Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Audacity of Unity

It’s interesting that so few discussions in the media of Obama's Eighteenth of March Speech have focused on its core theme: "how hungry the American people [are] for this message of unity." This story seems significant to me, because for many reasons, Obama is the first presidential candidate who could actually deliver on it.

Obama is calling for the overthrow of the two great binary paradigms of American politics and society--Federalist/Republican (and its successors) and black/white--that have held sway almost continually since the second administration of George Washington. It is clear that the Founders viewed parties as an aberration and an evil--and for reasons that ring true today: the tendency of factions to throw sand in the eyes of the people and manipulate public opinion to hijack government for their own private ends.

The first opposition political party, the Republicans (ancestors of today's Democrats), came together for two reasons. The first, stated reason was to combat the centralization and hostility to civil liberties of the ruling Federalist administration. The second reason, unstated at the time, was to build ties between the "southern planters and plain republicans of the north" in order to forestall northern attacks on slavery by ties of partisan and personal connection. When the Federalist party ceased to be viable after the War of 1812, President Monroe ushered in the "Era of Good Feeling" by promoting the "amalgamation" of parties--the absorption of the former Federalists into the body of the Republican Party, which now represented the nation as a whole. But a generation of Republican officeholders and professional politicians considered this step as anathema--they needed party competition to justify their paychecks and their existence. The professional pols joined forces with frightened slaveholders to destroy the presidency of John Quincy Adams and permanently enshrine the "two-party system" in American politics.

The public has never really liked this binary division into parties, and at moments of crisis--foreign attacks, civil war--has abandoned it and identified as Americans. But because the two systems of division, party and race, are self-reinforcing, efforts to transcend partisan division have always been scuttled by the politicians' strategic deployment of racial division.

What Obama is proposing is revolutionary, while at the same time it is profoundly conservative--it draws on the founding documents and proposes to redeem them by exorcising them of the slavery that disfigured them at their birth. Because he in his own person ("seared in my genetic makeup") reconciles the dichotomy of black/white, he offers for the first time a way out of the dichotomy of Republican/Democrat and an opportunity for America to truly "live out the meaning of its creed."

Even as they applaud his eloquence and courage, the punditocracy have largely ignored this aspect of his speech, which strikes at the heart of the divisiveness that provides them with an audience and a job.

We are challenged as well. We need to take seriously Obama's call to believe in one America, and not be locked into a dichotomy of "them" and "us." We need to view the Democratic Party as a vehicle to restore--or more accurately, to elevate for the first time--the fundamental values of "e pluribus unum," and avoid the trap of regarding our party as an end in itself--thus perpetuating the vicious system of divide and rule that has governed us for more than 200 years.

Cross-posted from Daily Kos

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