Monday, January 28, 2008

An American Voice

Barack Obama's comments after winning South Carolina brought home an idea that's been growing on us for a while:   there's something about this candidate that seems genuinely transformative.   We're referring to aspects of the man and his campaign that transcend the idea he could become the first black president (itself a transcendent concept) or the rock-star buzz about his candidacy.

Specifically, in Obama's message and words we hear the emergence of a new, and authentic, American voice.   In American history this happens every once in a great while.   The country experienced it with both Roosevelts, with Kennedy, and with Reagan:   a call of unmistakeable sincerity to something better, something different, to some aspect of what's best in our nature.

Saturday night In South Carolina, Obama recounted "I did not travel around this state over the last year and see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina."   Noting that the country confronts forces feeding "habits that prevent us from being who we want to be as a nation," he continued,

It's a politics that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon, a politics that tells us that we have to think, act, and even vote within the confines of the categories that supposedly define us, the assumption that young people are apathetic, the assumption that Republicans won't cross over, the assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor and that the poor don't vote, the assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate, whites can't support the African-American candidate, blacks and Latinos cannot come together.

We are here tonight to say that that is not the America we believe in.

Now, we have no illusions about the limitless capacity of presidential candidates for hyperbole.   This, however, represents much more.   Obama's words amount to a direct challenge to the group identity-politics that have formed the foundation of the Democratic Party and its core philosophy, since at least 1972.   No way that Obama doesn't understand this very clearly.   His willingness to challenge the philosophical and structural foundation of his own party testifies to a courage and strength of character that's much rarer than it should be among presidential candidates in recent years.

George W. Bush spoke in 2000 of being a uniter, not a divider. We all know how that turned out.   Obama's invocation of the same concept is different.  His South Carolina remarks capture a core message of his campaign that appeals to a country tired of political division and bickering.  It's a message that has appeal even for many Republicans.

While the Clintons openly pursue a campaign strategy seeking to leverage racial divisions (Bill's comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson the day after the S.C. primary is typical), in Obama we are witnessing a phenomenon that occurs only rarely:   the emergence of an authentic American voice of moral majesty.   It's voice that speaks for millions.

You can read here the full text of Barack Obama's comments after winning South Carolina.

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