On Being American Enough
Having a different vision of what America should be doesn't make President Obama less of an American than anyone else.
August 27, 2010 - 12:01 am
But the question isn’t whether the president’s vision of what American can be is different from that of most of the country; the question revolves around that vision’s legitimacy as emanating from deep within the American soul, and whether it fulfills a longing in the American heart for “true” justice and equality.
The Founders were eminently practical men, well read in the classics, believing they had learned the lessons of history about the dangers of concentrated power and the evil of which all men are capable. It’s what historian Page Smith refers to as a “Classical Christian Consciousness,” where recognition of man’s fallen state as well as a dose of public virtue were more likely to keep us free than the alternative. This he described as a “Secular Democratic Consciousness,” heavily influenced by the European enlightenment, saw man as basically good and his faults correctable.
Having faith in the ultimate goodness of mankind and the perfectibility of its institutions was the vision of the Jeffersonians, while the majority of the Founders believed in creating safeguards against the depredations of evil men and guaranteeing the natural rights of citizens. The resulting clash over the centuries of these two visions as the best way to achieve justice and liberty has defined an America that lurches between spurts of progressive reform and conservative restraint and retrenchment.
Barack Obama’s ideas are firmly rooted in the former of these visions. It is a belief that government institutions are perfectable; that the unintended consequences of his massive efforts to tear down the old and build up the new in health care, finance, the free market, and other areas are controllable and indeed, necessary in order to achieve the ultimate goal of creating a “more perfect union.” Whatever huge dislocations arise because of his policies must be accepted so that his notions of “justice” and “equality” can evolve.
If the path to achieve this vision takes America off the rails laid down by the Founders, this is a small price to pay in order to realize a just society. Here he is in a now famous 2001 interview laying down his belief of where the Constitution is deficient in matters of justice and equality:
[A]s radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.
And that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court-focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.
There is nothing new in Obama’s pining for “positive rights.” to augment or supersede the more familiar “negative rights” which are the rock-ribbed basis of original intent of the Founders — to proscribe what government could not do to individuals. The positive rights doctrine has picked up support during the last 100 years as a means to “perfect” society and cure the perceived ills of unequal distribution of income and unfair advantages of the white majority.
Obama’s visions and dreams are rooted in the American experience and are therefore as American as the vision and dreams of his opponents. His is not an “alien” vision for America. It is radical. It is extreme. It violates first principles. It stretches the meaning and intent of the Constitution to the breaking point. It is not mindful of the consequences of change, nor is it practical, workable, reasonable, or prudent.
But despite the president’s radical vision, his dreams of what America can become probably aren’t much different than yours or mine. Who wouldn’t want a more just society, a more tolerant society, a society more equal in opportunity? It is not the destination that divides us but rather the road that must be followed to get there that separates us.
In this respect, President Obama is “American enough.” He may lack the emotional touchstones that define heartfelt patriotism, and deny the ultimate specialness of America that gives us all pride and a purpose to achieve and excel. But that doesn’t make him any less an American than anyone else.
And neither you nor I have the competence to make that judgment in the first place. If America is more a state of mind than a country, then certainly it has room for different visions of what it is capable of achieving for its citizens. That doesn’t mean that implementing his vision shouldn’t be opposed with every ounce of energy and every fiber of our being. But we can do it without branding the president as “not American enough.”