Obama's Message of Unity: An Analysis
by upper left, Mon May 07, 2007 at 03:58:41 PM EDT
Many in the progressive political blogosphere have discounted Obama's stress on a new politics of "unity" as meaningless rhetoric at best, or worse, as a sign that he is some sort of DLC centrist. This take on Obama's message, combined with Edwards' more outspoken populist policies and style, has led a growing number of online progressives to coalesce around Edwards' campaign.
This reaction isn't particularly surprising. The progressive political blogosphere grew out of widespread frustration with the inability and/or unwillingness of the Democratic Party and its leaders to stand up to the radical right agenda of the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies. Most progressives have little tolerance for any message that smacks of appeasement. In this context, partisanship is largely viewed as a positive, and unity is viewed with suspicion.
While I understand this reaction to Obama's "unity" message, I believe this "take" is overly simplistic and misconstrues both the reasoning behind the message, and the implications of the message, if Obama is successful in winning the Democratic nomination. I think progressives should slow-down and do some serious thinking about what Obama is trying to do.
WHY THE "UNITY" MESSAGE?
Let me begin by saying I have no inside connection to the Obama campaign, and that what I have to say here is primarily based on having done a lot of reading about Obama and his campaign manager David Axelrod, and on personal speculation. I would argue that Obama's unity message is based on four components: biography, personal philosophy, political positioning, and strategic necessity. The first two of these are widely understood, the second two much less so.
1) Biography: Obama's life has been about bridging differences and striving to be effective in the role of the outsider. He is considered black, but grew-up in a white family. He was an American in Indonesia. He was a kid from a modest home in a series of elite private schools. He was a mixed-race Hawaiian trying to organize in the projects of South Chicago. As President at the Harvard Law Review, he was the man in the middle trying to cope with faction wars between right and left. He was the ambitious politician trying to take on the Chicago machine at the same time he sought their support.
For six of his eight years in Springfield, the Dems were the minority party and Obama was trying to get things done without direct access to the levers of power. All of these experiences have led Obama to value finding common ground with those of different backgrounds or values.
2) Personal philosophy: Obama is a self-described pragmatist. He is interested in getting things done rather than striving for some kind of ideological purity. As someone who also worked as a community organizer in my twenties, I can relate. If you are in the trenches trying to make changes to improve the concrete conditions in people's lives, you tend to have little patience for ideological purity. You want results. Obama believes that he has a talent for finding common ground. His values are undeniably progressive, but he is willing to work with centrists and even conservatives when he believes he can find areas of shared values.
3) Political positioning: Over the past forty years, the political parties have become increasingly polarized and the level of partisanship has significantly increased. The demise of Southern Democrats and moderate Republicans have led to a realignment that is much more ideological than in the past. In particular, the efforts of conservative Republicans to impeach Clinton and, and the Rovian practices of the Republicans during the past six years have led to a great deal of bitterness. Many in the progressive blogosphere seek revenge; they seek to build a progressive majority that can turn the tables on conservatives. OTOH, many who are less avowedly progressive would like to see the level of partisanship reduced. This group is less engaged but larger in number. I believe that Obama's "unity" message is designed to appeal to this group. Obama's high favorable ratings among independent voters are a testament to the fact that his message resonates with the very group that usually decides general elections in this country. Viewed in this light, Obama's message rather than being a naive attempt to rise above politics is rather a very smart bit of "real politik."
4) Strategic necessity: Obama is an African American, we all know this, but do we really think about what it means? Obama is a black man trying to become President of a country steeped in a four hundred year tradition of racism. The economic foundations of this country were built on genocide of native peoples and the exploitation of African slaves forced to work these lands stolen from the natives. Slavery was a reality for 250 years. During this time, an entire superstructure of racist ideology was built up to justify an inhumane institution. The end of slavery was not the end of racism. It was not until the `60s that blacks got formal legal equality. After 20 generations of institutional racism on this continent, we have now had one generation of formal legal equality. This legal equality, however, does not mean that the racist assumptions that underlie our culture have suddenly disappeared, nor does it mean that the legacy of economic inequality has been overcome. Even now, equality of opportunity for select individuals does not mean that equality of opportunity exists for African Americans as a group. Poverty, crime, drugs and lousy schools leave blacks, as a group, at a huge disadvantage. These institutional barriers to equality have led to a whole new form of racism, where smug suburban whites can blame blacks for their lack of individual responsibility and justify their lack of compassion as being in black's own self-interest.
This is the context in which Barack Obama is attempting to become the first African American President of the United States. I firmly believe that progressives need to talk about these issues. Many seem reluctant to do so. Perhaps we fear that we will reveal some form of bias and open ourselves to accusations of being racist. On one hand, I think we tend to underestimate the size of the obstacle Obama is attempting to overcome. OTOH, I think many may be making unspoken assumptions that overestimate the size of the problem. This is a discussion for another post. I
I believe that Obama's message of unity is an attempt to reduce the psychological threat of an African American President to the majority Caucasian population. Rather than emphasizing areas of difference and "us against them" conflict, Obama is saying, "we are all Americans, let's work together to make this country live up to its promise and potential." This is a powerful "meta-message"; a message that most of this country is ready to hear.
A CALL FOR DISCUSSION
Unfortunately, I think many on the left are not in a mood for compromise. I believe this is unfortunate, I am not saying that progressives should support Obama just because he is black. I do believe that it is a mistake for progressives to dismiss Obama as "insufficiently progressive" because he is framing his message based on unity. Unity is a value in and of itself, it has great political appeal, and it very well may be a necessary frame for our country to finally break the race barrier.
I believe progressives need to discuss these matters openly and honestly. Obama is in many ways a unique candidate. He is uniquely positioned to heal some of the most profound wounds in our nation's soul, and uniquely equipped to change our image in the world. We should not dismiss this opportunity without real thought and discussion.