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Obama and the Progressives: A Curious Paradox

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For millions of Americans, Barack Obama and his message have inspired intense support, enthusiasm, and even exhilaration. But there's something paradoxical about Obama's appeal to an important segment of his supporters.

Aside from African-Americans, Barack Obama's strongest support has come from affluent whites with college degrees or beyond, especially younger voters. Upscale middle-class progressives have been the core social and cultural constituency for the post-1960s "new politics" wing of the Democratic Party. In contrast to Obama's disproportionate support among professionals, academics, college students, and the like (not to mention political journalists and pundits), the core of Hillary Clinton's support turned out to be in constituencies at the heart of the classic pre-1968 New Deal coalition, above all white working-class voters (supplemented by Clinton's greater appeal to Hispanics and to middle-aged and older women). That's a compressed and incomplete picture, but few would deny that it captures a lot of the story.

These two wings of the Democratic Party's base have cohabited with varying success for the past four decades. This year they polarized fairly sharply between Clinton and Obama.

Clinton and Obama don't differ substantially in terms of specific issues and programs. But their campaigns have been organized around different orienting visions of politics and political leadership. Clinton based her campaign on the well-established model of interest-group liberalism, which she used effectively to mobilize the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party. The fact that this familiar message resonated with her supporters in tone and content isn't mysterious.

But Obama's appeal to so many upscale white progressives does have a puzzling aspect. People often talk about Obama's soaring rhetoric, but what's the content of that rhetoric? To put it in terms that the Founders would have understood immediately, Obama has made civic patriotism and republican virtue central to the message of his whole campaign. He has consistently championed a politics of solidarity, active citizenship, national community, and the common good. Like Lincoln, Obama portrays the United States as a nation defined by certain constitutive ideals and charged with the project of imperfectly but continually striving to achieve, extend, and enrich these ideals in concrete ways ("in order to form a more perfect union"). Furthermore, Obama affirms and celebrates "the promise of America" (adding that "I know the promise of America because I have lived it"), while insisting that to fulfill that promise requires constant effort, civic engagement, shared sacrifices, and conflict as well as cooperation. The most crucial requirement ("the great need of the hour," in a formulation borrowed from Martin Luther King) is active moral and political solidarity -- not only to empower oppressed and underprivileged groups, but to bind together and revitalize a more comprehensive national community.

(Obama is popular around the world, but it's no accident that he drives some hard-core anti-Americans up the wall. For example, the Australian/British journalist John Pilger dismissed Obama as "a glossy Uncle Tom" who believes, along with Clinton and McCain, that "the US is not subject to the rules of human behaviour, because it is 'a city upon a hill'"--whereas in reality it is just "a monstrous bully.")

Historically, those themes have often been prominent in American politics, including progressive, reformist, and radical politics. (Let's not forget that the Pledge of Allegiance, which Obama has pointedly quoted, was originally written by a Christian socialist.) But in recent decades they have become increasingly unfashionable in some quarters--including those that have produced many of Obama's most passionate supporters.

Nowadays many (not all) self-styled progressives distrust any patriotic talk and regard appeals to solidarity and the common good as mystifying bunk or dangerous propaganda. Instead, serious discussion of politics is supposed to focus exclusively on competing interests, and much allegedly progressive discourse has gone beyond valuing diversity to supporting an irreducibly fragmented "identity politics" based on fetishizing "difference." (The main alternatives to balkanizing ultra-"multiculturalism"--more accurately termed "plural monoculturalism," as Amartya Sen points out--are often varieties of abstract legalism or cosmopolitanism equally allergic to the notion of national community.) From this perspective, Obama's invocations of "the American people's desire to no longer be defined by our differences," and his expressed conviction that "this nation is more than the sum of its parts--that out of many, we are truly one," should sound heretical. Ditto for his insistence that we have and must pursue "common hopes" that reach across our differences, aiming for more inclusive solidarity and effective recognition of the "larger responsibility we have to one another as Americans."

Put bluntly, the core of Obama's message would appear to be completely incompatible with the proclaimed beliefs of many of his most ardent progressive supporters. (And we haven't even mentioned the religious imagery of compassion, covenant, and redemption--analyzed thoughtfully and provocatively by Philip Gorski--with which Obama sometimes links his political message.) So what gives?

Three partial explanations, not mutually exclusive, strike us as plausible. First, the fact that Obama is African-American probably helps to make his appeals to American civic patriotism (along with his religious imagery) more acceptable in progressive circles than they would be coming from a white candidate. Second, some of Obama's supporters--and critics--probably assume that all this stuff is just empty campaign rhetoric that Obama doesn't really believe himself. We suspect they're wrong about that.

But the most interesting fact is that many of Obama's progressive supporters don't simply accept or tolerate his message. They are moved, thrilled, and inspired by it. As Gorski perceptively noted, this response suggests that Obama's message speaks to profound hopes, concerns, and emotions that--for good or ill--run deeper than explicit beliefs and positions. We hope so. For decades progressive politics in America has too often crippled itself by unilaterally surrendering the discourse of national community and the common good--and, with it, some of the key animating principles of active democratic citizenship. (Todd Gitlin and others have rightly decried this folly.) If Obama can help make these notions respectable again for self-styled progressives, that alone would be a valuable contribution.

Andrei S. Markovits teaches political science, sociology, and German studies at the University of Michigan. His most recent book, on European anti-Americanism, is Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Jeff Weintraub teaches social and political theory and political sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He also blogs at: http://jeffweintraub.blogspot.com/