Thursday, July 28, 2016

When a democracy offers "one choice": Obama's haunted celebration

One of the enduring themes in  Obama's rhetoric is to embrace the messiness of democracy: to remind listeners that 'the other side may sometimes have a point,' to urge the necessity of compromise, to affirm that people on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum share some core values.  

It was all the more striking, then, that in his convention speech last night he placed Donald Trump outside the pale of this consensus allegedly underpinning all our battles over policy. In his 2008 convention speech, Obama praised John McCain's service to country and personal decency effusively while lambasting his polices; in fact the whole convention was structured to kill McCain with kindness. With Romney he was more caustic, suggesting in his 2012 convention speech that to vote Republican was to choose oligarchy. But oligarchy is on the democratic spectrum. The U.S. has always been an oligarchy to greater or less extent.

In this his valedictory paean to democracy, in contrast,, Obama asserted that there was only one choice. He ultimately placed the Republican nominee in the company of the destroyers of democracy, the nation's worst enemies: fascists, communists, jihadists. And the context in which he made that shocking but wholly appropriate charge is fascinating.

He began by evoking the "real America" as portrayed by Trump's precursor, Sarah Palin: the small town Bible belt heartland -- where ironically he, in a very real sense, came from. He then carried that "heartland" through space and time, to Hawaii and working class black Chicago and to the present -- and then to the entire world from which the U.S. draws its immigrants.

You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign about what America’s lost – people who tell us that our way of life is being undermined by pernicious changes and dark forces beyond our control.  They tell voters there’s a “real America” out there that must be restored.  This isn’t an idea that started with Donald Trump.  It’s been peddled by politicians for a long time – probably from the start of our Republic.

And it’s got me thinking about the story I told you twelve years ago tonight, about my Kansas grandparents and the things they taught me when I was growing up.  They came from the heartland; their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago.  They were Scotch-Irish mostly, farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil rig workers.  Hardy, small town folks.  Some were Democrats, but a lot of them were Republicans.  My grandparents explained that they didn’t like show-offs.  They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies.  They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life.  Instead, they valued traits like honesty and hard work.  Kindness and courtesy.  Humility; responsibility; helping each other out.

That’s what they believed in.  True things.  Things that last.  The things we try to teach our kids.

And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns.  These values could travel to Hawaii; even the other side of the world, where my mother would end up working to help poor women get a better life.  They knew these values weren’t reserved for one race; they could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter; in fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.  They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke; a baseball cap or a hijab.

America has changed over the years.  But these values my grandparents taught me – they haven’t gone anywhere.  They’re as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith.  They live on in each of us.  What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here.  That’s what matters.  That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own.  That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here.  That’s why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end. 
Before excluding Trump so radically -- placing him in the company of fascists, communists and jihadists-- Obama quarantined him.  He offered Republicans something they have not availed themselves of: a Trumpechtomy:
Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward.

But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.
He differentiated Trump's dystopian vision not only from his own, and Hillary's, and the body politic's, but from Reagan's:
America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump.

In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election – the meaning of our democracy.

Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades, because he’s not offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election.

That is another bet that Donald Trump will lose. Because he’s selling the American people short. We are not a fragile or frightful people. 
Only through such quarantining could he assert that in this election, for all small-d democrats, there truly is only one choice:
Most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together – black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young and old; gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love.

That’s the America I know. And there is only one candidate in this race who believes in that future, and has devoted her life to it...
Once again, here, Obama excludes Trump from the community that includes Republicans -- "Americans of every party."  Hillary, on the other hand, the "one choice," understands democracy as he portrays it:
America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s always been about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard, slow, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.

And that’s what Hillary Clinton understands. She knows that this is a big, diverse country, and that most issues are rarely black and white. That even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise. That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. She knows that for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, see ourselves in each other, fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may seem.
Contrasting democratic pluralism to Trump's strongman promises infused Obama's valedictory paean to the American spirit as he's always portrayed it with intensity.  Back in 2008, and again in 2012, Obama regularly insisted that the change he aspired to lead "isn't about me." "Yes we can" was derided as gauzy feel-goodism,  but it was really a distilled affirmation of the power of bottom-up activism.  Last night, it was his answer to Trumpism: "America isn’t about 'yes he will.' It’s about 'yes we can.'”  Then, a bit later, he fleshed out, as he has so many times before, an idealized portrait of an America possessed of unity in diversity:
That’s America. Those bonds of affection; that common creed. We don’t fear the future; we shape it, embrace it, as one people, stronger together than we are on our own. That’s what Hillary Clinton understands – this fighter, this stateswoman, this mother and grandmother, this public servant, this patriot – that’s the America she’s fighting for.

And that’s why I have confidence, as I leave this stage tonight, that the Democratic Party is in good hands. My time in this office hasn’t fixed everything; as much as we’ve done, there’s still so much I want to do. But for all the tough lessons I’ve had to learn; for all the places I’ve fallen short; I’ve told Hillary, and I’ll tell you what’s picked me back up, every single time.

It’s been you. The American people.

It’s the letter I keep on my wall from a survivor in Ohio who twice almost lost everything to cancer, but urged me to keep fighting for health care reform, even when the battle seemed lost. Do not quit.

It’s the painting I keep in my private office, a big-eyed, green owl, made by a seven year-old girl who was taken from us in Newtown, given to me by her parents so I wouldn’t forget – a reminder of all the parents who have turned their grief into action.

It’s the small business owner in Colorado who cut most of his own salary so he wouldn’t have to lay off any of his workers in the recession – because, he said, “that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of America.”

It’s the conservative in Texas who said he disagreed with me on everything, but appreciated that, like him, I try to be a good dad.

It’s the courage of the young soldier from Arizona who nearly died on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but who’s learned to speak and walk again – and earlier this year, stepped through the door of the Oval Office on his own  power, to salute and shake my hand.

It’s every American who believed we could change this country for the better, so many of you who’d never been involved in politics, who picked up phones, and hit the streets, and used the internet in amazing new ways to make change happen. You are the best organizers on the planet, and I’m so proud of all the change you’ve made possible.

Time and again, you’ve picked me up. I hope, sometimes, I picked you up, too. Tonight, I ask you to do for Hillary Clinton what you did for me. I ask you to carry her the same way you carried me. Because you’re who I was talking about twelve years ago, when I talked about hope – it’s been you who’ve fueled my dogged faith in our future, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long. Hope in the face of difficulty; hope in the face of uncertainty; the audacity of hope!

America, you have vindicated that hope these past eight years. And now I’m ready to pass the baton and do my part as a private citizen. This year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me – to reject cynicism, reject fear, to summon what’s best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation.
That "hope" allegedly vindicated is under threat. Trump constitutes an existential challenge to the optimism he put forward as the quintessential American value and that he was at pains to express. He would not fully acknowledge the power of that threat. But it lent an extraordinary intensity to the seductive portrait of America he's painted so many times.

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