It was a beautiful set of words, inspired by America’s great moral leader of the 20th century, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King. "‘Unity is the great need of the hour’, is what King said," intoned Barack Obama during a recent address to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Georgia. "Unity is how we shall overcome."
Obama was in full rhetorical flight, envisioning – as it seems only he can – an America healed of its differences. Early last year, not long after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency, Obama described his greatest strength to George Stepanopoulos on the American ABC program, This Week: "I think that I have the ability to make people get beyond some of the divisions that plague our society and to focus on common sense and reason. And that’s been in short supply over the last several years."
Obama would not be my first choice for the nomination. In the absence of former vice president Al Gore, my heart was with the former North Carolina senator John Edwards. His repentance over his vote in favour of the Iraq War and, most importantly, his progressive populist stand against the greed of Wall Street and corporate America, his opposition to the outsourcing of jobs (via spurious "free trade" agreements) to low wage ghettoes, and his support for a universal, single-payer health insurance elevated him above his rivals.
But in the absence of Edwards, I’d be with Obama, just as in the absence of Obama, I’d be with Hillary Clinton, because just about any Democrat is qualitatively better than a Republican.
Obama established the theme of his 2008 presidential campaign at the 2004 Democratic convention, when he set out to demolish the theory that the US was rent irrevocably between Democratic and Republican States. "There are those who are preparing to divide us," he told the delegates, "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’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America."
So powerful is Obama’s charisma that his most diehard supporters are fainting at rallies across the country.
But if you review Obama’s superficially heart-warming rhetoric, you will notice something is wrong with the picture, and it’s not his pitch for racial and ethnic unity.
Consider the other half of Obama’s pitch: that there is neither liberal America nor conservative America, only a united country. This is not an appeal to unity. It is a model for the worst kind of middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference, lowest-common-denominator politics. It assumes that a $3-an-hour (plus tips) waitress at the International House of Pancakes in Mobile, Alabama, has something in common – other than citizenship or perhaps religion – with the Wall Street executive, who is earning, on average, 1300 times her wage.
Whether Obama intends it or not, his appeals to national unity only
reinforce the socio-economic status quo and undermine his claim to
being the candidate of change. They imply that the average working
stiff, in a society where the buying power of wages for lower and
middle income earners has been declining for more than 30 years, should
put aside his or her legitimate grievance for some supposedly lofty
The spurious notion of unity often demeans those demanding economic fairness – such as unions, consumer rights advocates, non-government organisations and charities – as "special interests" or "sectional interests".
Unifiers are often candidates of what Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, called the Establishment’s "Permanent will". (Dave Sirota, a great progressive populist who writes from the American heartland, recently used the term to describe the multi-billionaire New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is toying with the idea of a personally bankrolled "independent" run for the White House.)
Unifiers limit the scope of change to what both sides are willing to accept. They are hemmed in by a narrow consensus. In the 1960s, Democrats compromised on national health insurance when they should have been consummating Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
If, as Obama implied in 2004, there is only one consensual polity, that is troubling for democracy, because democracy requires often fierce disagreement.
There are times in a nation’s history when political division should give way to consensus. The most obvious example was Britain’s unity government during World War II, when the Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, a committed socialist, served as deputy prime minister to the Conservative’s Winston Churchill. Britain was directly under attack; London bombed nightly by the Luftwaffe. There was neither time nor public inclination for political point-scoring. But as a wartime leader, Churchill also put aside most of his own party’s ideological prerogatives. He did not use the cover of war to advance the Tory cause.
Compare his behaviour with that of George W Bush. Despite there being no direct threat to the United States from Iraq, Bush and his cheerleaders have demanded his political opponents make common cause with his war in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, he has cut taxes on America’s wealthiest citizens – not merely the "comfortable" professional class but the multi-millionaires and billionaires – and lavished taxpayer-funded, no-bid contracts on Republican-aligned corporations, such as Halliburton and Blackwater.
The Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, cavort with Latin America’s rich in Buenos Aires, while the children of blue-collar America die in the war Pappy Bush started. When there is no shared sacrifice, Obama-style calls for national unity ring hollow.
"Bipartisanship", "co-operation", "reaching out across the aisle" – call it what you will – sound inviting in an age where cable television ideologues and bloggers screech at each other. But most of the time the interests of the powerful and wealthy diverge radically from the interests of the working majority.
The best leaders, who make enduring change, are willing to state they believe in something to the exclusion of something else. Lyndon Johnson – a disastrous prosecutor of the Vietnam war but a courageous politician declaring war on poverty and racism – told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, he was prepared to sacrifice his party in the south for the sake of his civil rights legislation, and did so. He may have wished for unity but was unwilling to buy it with compromise.
The man who replaced Johnson, Richard Nixon, was a scoundrel, haunted by his own demons. But I have always found something refreshingly honest, not in his ideology but his blunt political tactic – divide the country and take the biggest half. Like it or lump it, that’s democracy.
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