We Build That: The Re-emergence of Obama’s Communitarian Script

President Obama’s election night victory speech marked a return from political exile of a rhetoric of communitarianism, a turn toward an ethic of caring and sharing. The sense that the whole  of society is greater than the sum of its parts; that individualism is not the ultimate answer to the question of “what is a good life?”, and that we cannot be fulfilled if we deny our ties to others–all of these sentiments drove the speech.

Right away, for example, after talking of the need to continually be “perfecting our union” (union thus having a double meaning: our state and our common identity), Obama talks of “you” (meaning all of us–no more 47% or 99%) “reaffirming the spirit.” This identifiable “spirit”  (newly “reaffirmed”–a religious concept at heart) that has “lifted the country” is much more than the belief in “our individual dreams”, it is also “a belief that…we are an American family, and we rise or fall together as one nation and one people.”

Talk about the unitary executive! Talk about family values! Call it collectivism or unitarianism or communitarianism, what it amounted to in the speech is a radical rejection of Romney/Ryan/ Ayn Rand Social Darwinism.

What values are most worth caring about in this big family? Spoiler alert: not tax cuts, the sainthood of “the entrepreneur”, self-deportation, radical deregulation, or forcible transvaginal ultrasounds. Instead, we witness the re-emergence of some of the unmentionables, the family members hidden during the campaign: redressing inequality, doing something about a “warming planet,” turning America  back into a “generous…compassionate…tolerant” county again, and so forth.  It’s been a long time since privatization has been made to seem so small-minded and mendacious.

To make sure we don’t miss the point, he later returns to this communitarian rhetoric, talking of our “shared destiny”, our “obligations” and “responsibilities”. He even takes on “American exceptionalism” by inverting its Republican connotation of world dominance by saying “what makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.”  Even patriotism is honored, but as part of a “responsibility” for “love and charity and duty and patriotism”. Responsibilities as well as rights–a radical re-balancing of the national moral equilibrium–suddenly, magically, we are, once again, “greater than the sum of our individual ambitions.”

In a single speech, Obama reaffirmed what the New Yorker editors argued in their Oct. 25 endorsement of Obama:

The choice is clear. The Romney-Ryan ticket represents a constricted and backward-looking vision of America: the privatization of the public good. In contrast, the sort of public investment championed by Obama—and exemplified by both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act—takes to heart the old civil-rights motto “Lifting as we climb.” That effort cannot, by itself, reverse the rise of inequality that has been under way for at least three decades. But we’ve already seen the future that Romney represents, and it doesn’t work.

The reëlection of Barack Obama is a matter of great urgency. Not only are we in broad agreement with his policy directions; we also see in him what is absent in Mitt Romney—a first-rate political temperament and a deep sense of fairness and integrity. A two-term Obama Administration will leave an enduringly positive imprint on political life. It will bolster the ideal of good governance and a social vision that tempers individualism with a concern for community. Every Presidential election involves a contest over the idea of America. Obama’s America—one that progresses, however falteringly, toward social justice, tolerance, and equality—represents the future that this country deserves

Maybe it’s too much to hope that we are  more than a country that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Maybe we have at least temporarily undermined a rhetoric of cold market reasoning; maybe, in the light of common day, we can collectively turn back to that project of “perfecting” our “union.”

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