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