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.”
Two dominant Ryan word clusters emerged from the VP debate. (Wordclouds of each are based on the frequency of each word). The first portion of the debate, centered on the Benghazi assault, brought the extreme bellicosity of the Romney-Ryan foreign policy to the fore. This is the word family clustered around “peace through strength”, “no apology”, “projecting weakness”, “American Exceptionalism”, and “emboldening our enemies”. It is well and truly Roveian (that is, inherently two-faced by turning everything into its opposite) insofar as it claims that its aim is peace (For example, Ryan saying “We want to prevent war,” when he was directly asked if he wanted a war), but the emotional weight and entire subtext is what can be characterized as the material and psychological martial law enforced by America, the world’s sheriff.
In the alchemy of this rhetorical compound, ordinarily neutral terms such as “values” and “credibility” are appropriated into the discourse of dominance. The rest of the world–the subservient Other–has no credibility and doesn’t share “our” values.
Because this position is inherently unstable and subject to threat, it’s always working to seem invulnerable. It’s the mastermeme that sanctions an unending “war on terror,” a state of velvet but perpetual martial law. It is eternally vigilant, always defending whatever means it uses (waterboarding, drone strikes, military invasions) to justify the end.
This paranoid sense of threat explains Ryan’s obsession with “credibility” and with not “projecting weakness”. The projection is all. There’s absolutely no rhetorical space for irony or tragedy. It can never, ever “apologize”. It is hubris personified.
“Social Darwinism” is a second major Ryan meme, domestic cousin of the “martial law” meme:
This cluster (again, based on the number of times Ryan used each term in the debate) stresses “self sufficiency”, “responsibility” and “making the tough choices”. It is a winner-take-all mentality, a Hobbesian materialism that is the diametrical opposite of Christian caritas. It eschews all dependencies–on the government, on foreign energy suppliers, on labor. It privileges the super-rich, rechristened and valorized as “job creators”. It is the only possible definition of “success“, so all else is, by implication, failure.
A taint of failure and thus scorn is rhetorically attached to anyone in opposition to any aspect of it. At best, dissenters from this orthodoxy are either dismissed as “special interests” (yet another neutral term that Roveianism appropriates, along with “values” “responsibility”, and even, astonishingly, “bi-partisaniship”) or as selfish “class warfare” crusaders hypocritically posing as humanitarians. The “heroes” of this meme are either Ayn-Rand titans of industry or “entrepreneurs” and “small businesses”. (Anyone but the workers themselvesof course). Although Ryan didn’t use the term “redistribution” in the debate, it is also part of the “failure” meme.
Both of these memes are deceptive and two-faced in their very DNA. They’re like deadly viruses, and Obama and Biden are running out of time to develop an antidote.