found themselves in the same dilemma. They were trapped at the wrong end of a 51-49 paradigm, losing a series of agonizingly close elections. Despite their dynamic ideas for national development, the Whigs’ only Presidential victories came with a pair of popular generals running non-ideological campaigns (Harrison in 1840 and Taylor in 1848). Each died in office and was succeeded by a mediocre vice-president; more importantly, for our purposes, each man’s victory came in spite of, and as a distraction from, the dire state of the Whig Party. Only with the destruction of the party was a northern Whig leader able to emerge and, under the banner of the Republican Party, address the critical issue of the time, build a progressive plurality, and win a decisive election in 1860. Lincoln frustrated the bold radicals and reformers of his day. But he did force America to make a choice, and the way he led the nation to the decision point made possible the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union.

I’m not by any means saying that Obama is Abe Lincoln. (Though, circa 1858, Lincoln was no Lincoln either.)

What I want to argue is that truly successful presidential candidates – and truly transformative presidents – are not those who will tell party activists a laundry list of what we want to hear. They are those who will speak the broad language of consensus and inclusion, all while framing the American story as the story of their values. I believe this is what Obama is doing.

The outline is this:

1. Define America’s values in terms of your values.
2. Tell the story of America as the story of the march of those values.
3. Frame the current political situation as a key moment, in which we are called to action in order to uphold our inheritance of those American values.
4. Define your political opponents as the forces of complacency in the face of that call.
5. Ask Americans to make a choice.

I’ll go through these step-by-step, looking at Obama’s rhetoric:

Step One: Define American Values

Obama has been accused by many in a resurgent progressive movement of that pernicious political sin: centrism. But as George Lakoff recently pointed out, not all centrisms are the same. There’s the kind of centrism where you reduce yourself to an egotistical institution of one (Lieberman centrism), or the kind where you go foolishly chasing after your opponent’s rhetoric (Harold Ford centrism). But then there’s kind where you work to activate the majoritarian progressive values of what Lakoff terms “biconceptual” Americans. Rather than defining yourself around some elusive concept of the center, you define the center around your progressive values.

In this era of divide-and-conquer conservative politics, there’s a hunger for national consensus. And unity is a good thing: a necessary – though not sufficient – condition for effective progressive governance in America. This does not mean full unity – 100% consensus. It means broad consensus, framed around the centrality of progressive values to the American experience. It means transcending the 51-49 paradigm.

In his speech to the DNC, Obama’s call for unity attracted a great deal of attention:

There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. […] We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Less remarked upon, but even more important, was the paragraph which preceded this, where Obama defined the very idea of national unity around core progressive values:

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up, with out benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
In Obama’s formulation, national unity itself is a progressive value – and the progressive value of mutual responsibility is at the very core of the American national idea (and at the core of majoritarian religious belief). This mutual responsibility, meanwhile, is what makes possible the flourishing of the individual which is also central to the American project. As he said in his commencement address at Knox College: “We’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.” This is America defined as a progressive project.

Step Two: Tell the Story of America

Obama begins the commencement address with a self-deprecating story about his first press conference as a U.S. Senator, when an earnest reporter asked him, “What will be your place in history?” It’s a funny story, and a great starting point for a graduation speech, but it’s also a canny way for Obama to begin his telling of the American story. He goes on: “In other eras, across distant lands, this question could be answered with relative ease and certainty.” Servants in Rome, peasants in medieval China, subjects of King George: all knew their place, and none had the freedom to build their own lives.

“And then America happened.”
This is covenant theology, stated directly. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn explains how Puritan covenant theology came to broadly influence the founders of the American republic as they tied together the disparate strands of reason, law, and radical opposition that led to the Revolution. It was the idea “that the colonization of British America had been an event designed by the hand of God to satisfy his ultimate aims.”

We all know the many crimes committed and tragedies allowed in the name of the American project. But by locating the origins of America in a covenant, Obama and other “prophetic” progressives (to use Cornell West’s term) can tell a story of America that amounts to an ongoing struggle to redeem that covenant, despite our national sins. In America, “destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared.” This is antithetical to the reductionist conservative version of American history, always seeking to shrink our national project to its narrow origins. This America is built around an advancing American Dream: a “collective dream” that

...moved forward imperfectly – it was scarred by our treatment of native peoples, betrayed by slavery, clouded by the subjugation of women, shaken by war and depression. And yet, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, people kept dreaming, and building, and working, and marching, and petitioning their government, until they made America a land where the question of our place in history is not answered for us. It’s answered by us.
Obama refers again and again to faith. But it’s not an empty rhetorical gesture aimed at “values voters.” It’s central to his story of America. Faith refers to redemption, and the story of America is the story of the collective, progressive redemption of the American covenant. It is, as he says in the DNC speech, “an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation.”

Step Three: the Call to Action

Redemption, in turn, is tied to action. Action has always been a core progressive value, in contrast to conservative complacency. The great progressive Presidents – Lincoln, both Roosevelts, JFK – have always centered their politics around a call to action.

Obama frames it thus:

The true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them.
The story of American greatness is the story of collective action for the common good.

We have faced this choice before.

At the end of the Civil War […] we had to decide: Do we do nothing and allow captains of industry and robber barons to run roughshod over the economy and workers by competing to see who can pay the lowest wages at the worst working conditions? Or do we try to make the system work by setting up basic rules for the market, instituting the first public schools, busting up monopolies, letting workers organize into unions?

We chose to act, and we rose together.

[During the Depression], we had to decide: do we follow the call of leaders who would do nothing, or the call of a leader who … refused to accept political paralysis?

We chose to act – regulating the market, putting people back to work, and expanding bargaining rights to include health care and a secure retirement – and together we rose.

When World War II required the most massive homefront mobilization in history and we needed every single American to lend a hand, we had to decide: Do we listen to skeptics who told us it wasn’t possible to produce that many tanks and planes? Or, did we build Roosevelt’s Arsenal for Democracy and grow our economy even further by providing our returning heroes with a chance to go to college and own their own home?

Again, we chose to act, and again, we rose together.

Today, at the beginning of this young century, we have to decide again. But this time, it is your turn to choose.
This is where Obama turns the call to action to confront the challenges progressives want to address today: globalization, the education crisis, the health care crisis, the environmental crisis, the task of keeping America secure while rebuilding our ties to the world and restoring America’s international credibility.

Obama issues challenges to Americans generally, and to both political parties. But note the quiet but important imbalance between those calls:

Every one of us is going to have to work more, read more, train more, think more. We will have to slough off some bad habits—like driving gas guzzlers that weaken our economy and feed our enemies abroad. Our children will have to turn off the TV set once in a while and put away the video games and start hitting the books. We’ll have to reform institutions, like our public schools, that were designed for an earlier time. Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities, even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs. [Emphasis mine.]
Here he sets up a unifying call to action. But, politically, his demands are very different for the two parties. This is not moral equivilance: he is calling for the Democrats to innovate, and for the Republicans to abandon conservatism and accept the core progressive principle. It feels like centrism, but it has much more substance.

The call to action means embracing progressive values and rejecting conservative complacency. Here is where he frames the opposition.

Step Four: Define the Opposition

Obama has defined the American story as an ongoing process of collective action to redeem the common progressive values embodied in the American covenant. He has argued that we now face a choice whether to continue that effort against the challenges we face today. Now he must define the contemporary political opposition standing in the way of that choice.

He must explain how conservatism is bad for America.

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government – divvy it up by individual portions, in the form of tax breaks, and it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own education, and so on.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it – Social Darwinism – every man or woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity.
Here Obama takes on the very heart of the modern conservative movement – the better to drive a stake through it. He doesn’t duck away from defining and confronting the conservative philosophy. He takes it head on. He has already set up its refutation:

It doesn’t work. It ignores our history.
In short, conservatism is un-American.

What is conservatism? It is complacency in the face of challenges which demand action. It’s a form of weakness. From his speech to the Take Back America Conference:

It’s the timidity, it’s the smallness of our politics that’s holding us back right now – the idea that there are some problems that are just too big to handle.
Conservatism is a kind of political cowardice. Again, he confronts the conservative philosophy head on:

They don’t believe that government has a role in solving national problems because they think that government is the problem.
And we have seen the results of that philosophy, in a country ravaged by a quarter-century of conservative ascendancy and six years of total conservative government. As Lakoff says, a successful progressive candidate must use the trauma inflicted by conservative government to make the case for progressive politics. Obama, again referring to faith, points to how conservative government has very nearly derailed the American Dream:

Our faith has been shaken by war and terror and disaster and despair and threats to the middle-class dream and scandal and corruption in our government.
In an era when it seems that conservatives have seized the national agenda (and how often have we heard that conservatives have “ideas” and Democrats do not?), Obama defines conservatism as inherently hollow, weak, and empty. It is a kind of social coma into which the nation falls when we do not choose to take action.

Step Five: Ask for a Decision

All of this puts Obama in position to ask Americans to make a bold and very specific choice in the 2008 election. But, one year before the first primary ballots are cast, he has not yet made that clarion call. This seems to be what frustrates many progressives. It seems to me that many of us are only happy when a candidate takes up arms at a political Alamo. That’s a recipe for principled defeat. By contrast, I believe that what Obama is building – if he follows through – is a broad progressive victory.

Armando has described how, in 1860, Lincoln rhetorically seized the political moment for his progressive values – challenging voters to choose between his vision of America, and the dead-end of the Southern position. Armando frames Lincoln's opponent Douglas as the “uniter” candidate, but, in fact, Lincoln’s challenge to the South was a challenge to an American majority: to make a choice, to unite behind one agenda or the other. He called the Democrats’ bluff. But he did so, not with the ferverent impatience of John Fremont, but by laying the groundwork for a majoritarian consensus about the meaning of America.

The time will come when Obama will have to ask Americans to make a choice, not just in their hearts, but with their votes. If he has done his work right, he will have made it possible for a solid majority to choose the progressive vision.

Many progressives are concerned by the fact that Obama has proposed few specific policy ideas. I’m not personally worried about that: hilzoy has pointed out how, in his short time in the Senate, Obama has been behind a remarkable number of good, solid, wonky ideas. But in the election, on the level of ideas, Obama will have to be both bold but not overly specific. JFK didn’t have to explain how we would get to the moon. But he had to say we would get there. Obama will need to clearly frame the election as a referendum on key progressive ideas like affordable health care for all Americans, a thorough commitment to education, and a decisive move to confront the massive threat presented by global warming.

But the real choice Obama will have to demand is bigger and broader. He will have to ask Americans to vote to endorse the progressive vision of American history and society he has laid out. He will have to tell us: “A vote for Obama is a vote for the notion that we are all in this together. It is a vote for the understanding that government can improve our lives, and we all have a stake in it.”

After so many years of muddling through on conservative turf, trying to get along in the 51-49 paradigm, Obama will have to ask us to reject the conservative project, and endorse the progressive story of America. For now, he is building consensus – as he should. But when the elections come, then he will have to frame them around a choice: clearly, boldly, and confidently. My dearest hope is that he will do so.

Did Obama come up with all this on his own? Of course not. Millions of ordinary Americans, over the course of centuries, wrote this story. But Obama tells it eloquently, and effectively, and urgently, in a way that I’m not sure any other potential Presidential candidate can. The progressive story may sound obvious to us, but in recent years the complacent conservative narrative of America has choked it out in public discourse. That’s why, if he does indeed follow through and ask Americans to make a clear choice, to take action in defense of our common progressive ideals, I believe Americans will do so, and Obama will have changed the game.


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I like and respect Obama and believe he's brilliantly playing off of the current media hype.

However, his lack of international experience (and experience in general) make me wary of handing him the Democratic primary let alone electing him to the top post. The mundane and sporatic legislation he has offically attached his name to thusfar has been lacking of any real direction/substance from a wouldbe leader.

Until he lays out clear and specific policies, both domestic and international, he'll have a difficult time taking on Hillary (Gore, Edwards and possibly Kerry ), nevermind swaying me that he's the best person for the job.

It will be an interesting primary season to be sure.
I actually think that substance, per se, is not the problem. Obama had a reputation in the Illinois Senate for working on real, important, but unglamorous legislation, and he's been quietly doing the same thing in the U.S. Senate.

But I agree that he'll need to take some bold strokes as the campaign goes on. Now that he's in the majority, and no loner ranked 99th in seniority, he may have more opportunity for that.
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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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