Obama vs the rest

A number of commentators have linked this passage from Barack Obama’s speech:

t’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America — there is the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

with a number of other themes from the convention: Bill Clinton saying that Republicans “need” Americans to be divided and Democrats don’t; Howard Dean’s call to “take back” America; John Edwards’ claim that there are now two Americas but there can be one; and Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again.”

I don’t see it. Obama’s statements seem to me different in kind.

First, and most importantly, this portion of Obama’s speech was symmetrical with respect to partisan, cultural, and religious divides. It’s “pundits” who seek to describe us as divided. But in fact, we’re all red and we’re all blue. Supporting the war, worshipping God, and playing Little League are symmetrical with not liking the Patriot Act, opposing the war, and having gay friends. That’s very different from the “Those nasty conservatives are divisive, unlike us nice inclusive liberals” theme that’s kept popping up.

Relatedly, there’s something offensive in the “Take America back”/ “Let America be America again” stuff. It’s something I fully expect to keep hearing; it’s something I remember loathing about the first Clinton inauguration. It’s the necessary implication that Republicans, and Republican government, aren’t really American, that Democratic rule is not only preferable (of course Democrats think that) but the natural order of things, an order that must be restored (notice the restoration theme in both “take back” and “be America again”). Obama didn’t imply any of that, either.

Finally, unlike Edwards, Obama’s not imagining one America as some future state of affairs to be accomplished with a Democratic victory. It’s a present state of affairs– we are, already, genuinely united.

A fair criticism of Obama’s speech might be that it’s too nice, too apple-pie, to really stake out much of a position on anything. But you can’t criticize it, the way you can the rest, for communicating the message that “we’d all be united, if it weren’t for those nasty un-American Republicans.” And I find there to be something genuinely touching in his version, and something really grating in theirs.

[disclosure: Obama is, of course, my faculty colleague at the University of Chicago in addition to being my district’s State Senator.]

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