Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Speech, Part 2 (On Race, Religion, Reagan Democrats, and RFK)

Three weeks later, and everyone has long since gone on to the next issue, and the one after that...but I'm still thinking about Obama's speech. Let me attempt a few (hopefully interrelated) thoughts that may advance the discussion a little here.

1. Jacob Levy said the speech "seems to have been a major public philosophy moment," and I can't disagree; Laura McKenna said the speech convinced her "that we're living in important times," and I think she's right. I regularly teach a class called Foundations of the American Character, but I teach it basically as an American political thought class. In it, we read a fair number of speeches, sermons, essays, letters, and lectures by nationally prominent politicians and figures. Some of these texts are actually good reading, or at least I think so; most, however, we read because they connect with the ideas that were current during the time period we're studying--and at their best, they also contribute to the movement and transformation of those ideas, rather than just commenting on them. You can all think of some of the famous ones: Washington's Farewell Address, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, FDR's Commonwealth Club Address, Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail, etc. I won't have to make up my next syllabus for this class for another eight months, but as I said at Laura's blog, I'm seriously considering throwing this speech into the mix. It takes a reliably modern liberal line on the blights which complicate our attempts to address the problem of racial difference in our society and economy, but it explodes those same liberal verities by insisting that racial resentments--both black and white--are not some unfortunate byproduct of America's racial enlightenment; on the contrary, he presents them as legitimate grievances that perhaps loom larger than any actual instances of racism. And that is a powerful thing for a national politician to say.

2. Much of the discussion about the speech, predictably, has focused on the fact that Senator Obama listened to the occasionally inflammatory and paranoid sermons of Jeremiah Wright for twenty years, and apparently didn't feel a need to challenge the man over some of his more ridiculous and noxious statements. There are more details to this story than made the dominant storyline, just as one ought to expect that there'd always be more to any story that involves the perspectives of two very different people spread out over two decades of time. (And moreover, Obama is not alone in this complicated story: Martin Marty, one of the most respected church historians in America, is in the same boat.) But let's stick with the simplified storyline just for a second: Obama heard, and Obama stayed. Think about this from the point of view that is held--or at least the one that you'd be forgiven for thinking perhaps ought to be held--by serious religious believers. For them, America's commodification of religion--the tendency of so many believers to privatize and personalize and switch and stop in their churchgoing, treating it as something they can easily changeable (and therefore disposable)--is properly viewed as a problem, if not actually a bit of scandal. Whatever Obama's other flaws as a parishioner (his selective memory about what Wright exactly said and when, for one), it's clear that his behavior, to say nothing of his dedication to Wright and TUCC at a time when political convenience screamed otherwise, indicates that as a man of faith he resists this trend. Traditionalists, therefore, ought to give him at least a little bit of credit. Some, of course, would be quick to claim that there's nothing spiritual here--that the senator chose TUCC simply to ingratiate himself into a black Christian community that was suspicious of him as an outsider and a latecomer, and he stuck around accordingly. Maybe. But then, if sticking around through two decades, and standing by a not-wholly-lovable-or-admirable father figure at a time of political crisis, is simply the fruits of calculated ingratiation, then frankly, I'd think religious conservatives of all sorts would like to see a little bit more of it.

(FWIW, in conversations with some of my fellow Mormons, I'm struck by the fact that a fair number of us seem to have an intuitive grasp of this dynamic, and this includes more than a few of my co-religionists who have no sympathy whatsoever for Obama or the liberal agenda he supports. I'm going off anecdotes here, of course, but it does seem that there is an understanding amongst most of us of what it means to be committed to a congregation, to sticking with it. It's a matter of acknowledging a relationship that is covenantal, or sacramental--you go there not because you like or agree with or feel to be wise each and every thing that is said, but because that's where the Word is, where the rituals and ordinances and authority (prophetic and otherwise) is to be found. Catholics should, I would think, have at least somewhat similar sympathies, though apparently that hasn't translated into much support for the senator, with a couple of notable exceptions.)

3. Bringing up Catholics brings up the Reagan Democrats, those stereotypical white, Midwestern, Catholic, pro-life, working-class voters that gave Ronald Reagan the wedge he needed back in the 1980s to eventually disrupt the Democratic coalition which had dominated American presidential politics for close to two generations. I've been thinking about the fate of these voters for years, and worrying about what the disappearance of these voters (with their vaguely populist and egalitarian yet traditionalist rhetoric) from the Democratic coalition might mean for the future of progressive politics in America for just as long. For many commenters, this is where the real cultural issue with Obama's speech, and Obama's candidacy, comes to the fore. It's not about race, at least not in any straightforward way (after all, polls show that most likely white voters seem satisfied with the way Obama has handled Wright's racist claims, including even those voters who don't plan on supporting him); rather, it's about how race and class intermix and result in policies and preferences--policies and preferences that, more often than not, have been crafted by and mostly benefit college-educated (and therefore often secular) elites and other urbanized professionals--which have disrupted the sort of compact, settled, localized ways of life which sustained these voters and their own potent mixture of conservatism and social justice. Of course, this isn't anything new; race and class have been shaping and feeding off each other and giving rise to divisive political issues for decades. And it may well be that some of the issues that long gave the Republicans an edge in attracting these voters, issues like crime and welfare, are simply--as Ross Douthat astutely notes--"yesterday's issues," issues that are no longer particularly relevant to the neighborhoods and lives that these voters know and orient their voting choices around. And even if they aren't entirely forgotten issues, Obama, in this speech and elsewhere, has seemed to display the sort of awareness of context which suggests he could actually get past at least a couple of these contentious issues (to the extent that they still haunt white, working-class, male Catholic voting habits) and therefore perhaps appeal to some of them here and there. Still, when you put it all together, it seems likely that Jonathan Chait is probably right when he suggests, after looking at the above polling data, that while a black member of America's educated upper-crust like Obama certain could win a presidential election, "he's going to need a substantially different Democratic coalition to do it."

What might this coalition be? It could be what Ruy Teixiera and John Judis used to call the "Emerging Democratic Majority," the expanding base of creative, information-economy professionals, (mostly suburban, mostly working) women, and minorities which they believed (and still believe, though clearly the 2004 and 2006 elections gave them a somewhat different, most culturally and religiously sensitive outlook on things) is bound to sweep the country, or at least achieve a large enough presence that they could convert the rest. Could still happen. Then again, the coalition which Obama perhaps needs to, and arguably seems to be trying to, invokve could be something we haven't seen before, or at least something we haven't seen in a very long time (at least by the standards of today's politics): a coalition based on a kind of participatory, gut-level, hope and religious faith. Not the sort of Christian faith that has been used by the Bush administration and others on the religious right to identify a particular kind of Christianity with the success of America's history and power, but neither would it be an empty liberal faith without any element of evangelism and devotion and patriotism to it. It would be a coalition based on America's civic religion.

4. Philip Gorski put up a thoughtful post on this possibility a few weeks back; I can't endorse everything or even most things in it (he slips too easily into the lazy liberal assertion that ostensibly "conservative" nationalism and religiosity depends upon racial division, for one), but he nails the potential spiritual/civic/national core of Obama's particular kind of appeal very well:

As defined by [Robert] Bellah in his seminal essay on the subject, civil religion is civic in a dual sense. First, it is civic rather than universal. It is a religion of a bounded, earthly community, not an encompassing, divine community. Second, it involves civility, that is, strong norms of tolerance and restraint and thoroughgoing acceptance of pluralism....[To invoke this possibility, Obama must] reconfigure the party landscape...to establish an alliance between the economically underprivileged and the culturally privileged, between those bereft of economic capital (black and white), and those rich in cultural capital (the "latte liberals"). Of course, the language of class is verboten in American public discourse. And Obama does not use it. Instead, in an Edwards moment, Obama argues that "the real culprits of the middle class squeeze" are "a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many." Here, he invokes the approved language of populism, pitting ordinary people against greedy corporations and Washington lobbyists, against economic exploiters and pseudo-intellectuals. This language has an [important] advantage...[n]ot only does it allow him to elide the forbidden language of "class warfare"; it also allows him to invoke the language of democratic sovereignty and national identity. For "the people" is a term that plays on two registers: class and nation. In this way, demands for social justice are implicitly linked with claims to popular sovereignty and patriotism. And rejection of those demands appears as un-democratic and un-American.

Of course, some will argue argue (as Will Wilkinson does here) that any kind of populist talk, any attempt to invest any particular people or nation with some particular civic (much less spiritual) argument for sovereignty and protection partakes of "zero-sum" thinking that undermines the expansiveness and hope that his message supposedly depends upon. Obviously, I disagree; I think a failure to be conscientious of, to be faithful to, one's own particular people is going to make recognition of and respect for other people's that much more difficult. (A possible connection here to Obama's faithfulness to his own congregation...) Of course, there's plenty of reason to doubt his profession of populist themes: they don't really fit his background and experience, and it's too easy to suspect them of being red meat thrown to desperate voter. Still, populism isn't just or only crude protectionism, though clearly that's often part of it--it's an effort to develop and strengthen local economic, social, and cultural sovereignty, taking it away from corporations and intellectuals and partisans and giving it back to the locals. The economic (and political) argument for such an emphasis is strong. And Obama's most fundamental political education has been in attending to locals: specifically, to community organizing and furthering the work and ideas of Saul Alinsky, whose efforts at democratic empowerment entwined the civic and the spiritual at a very deep communitarian level, and which, as Noah Millman astutely observed, might add an important conservative note to Obama's otherwise straightforwardly modern liberal program, and thereby move the whole country forward:

In the biggest sense, [Obama's transformational politics] would mean absorbing and recasting for the left a frame that the right has used successfully for a generation, namely one of individual and community empowerment and opposition to entrenched bureaucratic interests. What would recast it for the left is two things: first, adding "corporate" to the kinds of entrenched interests attacked in this way; second, by articulating why simply leaving the fight to people unsupported ultimately results in outcomes that are bad for democracy, and that therefore the government should puts its thumb on the scale--not in terms of dictating outcomes bureaucratically but in terms of making it easier for poorer people, less skilled people, less well-connected people, etc. to get organized to advance their own interests. In practice, of course, the kind of approach I’m talking about will mean a lot of results conservatives don’t like. Any move to empower organizing will mean stronger unions and particularly stronger pro-union laws in localities where political organizing can get such laws passed....But I’m not arguing that such an approach would yield conservative results; I’m saying that it would advance the argument, and get better results than the stale approaches that dominate too much of the debate today.

Again, it's a question of context. Most of those white Christians who were drawn into the civil rights movement were not there because of some comprehensive appreciation and technical understanding of what was going to be involved in righting the wrongs done to African-Americans in this country; they were there because they grasped the correctness, the participatory spirit, the bottom-line populist and civic morality, of the movement--ordinary Americans demanding their rights, demanding what the post-Civil War constitution guaranteed them but which they had been denied. E.J. Dionne (an observant Catholic, for whatever that's worth) looks at Obama's campaign and the way he talks about race and religion, the way he insists that there are legitimate grievances and a need for assistance on all sides of our nation--our locality, our civic body--and he see echoes of that movement: "this very shrewd politician simply understands how important it is to Democratic and liberal prospects that we return to the promised land of King and Niebuhr." To not insignificant extent, is was the partial abandonment of that spirituality, that conviction that morality and sin and hope and forgiveness are complicatedly caught up in all of our lives, that allowed the Democratic party to treat Catholic complaints about abortion so blithely, and working-class anxiety about crime and responsibility so condescendingly, for so long, and lose much of its credibility in matters of social justice along the way. Obama's promise is that he, in some ways, to some degree, may repair that.

Is the promise of repairs enough to swing over independent voters, moderate white Southerners, and perhaps most of all the white Catholic working class? Maybe not. But in treating his audience this maturely, in claiming to reach past the divisiveness of arguments and issues now close to 30 years old, Obama is sounds a little like another youthful politician, one that was also trying to build a new coalition and get himself elected in the midst of a trying and transitional time. Of course, any facile comparison between Obama and RFK is bound to sound like the worst kind of crude mythmaking: they are not particularly similar (though religious faith and democratic activism was important to each), and the crises they confronted aren't at all similar either. But whether in 1968 or 2008, Americans like a good speech; they like the effort to communicate something--especially when it is done with confidence and thought and hope and a sense being in the right place at the right time--about who this people really are and where we ought to be going. Reagan knew it, and he used it. Maybe Obama will too, if he gets the chance.

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