It is very rare these days to find a political leader whose words can become forces in the real world with the capacity to make people think anew and perhaps even to move them to act. In the age of spin, leaders’ words are like processed McNuggets, occasionally achieving an Award for Eloquence with a slogan punchy enough to momentarily penetrate the consciousness of voters, who are judged to have roughly the attention span of a gerbil. Every word is market-researched by polls and focus groups. Desperation would grip any contemporary spin doctor faced with a draft of one of Winston Churchill’s great wartime speeches: “What? You promise them ‘blood, sweat and tears’! Winnie, are you, like, totally nuts? You want to get voted off the island?”
Once there were American presidents whose words mattered: Adams, Jefferson, Wilson, Roosevelt and, above all, Lincoln. Lincoln’s words still resonate powerfully, not just because of his eloquence but because of the clarity and imagination with which he grappled with great questions, some of which are with us yet. Mere eloquence detached from compelling logic and argument is not enough. Ronald Reagan was an actor who read his glib lines with conviction, but the lines merit no more than the odd late-night rerun on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Words can sing, but if they are to soar they must have substance.
Barack Obama came to office armed with formidable eloquence, drawing in part on the remarkable oral tradition of African-American religion. But Obama’s words convey more than unerring cadence and rhythm. He is also saying things that bear serious attention, and saying them in ways that will endure long past his presidency. We should listen carefully and consider his message, which is one of subtle subversion of long-held tyrannies of habit, prejudice and ideology.
It is ironic that the very people he particularly seeks to touch with his words – conservative fundamentalists from darkest America to darkest Islam – are now frantically attempting to shout him down, to drown out his message of conciliation, compromise and cooperation. They have no choice if they wish to remain true to their unreflective certitudes. Obama’s message is in his method, and his method is to engage his enemies on their terms, in their language, and to ask them to reconsider their positions in relation to their values. What could be more subversive, literally, than that?
This strategy of subversion is also radical in the context of the deep and corrosive polarization that the American Right has imposed on public space. Under Bush, the Republican right wing maintained a partisan death grip on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media were largely under ideological occupation by the neocons and evangelicals whose influence shifted the centre of discussion far to the right. Anyone caught on the “left” (a loose term in America) was marginalized and trivialized, if not silenced altogether.
Nor was this ideological war limited to the domestic scene. When Bush declared after 9/11 that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he drew a line at least as sharp as the East-West divide in the Cold War, and one with particular implications for the Muslim world.
Facing this ferocity of partisanship in his run for the nomination, and with his own baggage of “otherness” in his innate liberalism and, more nastily, in the colour of his skin, Obama chose a risky stance, summed up in his famous campaign phrase about not being interested in red states or blue states but in the United States. He clearly understood, as some liberal idealists do not, that to adopt an all-out attack mode against a Right so hegemonic in the society and its political institutions would be suicidal. He instead focused on the glaring deficiencies of the Republican project in terms of the real, practical situations of ordinary Americans. After eight years of neocon ideology posing as public policy, and especially after the dramatic collapse of Bush’s casino capitalism in late 2008, his practical critiques found growing resonance.
Beyond this, he was also running a very different kind of campaign, in which he targeted moderate Republicans and independents (not to speak of conservative Democrats) who had been swayed by the conservative social and cultural themes of the Right. Look, he was saying, I see the world through your eyes; I share your Christian values; I worry about the same things that you worry are threatening the American way of life. But the Republican prescription for these ills has simply not worked. Hatred, suspicion and division are not the way forward. Let’s call off the culture wars that have so corroded the fabric of civility and trust. There is a new American consensus out there, just waiting for the politicians to recognize it and move on to a more constructive agenda.
A number of Obama’s speeches make this strategy clear.
His “race” speech during the campaign for the nomination became a classic of American oratory the moment it was delivered. Obama took on the issue of race in America from the perspective of his own African-American identity and history, but he was also careful to speak across the racial divide. He asked white Americans to see the world through black eyes and black Americans to see the world through white eyes. Since the late 1960s, the Republicans had been successfully playing the race card against the Democrats. Obama took that card away.
His Cairo speech to the Muslim world in June 2009 spoke to Muslims in the words of the Qur’an, judiciously chosen not to lecture Muslims patronizingly as Bush had done, but to engage them constructively across the divide of faith while at the same time honestly facing up to the past errors of the West. It marked a shift from the “hard power” failures of his predecessors to a “soft power” approach. The aim is to isolate further the zealot core of violent Islamist fundamentalists from the Muslim mainstream – not to speak of isolating the fundamentalists in Israel equally committed to ceaseless conflict with the Palestinians.
His Notre Dame speech in May addressed the hot button issue of abortion. Obama asked his Catholic audience, “As citizens … how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” He asked his listeners to remember that the “ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt … It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us.” This doubt “should humble us … and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness.” He appealed to the Catholic social conscience to work to undermine the social and economic conditions that made abortion a necessary option.
His speech on health care reform to Congress in September was addressed to politicians as well as voters. But the strategy was the same: gear down the divisive rhetoric and focus on what is held in common as a basis for action. Unfortunately, this speech followed an incendiary summer in which the Right on the airwaves and in the streets, and Republicans in office across the land, orchestrated a recklessly irresponsible campaign of lies about health care reform (“death panels”! Canadian horrors!). Obama’s mild defence of a “public option” in the face of hysterical charges of communism appeared fainthearted to liberals, but he was still trying for common ground – especially with the more conservative members of his own party in Congress.
There is a common thread that runs through all of his words. Obama strives to synthesize the best of both sides in the ideological divide, to build a liberal conservatism and a conservative liberalism. Put baldly, this may sound like no more than the old “pragmatism” blarney that politicians fall back on to cover their own lack of convictions or ideas. But I think if we consider Obama’s words carefully, it is much more than that. There is a recognition that in democratic societies there are always deep divisions, and the freer the society the more passionately differences are held. If we want to move forward and confront the big issues that demand solutions, using the values of one group as a whip against others will be counterproductive. This was the catastrophic failure of the American Right, even when armed with all the weapons of hegemonic domination of American life.
If the narrow ideological zealotry of the Republican minority and the hysterical fearmongering of the Rush Limbaugh rabid Right has a rational design, it must be to force Obama off his message and to truly polarize political debate. If relentless negative rejection of all desperately needed reform eventually forces Obama into actually playing the militant culture warrior role that right-wing caricatures have falsely portrayed, then the Right will have won.
What a hollow, mean victory that will be.