Thursday, June 5, 2008

The E PLURIBUS Challenge

Last night Tim Dickinson wrote a post for the National Affairs blog on the Rolling Stone Web site entitled "Obama’s E Pluribus Challenge." In his words the challenge he had in mind is that "the unity candidate now stands as the front-man of a party bitterly divided." There is no doubt that the Democratic party primaries disclosed major divisions among the its registered voters, nor is there any doubt that there was considerable bitterness in those divisions. However, by way of historical perspective, it should be worth recalling that the last time we heard words about "being a uniter, not a divider," they were coming out of the mouth of George W. Bush. This is why on Tuesday I addressed the assertion of "our natural inclinations to divide." In that last post I was less concerned about divisiveness than I was about our social system being robust enough to sustain that divisiveness. I would like to take the argument one step further and advance the proposition that the robustness of our social system is a consequence of our divisiveness. Indeed, as those of us watching John Adams were reminded, that divisiveness was already exercising itself in full force within the Continental Congress. The fact that the Declaration of Independence could be unanimously ratified in the face of such divisiveness was the first major testimony to the E Pluribus Unum principle.

That is the context that we should apply in considering the "soaring rhetoric" of Barack Obama quoted in Dickinson's post:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper — that makes this country work. It’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.

The ingredient that Obama is addressing in this text is not unity of opinion, let alone conviction. Indeed, his operative adjective is not "united," but "connected;" and his theme is individuality, but the individuality of those participants addressed by John Donne's "no man is an island" Meditation. Each of Obama's examples takes Donne's more elevated point, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind," and brings it into the day-to-day context of what it means to be an American citizen. Even the metaphor of the "single American family" is not really about being united, since just about every "birth family" is rife with divisions. The point is that, however much we may disagree with or even disapprove of some of our relatives, we are still connected to them.

I would argue that the greatest trauma of the current Administration is the degree to which its faith-based convictions disconnected it from the social system it was supposed to serve. It was disconnected from the Congress (that body of individuals that comes closest to representing individual Americans), institutions of journalism (particularly the ones most serious about informing those individual Americans about what their government was doing), any foreign country that did not cleave to its ideological line, and, most important of all, the very "rules of the game" of our social system, laid down by out Founding Fathers in our Constitution. If we are now "mad as hell and not going to take it any more," the primal source of our anger is that disconnectedness of our government's Executive Branch; and we should read Obama's "soaring rhetoric" as being about restoring connections rather than healing divisions.

Can those connections be restored? Listening yesterday to both the language of Senator Hillary Clinton and the efforts to analyze that language, there was little I heard about connection. However, the key message from yesterday was, "Wait until Friday." I sure hope that means that the words we hear on Friday will have some deliberation behind them, and I really hope that the deliberation leads to an appreciation of why connectedness is so important. We certainly have not heard much from Senator John McCain about restoring connections, perhaps because he either can not or will not acknowledge the current disconnected state. This gives the Democrats an easily-grasped talking point as to what differentiates them from the Republicans. If the Democratic Platform Committee recognizes this, we may yet have a campaign that will "let Obama be Obama" and, as a result, let his rhetoric continue to soar to the heights from which it has drawn so many voters to him.

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