Thursday, November 08, 2012

How's that "more perfect union" working out?

His high praise of Obama notwithstanding, Adam Gopnik thinks the president is kind of bullshitting us (and himself, perhaps) with his renewed declaration of national unity:
his political intelligence is so keen that he knows when unreality best serves his ends. Political intelligence is as distinct and intuitive a gift as any of the other kinds of intelligence—the situational intelligence of the athlete or the analytic intelligence of the intellectual—and a large component of political intelligence lies in being faithful to your own fictions. The new Spielberg-Kushner-Lewis movie, “Lincoln,” reminds us (or will, once widely released) that Lincoln’s entire conduct in office during the war was based on the fiction that the secession had never happened—that the South was not a rebellious nation but, rather, a bunch of outlaws running around in gang regalia. What you could see had just happened—a bunch of states becoming an alien nation—had not. This fiction of continuity, of an indissoluble union in the face of its rather evident dissolution, was essential to Lincoln’s case and to his credo.

To this list of—what shall we call them?—higher liars (sounds harsh, though it conveys something of the idea) most other great politicians might be added. F.D.R., with his assertion that fear was all there was to fear when there was so much real stuff to be frightened of; and Reagan, for that matter, with his many repeated myths and mantras. By now Obama must know the virtues of fighting and the limits of the invocation of unity, but he knows, too, that a cool man who does not cherish his own warmest rhetoric becomes a mere hot-air artist. If that knowledge can make him seem at times na├»ve, or even willfully perverse—well, after all, he’s the one who’s the phenomenon, not you.
Stimulating, methinks, but not the whole story. No doubt, Obama's "not just red states and blue states" mantra puts forward a national image that's highly, shall we say, idealized -- that is, part bullshit. But only partly, because Obama lays the real beside the ideal, embracing disunity within unity -- as in his victory speech last night:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.

That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.
While accepting disagreement as to means, he asserts unity with regard to ends:
But despite all our differences, most of us share certain hopes for America’s future. We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers.

A country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader in technology and discovery and innovation, with all the good jobs and new businesses that follow.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world, a nation that is defended by the strongest military on earth and the best troops this -- this world has ever known.

But also a country that moves with confidence beyond this time of war, to shape a peace that is built on the promise of freedom and dignity for every human being. We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag.
This alleged unity of aspiration, paired with disagreement as to policy and frequent frequent failure to deliver, is expressed in Obama's favorite phrase, "a more perfect union." The paradox inherent in that phrase - perfection can't be further perfected -- captures his split-screen image of the ideal and the real.  Specifically, with regard to national unity, he regards political combat -- which is a sublimation of combat pure and simple -- as essential to that unity:

And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president. And with your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do and the future that lies ahead. 
By now, of course, Obama knows better than anyone how divided the electorate is in actual fact -- at least insofar as belief systems play out in actual voting, not to say in the conduct of elected representatives.  At the same time, he knows that solid majorities support the broad outlines of his "balanced' deficit reduction proposals; support levels on income inequality lower than those that obtain at present; and, when it comes down to it, support universal access to healthcare (my emphasis):
And I saw ['the spirit at work in America'] just the other day, in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter, whose long battle with leukemia nearly cost their family everything had it not been for health care reform passing just a few months before the insurance company was about to stop paying for her care.

I had an opportunity to not just talk to the father, but meet this incredible daughter of his. And when he spoke to the crowd listening to that father’s story, every parent in that room had tears in their eyes, because we knew that little girl could be our own.

And I know that every American wants her future to be just as bright. That’s who we are. That’s the country I’m so proud to lead as your president.
That, as I suggested yesterday, is the heart of his assertion of national unity, expressed in broader and more abstract terms a few moments later:
America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where [sic] you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.
It is only after that rather complex argument -- that we can and must fight over policies, but we share core aspirations -- that Obama, battle-hardened, reaches back to the apparent naivete of 2004:
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.
It's not really naivete, though, because, as Gopnik half-acknowledges, Obama is bidding as he speaks to make his fiction a reality, to move the country's center left as he speaks, to commit the electorate to more collective investment, to move the country closer to his vision of a more perfect union, with prosperity more broadly shared. He has been telling us the same tale since he came on the national stage, and from his own point of view he has doubtless turned the battleship toward making that tale our reality.

There is at least one more point in which Obama juxtaposes real and ideal: with what you might call a modified assertion of American exceptionalism. He doubtless knows that for all his talk about opportunity, the U.S. is neither the world's most upwardly mobile society  nor the country that best takes care of its own or shares prosperity most broadly, nor the one with the greatest social concord.  In a sense (though I must admit he doesn't say this), he holds us to a lower standard on these fronts, because the nation's defining virtue poses unique challenges (my emphasis):
This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.

The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
Because our populace is more diverse than any other, our unity is of a different sort: more fractious, more cumbersome, at once founded on common values and more inclusive of diversity of values. The values asserted here are the broadest, the ones that Obama, in other contexts, claims are universal to all religions -- and affirmed in new ways in the country's founding documents.

A fiction writer? Perhaps. But one with no illusions about what it takes to steer the real toward his asserted -- and, he would have us believe, our shared -- ideal.

See also: Obama claims victory for his "United States"

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