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February 28, 2008


The Obama phenom

Like much of the United States, I am fascinated by the trajectory of Barack Obama’s candidacy. In an odd way, the response of his supporters, particularly his younger supporters, brings to mind the antiwar protesters of the 1960s. A deep current of patriotism ran beneath their marches and sit-ins, for they belonged to a generation well schooled in the lessons of democracy. They had watched with shame as their country besmirched its bright promise of fair play and equal opportunity, and they longed to be proud of their country. Obama’s message of hope summons up a similar desire.

But I am also fascinated by the number of people on the left who feel compelled to chastise Obama for parading under false progressive credentials. Matt Gonzalez’s analysis in Beyond Chron is only one of the latest, although his article turns out not to be wholly disinterested (Go, Matt!).

Barack Obama is obviously a talented man. His first book, Dreams from My Father, eloquently and perceptively chronicles his path to adulthood in terms that resonates with many young people. The second, The Audacity of Hope, is less dramatic. In fact, it’s pretty dull at times. And it could never be accused of espousing revolutionary principles.

This is a man who cut his political teeth in Chicago, who quickly learned to maneuver through the pathways of party politics in order to get elected. He’s running as a Democrat, not a Green. Why should expectations be different for him than for Hillary Clinton?

One clue can be found in a review of The Audacity of Hope by Michael Tomasky, which appeared in the New York Review of Books in November 2006:

He really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican — a believer in civic virtue, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith. These concepts are consonant with liberalism in many respects, but since the rise in the 1960s of a more aggressive rights-based liberalism, which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good, the two versions have existed in some tension. Here is another passage from The Audacity of Hope on that decade:

The victories that the sixties generation brought about — the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority — have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions — that quality of trust and fellow feeling — that bring us together as Americans.

Obama’s success challenges the hard-won victories of identity politics that have characterized the American left over the past several decades and disturbed observers such as Todd Gitlin.

Identity politics. The politics of individual liberty. How do we reconcile this concept with the democratic ideal of equality? The question has plagued the United States since its inception. Alexis de Tocqueville recognized its importance in Democracy in America, devoting much space to disentangling its attractions and dangers:

The taste which men have for liberty and that which they feel for equality are, in fact, two different things; and I am not afraid to add that among democratic nations they are two unequal things.

It may be exactly the uneasy interplay of these two ideals that characterize a true democracy.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008