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
Different visions of what America is supposed to be. Different dreams about what America should become. This is what separates President Barack Obama from a large and growing number of his constituents.
Rightly or wrongly, many on the right and left have taken it upon themselves to define what it means to be a “good” or “true” American ever more restrictively. Got a problem with an Islamic cultural center and mosque being built within spitting distance of Ground Zero? Obviously, you’re an intolerant bigot. Support the building of that icon to Islamic triumphalism? Obviously, you’re a friend of the terrorists.
Of course, the argument extends far beyond mosque building. It is, as Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin point out, a new fissure in the ever-evolving fault lines that divide the country ideologically.
One side wants to change the definition of what it means to be American and the other doesn’t:
It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. President Barack Obama wanted to end the baby boomer-era culture wars — and he’s done it.
But along the way, Obama has sparked an even more visceral values debate about whether he’s moving the country toward socialism and over the very definition of what it means to be American.
Smith and Martin attempt to define the battle over what it means to be an American as a substitute for the culture wars over abortion, gay marriage, and other moral issues as defined by the religious right. These issues have been pushed into the background as a result of economic conditions and Democratic overreach in Congress.
That may be too pat an explanation. The Christian conservatives I know are none too happy that their issues have been prorogued by conservative elites who are salivating at the electoral opening presented by ghastly Democratic failures in creating jobs and Obama’s growing unpopularity. Who is to say what the lay of the land will be in the summer of 2012 when the GOP next meets to decide on a platform? If the president is allowed another Supreme Court choice, I daresay those issues will come back to the front burner in a hurry.
In truth, it comes down to a difference in vision and dreams. Does anyone have the right to dismiss someone else’s vision of what America should be? Or denigrate their dreams of what America can become? Certainly criticism of that vision and of those dreams is perfectly rational and reasonable. Ideally, such criticism should be tolerated by both sides in our republic.
A conservative’s vision of America starts with first principles, and as Peter Wehner points out, the president does not believe in those principles:
“What we’re having here are debates about first principles,” Wehner said. “A lot of people think he’s trying to transform the country in a liberal direction in the way that Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction. This is not the normal push and pull of politics. It gets down to the purpose and meaning of America.”
No first principles and no traditional understanding of American exceptionalism, says Mike Huckabee:
“He grew up more as a globalist than an American,” Huckabee said. “To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”
James Taranto believes that many Americans don’t think Obama is “American enough”:
Obama’s success in overcoming black doubts does not suggest an easy solution to his current predicament. To a large extent, he has tried to act as a bridge between America and “the world,” much as he acted as a bridge between black Americans and America as a whole. But being “truly and fully part of the world,” at least as Obama seems to understand it, would constitute a diminution rather than an enhancement of America’s status.
Then there’s the president’s evident disdain for the literal meaning of the Constitution, where he seeks to use the document not as a guide but as a false justification for his radical “remaking” of America. Stretching executive power and the “Commerce Clause” to the breaking point in service to his personal vision, Barack Obama has set himself adrift from the constitutional anchor and set sail for shores that cannot be seen, much less sensed. It is a journey many of his fellow Americans are refusing to take.
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.”