11/09/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

How to Be American Here in the Future

Everyone knows that what won on Tuesday was not just a candidate or a party, but a version of America's future. But there's a lot we don't know about that future, even though we are living in it, even though we are it.

A lot of what we know is what the future isn't. Here in the future, we aren't hung up on race and sexuality. This is more than principled tolerance of "other groups." I don't think I know anyone who thinks of gay people as a "group" in the way that being black, Catholic, Mormon, whatever, used to make you part of a group -- that is, used to give you a mandatory identity that you had no choice about, and just had to deal with. I also don't know people who spend a lot of energy trying to place their friends in racial categories: lots of us are "mixed," many more of our families are, and "what are you?" is, at best, a graceless expression of somewhat antique curiosity.

This is why marriage equality is coming, and quickly. A solid majority of us in the future think the question is no big thing. Yes, it's a huge victory when voters go for equality in Maine and Maryland, but that's not because the question is hard. The question strikes us as easy, and the number of people who are not narrow and dumb about it is growing. The basic political strategy, besides debates about whether and when to go to the Supreme Court, is to wait for people to grow up.

Obviously, race is harder because it is still a mandatory identity in lots of ways. "No big thing" doesn't apply when you're being pulled over, or followed through a mall by a security guard, or when a prosecutor is deciding what to do with your low-level marijuana arrest. It doesn't apply to a difference between black and white household wealth that's still close to a staggering 9:1 ratio.

But that's not what race was about in this campaign. It was about closing the ranks of old-school racial identity. It was about not being able to believe that Barack Hussein Obama could go to the White House twice, or even that he could be a citizen, or a Christian (never mind suspecting that a Muslim couldn't be a real American). It was about food stamps and "Obamacare," and the suspicion that your money was going to people who didn't deserve it and were not like you. If you live in the real world, and especially if you have lived in and around the white South, you know perfectly well that these are the well-worn code words of race. What else could it possibly mean to "want America back" from a moderate President who was so resolutely reasonable, temperate, and bipartisan that it almost lost him the election after the Denver debate?

That's what the diverse mix of voters who sent Obama back to the White House rejected on Tuesday. We also rejected authoritarian moralizing about traditional sex roles, which is how at least two surprise senators will be joining the Democratic caucus after their opponents seized on rape as a chance to illuminate their absolutist, religiously inspired views on abortion.

You might almost think, in light of all this, that in the future we just don't care much about other people's lives. This has been the conservative charge against modern liberalism for a long time -- that our tolerance is just moral slovenliness. But that's not really it. Every one of the new attitudes I'm talking about has its roots in knowing, liking, caring about, being people who have felt oppressed by traditional racial attitudes and sexual morality. We're talking about the simple consequences of having gay friends and family members for most of your life, not going to school or working in racially homogenous settings, and knowing people whose lives would have been very different without legal abortions. If tolerance is the wrong word for the ethics of the future, indifference is way off the mark. Try openness, to other people's experiences and to changing your own mind. Try taking "Mean people suck" as a first cut at an ethics, and letting it sink in just how mean the Republican Party can seem, and that Barack Obama, just as surely as he is not white, not a businessman, not a traditional Protestant, is not mean.

So, what don't we know? Oddly, we don't know much about what the politics of the future is like, as opposed to what it's not. Meaning -- the Democrats are the rear-guard party of the twentieth-century safety net and the regulatory state, but it's somewhat random that they are also the party of social openness, of the future that won on Tuesday. The constituencies that built that welfare state are fading or gone: unions, rural whites who benefited from the New Deal (which, atrociously and for political reasons, mostly left out blacks), and elites with a principled, worked-out theory of why we needed a strong government to counterbalance the forces of industrial capitalism. These programs required two things: first, a sense of solidarity, of what we owe one another because of what we have in common as Americans; and, second, a clear idea about the role of government in the economy and social life.

The ethics of openness implies no particular idea of solidarity or vision of government. The clearest sense of solidarity in the campaign was in the coalescence of the white old-guard, with their definite idea of who Americans are and their willingness to say that the safety net (Social Security, Medicare) was for them, not for other people. Nasty, incoherent, and yet very definite in its ideas about who is inside and who outside, it was, if I may put it this way, the dark side of solidarity. The idea that Romney tried to peddle in his "47 percent" comments, that Obama's supporters were unshakable Democrats because they live from and believe in the welfare state, was a fantasy.

The reality is the contrary. A Republican Party that shook off its cultural moralizing and took a more consistently libertarian stance might -- might -- appeal to a lot of people who found that the party of Romney, Akin, and Mourdock turned their post-millennial stomachs. To my mind, this would be a bad thing and a lost opportunity. I think we need a new, or renewed, idea of American solidarity that fits the ethics of openness, and a theory of government that can help us tame rising inequality, falling social mobility, and the craziness of financial capitalism. But we don't have it now, and the last two presidential elections have given us only glimpses of what it might be.

Here are a few reference points. First, for an idea of the role of government, a lot of the key work will be practical and concrete. If health-care reform works pretty well, if it keeps people and their families more secure than the old system -- which is not a very high bar -- it may become a civic sacrament, like Social Security, and the idea that insurance companies can jerk around sick people for profit will belong to the dark ages. (If one of the earlier shots at universal health care had succeeded, this would already be true.) But there is no strong, shared premise out there that government has a definite role, and no confidence that it can do anything much very well. Building a practical solidarity, which is what a good government is, will be incremental. Every move will have to press against the cultural inertia of the last thirty years, which have mainly celebrated markets and denigrated government.

Second, there will have to be an idea of solidarity that is not racial, not religiously specific, and so less reliant for its emotional energy on the contrast between who is inside and who is outside. This is tricky, an experiment of serious historical significance. From the New Deal to post-World War Two Europe, the great modern exercises in solidarity have rested on a fair dose of homogeneity. Franklin Roosevelt's Freedom from Fear and Freedom for Want were, alas, the special property of the same Americans who, in 2012, said they wanted America back. We have, I think, a glimpse of post-racist solidarity in the Obama campaigns, the role-up-your-sleeves spirit, the blend of idealistic motivation and practical work, and, above all, the willingness to assume commonality with a bunch of people you don't really know and don't really expect to know well.

We've already seen the limits of that, though, in the ways that the 2008 campaign, with its tremendous energy, failed to translate into a sustained movement or an approach to governing -- and, four years on, had won over slightly fewer than the share of Americans who stood with Obama the first time. Maybe some help can come from the fact that the ethics of openness already contains threads of solidarity, the willingness to get over your own self, care about the experience and perspective of someone different, and find the ways that difference turns out to be less rigid and important than you might have imagined. These are just hints, though, just the beginning of a sketch. The answers will have to come from lots of different places, the way they always have before.

Maybe the best abstract reason for optimism is how wrong the Tea Party, Obama-fearing people who want America back are about America. How wrong they are, unfortunately, is only half-wrong, but that is something. This country has always been built on racial and religious exclusion and narrow moralism but also, at the same time, on principles of freedom and equality with universal potential, that do not depend in the least on who pronounces them. Recall that Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist, could identify with the slave owners who wrote the Declaration of Independence because their principles were as inclusive as their attitudes were narrow. Whatever was in the hearts of those who wrote the words, once they were set down as civic scripture, they could not be protected by a sign reading "Whites only." As Woody Guthrie observed on a similar point, the other side of that sign says nothing, and that is its promise.

On Tuesday, the country chose the version of America that expands its principles and, by doing so, redefines them. We have only begun to consider what the redefinition looks like for the next generation of government, public life, and solidarity. These are hard problems. Three days after we helped keep the country on this course, they feel like good problems to have.

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