A BAD DREAM, AND ONE WE'VE HAD BEFORE
by JONAH GOLDBERG
THE NATIONAL REVIEW
September 29, 2008
As the presidential race has been accelerating beyond the limits of Einsteinian physics, it’s little wonder substantive commentary about Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention was so scarce. Of course, there was ample instant-punditry about the “spectacle” at Denver’s Invesco Field — the Greek columns, the adoring throng of 80,000, and the historical poignancy of the speech’s being given on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the next day John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate; three days after that, the GOP convention commenced. Now Obama’s address seems like it was a century ago.
And that’s fitting. Because rather than a bold and visionary statement about the future — what some might expect from “The One” — the core theme of the speech was in fact very, very old.
Truth be told, most of it was merely dated. The Kerry-like and Gore-esque laundry list of programs and giveaways was standard Democratic fare. Indeed, as the Dallas Morning News’s Rod Dreher noted, whole passages were indistinguishable from similar speeches by Gore and Kerry in 2000 and 2004. This makes sense, because Barack Obama desperately wants to be indistinguishable from Gore and Kerry, because the pollsters say if he can convince voters he’s a generic Democrat, he’ll win. So, once again the Democratic nominee promises to be Santa Claus, bringing to mind Mencken’s famous quip about Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign: “If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers’ expense.”
But beneath the fresh coat of rhetorical paint on the calcified clichés of contemporary liberalism there is a deeper vision to Obama’s speech, one that is both consistent with his rhetoric from the earliest days of his campaign and career and also perfectly in line with the ambitions of progressivism since its founding.
For generations politicians of both parties spoke about the “American dream,” a phrase that, though ill-defined, usually conjures up some conception of the individual pursuit of happiness. To own your own home, care for your family, succeed in what you set out to do: This, for most people, is what the American dream is about. Whatever the American dream means to most Americans, it is emphatically not a collectivist concept (though the phrase was reportedly coined by the progressive historian James Truslow Adams, who did see it as a more collective ideal). For most of us, there is no one American dream, because my dream is different from your dream. Victory can be pursued by a group; happiness must be found alone.
The American dream, as most of us understand it, stands in marked contrast to the idea of the American promise, the central theme of Obama’s speech and even of the Democratic convention as a whole. In 1909, New Republic founder Herbert Croly published his book The Promise of American Life, widely considered the bible of the progressive movement (a movement Obama has explicitly declared the precursor of his own campaign’s mission). Felix Frankfurter dubbed the book “the most powerful single contribution to progressive thinking.”
Unlike Obama, Croly did not have a wandering childhood abroad, but he was something of an internal exile. And he shared Obama’s sense of being an outsider in America. Historian Eric Goldman wrote that Croly’s fringe-intellectual, European-style upbringing led him to write about even his fellow progressives the “way foreign ambassadors talk about American baseball games.” Something similar might be said of the man who mused that people who didn’t vote for him were simply bitterly clinging to their sky god and boomsticks.
Obama and Croly also share a similar view of the intersection of religion and politics: They don’t believe there is one, because the two things are identical. Croly embraced Christianity in college and later fell for Eastern spiritualism, but he never failed to see politics as an extension of religious messianism; Obama talks of using government to create a kingdom of heaven on earth. The black-liberation theology of Obama’s former church explicitly merges black-power politics and theological teaching to the point that one cannot discern one from the other. In The Promise of American Life, Croly yearned for a “national reformer . . . in the guise of St. Michael” and an “imitator of Christ” who would crush laissez-faire capitalism and cruel individualism. (Indeed, he wrote, an “individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed.”)
Croly is often described by his progressive fans as a heroic small-D democrat. But this is pure spin: Croly was a centralizer who despised the Jeffersonian tradition. He worshipped Lincoln for his centralizing power-politics and favored keeping big business as big as possible so as to make it a more effective tool of government. Indeed, what confuses many students of history is that he was a national-socialist (note the lower case, please) who used the word “democracy” as a rough substitute for what most would call socialism. “For better or worse,” Croly proclaimed, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” Even a cursory review of the Federalist Papers will reveal this wasn’t the Founders’ understanding of democracy. For Croly, the “promise” of America was the aim of replacing the American conception of “government” by the people with the European ideal of “the State” as the highest expression of “the people’s” Rousseauian general will. He agreed wholeheartedly with Woodrow Wilson’s and John Dewey’s visions of a progressive America where every individual, in Wilson’s words, “marr[ied] his interests to the State.” Such a new America would come about through a national politico-religious “reconstruction.”
Since the mid-1990s, Herbert Croly has enjoyed a fitful revival, particularly among self-described progressives desperate to find an intellectual lineage to the progressive era. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have explicitly claimed to be the incarnations of the original progressive spirit, though, out of either wisdom or ignorance, they refrain from spelling out what specific progressive ideas they find common cause with. (Presumably it wasn’t the war-mongering, eugenics, racism, or disdain for civil liberties.)
Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver was not expressly Crolyite, but those familiar with Croly’s work can’t help but hear the echoes. One can imagine that his real desire — if he hadn’t been forced to make so much of it conventional boilerplate — was to offer a progressive Gettysburg Address, transforming the American dream into a strictly statist concept.
Obama’s sleight of hand begins in the first paragraph. After he dispenses with the thank-yous, he says: “Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story — of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to.”
He continues in the next paragraph: “It is that promise that has always set this country apart — that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well. That’s why I stand here tonight. Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women — students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive.”
So far, it sounds as if Obama is simply going to use “American promise” as a stand-in for “American dream.” After all, his version of the son-of-an-immigrant success story fits nicely within the idea of the American dream. But after the opening reference to “individual dreams,” Obama’s speech becomes a Deweyan alchemy spell to transmogrify individual liberty into collective action. The promise of America, for Obama, is the hope that one day we will live in a country where we all work together, where “one person’s struggle is all of our struggles” (as he put it in his introductory video). The American promise, Obama insists, is “the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation; the fundamental belief that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. That’s the promise we need to keep. . . . Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility — that’s the essence of America’s promise.”
It sounds benign, even noble, except for the central deceit in Obama’s plea. The Biblical injunction to be your brother’s keeper — what Obama calls “mutual responsibility” — is not a writ for government activism. You do not fulfill your obligation to look out for your fellow man by paying taxes, never mind by voting to impose them on others. Absent from Obama’s rhetoric is any serious acknowledgment that there are countless mediating institutions between the individual and the state. Civil society — churches, schools, voluntary associations, etc. — provides the sinews of the mutual responsibility that exists outside of the sphere of government. But for Obama, as with Croly, it is all either/or: Either you’re “on your own” or you’re in the good hands of the all-state, and I’m not talking about an insurance company. This is a marked contrast with McCain’s speech, which, in short, promised to reform government: Obama promises to reform America instead.
Obama does offer some concessions to the role entrepreneurialism plays in American society, but it’s clear he sees business as an extension of politics. Businesses, he insists, “should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs.” Job creation is a wonderful thing, but it takes a community organizer’s understanding of the private sector to think that it is the businessman’s responsibility to create jobs. There are only two kinds of firms that go into business to create jobs: the ones that almost immediately go out of business and the ones that consider bilking taxpayers a noble endeavor.
Obama’s disdain for the traditional notion of the American dream as the pursuit of happiness is palpable. “In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is — you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. You’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps — even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.”
This philosophical myopia informs Obama’s entire conception of politics. In his recent interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Obama defended raising taxes on the wealthy on the grounds of “neighborliness”: “If I am sitting pretty, and you’ve got a waitress who is making minimum wage plus tips, and I can afford it if she can’t — what’s the big deal for me to say, ‘I’m going to pay a little bit more.’ That is neighborliness.” Perhaps that makes sense if you and your neighbors live in Hillary Clinton’s village, but neighborliness by definition is not compulsory.
Obama’s prism, however, isn’t the Clintonite village, where everybody’s business is everybody’s business. Rather, his ideal for social organization is the Movement. “This too,” he proclaimed in Denver, “is part of America’s promise — the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort.” It’s telling how much Sarah Palin’s and Rudy Giuliani’s barbs at “community organizing” shook the Obama campaign. Hilariously, left-wing blogs shrieked that “Jesus was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a governor.” Putting theological issues aside, whether or not Jesus could be called a community organizer, what’s clear is that Obama isn’t that kind of a community organizer. The comparison speaks volumes about a campaign that has been desperately trying to tamp down its perceived messianism. Let the record show that Jesus was not running for governor (and, as a colleague quipped, Pilate merely voted an Obama-like “present”) — which is why Jesus, unlike Croly and Obama, didn’t confuse Caesar’s portfolio with God’s.
At the end of his Invesco Field address, Obama returns to the speech he seems to have wanted to give. He notes that he’s speaking on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech. But it is not King’s dream of colorblindness, in which individuals are respected regardless of color, that he invokes — but a different vision altogether. The message of King’s speech is, according to Obama, that “in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.” He continues, “‘We cannot walk alone,’ the preacher cried. ‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.’ . . . Not with so much work to be done; not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for; not with an economy to fix, and cities to rebuild, and farms to save; not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone.”
Perhaps not. But if we all end up walking toward a single dream, by definition it will not be the American dream, but Obama’s.