Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity
Hard cover, 270 pages, $29.95
This study locates Obama's ideas within a broader and often contentious debate, more than two centuries old, over our self-understanding as a country and a people. Exactly who is considered worthy of full and equal membership in the American community has evolved over time; non-whites, Catholics, non-Christians, women, gays, and others were marginalized for centuries.Basic premise: Full acceptance into the American mosaic for many has proven elusive and difficult over the years since the country was founded. What Obama represents can be challenged and divided from what Sarah Palin famously called "real America." America's melting pot ideal fits in with the idea of shared citizenship and runs counter to the current Republican efforts at voter suppression, and encouragement of white working class resentment and charges of Obama not being a "real American" or "understanding America" or being a Kenyan by birth and a socialist by nature. This effort to characterize Obama as "other" is different than Obama's message of diversity as strength, and serves as a counterpoint to Obama's vision of a diversified yet united America.
Author: Ian Reifowitz is a historian and associate professor of History at Empire State College, SUNY. He has published opinion pieces at Daily Kos, Newsday and The New Republic.
Readability/quality: This is a good read without graphs and tables, and lends itself to a chapter a day read.
Who should read it: Political junkies (especially relevant because of the dark tone of the two campaigns against Obama), progressives, those interested in multiculturalism and nationalism, and those who want to look at this current election battle through a different lens.
Interview with Prof. Reifowitz (who will be available for comments this morning for a few hours):
Daily Kos: In your first chapter, you take us on a tour of national identity from the revolution through the 60s. Why is pre-1960s history important to understanding where we are now? Have the post-60s changes overwhelmed the past?
First and foremost, it’s because I’m a historian. In order to understand the context of Barack Obama’s conception of American national identity and the narrative of American history he presents, we have to look at multicultural thought, of which there are various forms. But multiculturalism didn’t come out of nowhere, it grew out of the Civil Rights movement and was a reaction against the then dominant concept of our identity, one that emphasized Anglo-conformism and centered on a historical narrative dominated by white, straight, male Protestants.
But even the concept of Americanness that stood essentially unopposed in the 1950s was different from what came before. I wanted to briefly sketch the changes by which groups earlier excluded from full membership the American community (Catholics, Irish, Jews, Italians, Slavs) won broad, if not universal, acceptance by the mid-20th century, so long as they publicly adopted an American-only identity (as opposed to a hyphenated one) and generally tried to “fit in” in cultural terms. So, like I said, I’m a historian. But it’s a brief tour. I wanted to get to the 1960s so I could get to the 1990s so I could get to Obama.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
Daily Kos: What is Democratic Pluralism and why is it important in understanding Obama's vision of America?
Is it awful to quote my own definition of democratic pluralism from the book? I hope not. Here’s what I said:
A society that embraces democratic pluralism recognizes that some of its citizens will identify as members of groups based on shared heritage, cultural traditions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc., and that these affinities may even cross the borders of countries. Such a society acknowledges this diversity and the choices it offers citizens in expressing their identity. However, a robust and successful democratic pluralism, in the case of the United States, calls on its citizens to identify with America as their country and, equally importantly, to identify as members of the community of all Americans. Such a community evinces a commitment to democratic ideals and the common good as well as a shared history, and is one where citizens communicate with one another by means of a common language and culture.Obama’s vision of our identity exemplifies democratic pluralism. Democratic pluralism offers a middle ground between, one the one hand, a national identity that, like the pre-1960s vision I described above, fundamentally devalues diversity, and, on the other, a “politics of difference,” one that values diversity over a common American identity. I see parallels between Obama’s ideas and those that emerged on the center-left in the early to mid-1990s (from people like Michael Lind, Orlando Patterson, Arthur Schlesinger, and Todd Gitlin) that called for a single, unifying, integrating concept of Americanness, but one that reflected the inclusion called for by multiculturalism.
It’s very easy to say that this is the way any successful national politician today has to speak about our identity. On the other hand, we still have national politicians on the right who do not define Americanness in a fully inclusive way (we’ll get to that below). I argue that Obama appears to have realized early in his adult life that a multiethnic society needs to work actively to cultivate its sense of being one people. That’s why he has specifically emphasized the strengthening of bonds across lines of race, culture, and religion. This is what Obama is referring to when he speaks of us being “one American family.” We can see these ideas even as far back as Dreams From My Father (see the Epilogue in particular).
It’s not that George W. Bush or Bill Clinton didn’t talk about diversity and inclusion. They did (yes, Bush too). But Obama is the first president educated in the era since multiculturalism emerged as a powerful force. Also, he’s had to choose how he identifies himself in a way no other president has. Therefore, Obama understands the issues at play in terms of diversity and unity and how they relate to national identity formation. That’s why he talks about Americanness, both in terms of frequency and the depth of his ideas, in a way no other president has. Ultimately, I believe that he has the potential to have a stronger influence on the way we collectively understand our national identity than any president since Lincoln.
Daily Kos: You write about some of Obama's opponents and their exclusionism in the last election (and since), with phrases like '"real America" and a larger picture of excluding gays, leftists and a long list of others. How is this "otherness" playing out in this election? Should it be challenged? And how so, if not by Obama himself?
As I mentioned above, we are absolutely seeing the Romney campaign try to “other” President Obama. In the book I wrote about a number of things Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum said along those lines earlier in the campaign. But since the book has gone to print, Governor Romney has crossed some new boundaries, trying to gin up not only racial anxieties but religious ones as well. I’ve written about these in some recent posts on this site, here, here, and here.
Also, I want to make clear that these men and others on the right like Limbaugh (and those who’ve said even worse) have tried to define Obama as outside the bounds of the American community in a way that plays on anxieties about the increasing ethnic diversity in our country. They are using and exacerbating white racial anxiety to try and win an election.
This is something that enrages me, as a person who loves this country and wants to see us survive and thrive even as we become more diverse. Think about what it would mean for us to show the world that a wildly diverse society can develop strong bonds of unity across lines of race, culture, religion, region, and sexual orientation. Think about what a powerful alternative to fundamentalism of every kind that would offer. But instead we have these exclusionists who gin up hate and fear. How do they call themselves patriots?
I’m not a political strategist, so I don’t know exactly how this exclusionist rhetoric should be challenged, whether by Obama directly, by surrogates, or in what way. But it has to be challenged, and from what I’ve seen so far, the Obama campaign is doing so in an effective and appropriate way.
The real question is whether enough Republicans will challenge it. Some have. John McCain rejected that kind of talk about Obama in 2008 and since then as well. Also, he more recently spoke out against the hateful anti-Muslim attacks—led by Michele Bachmann—against State Department staffer Huma Abedin. Jon Huntsman similarly rejected attacking President Obama’s status as an American in the very speech where he announced his candidacy for the White House. But Mitt Romney has decided to go all in apparently.
Now, has Barack Obama attacked Romney? Of course he has. Let’s leave aside for a moment the matter of the “fairness” of those various attacks. Obama has never attacked Mitt Romney in a way that has anything to do with race or religion. Obama has accused Mitt Romney of being out of touch with the middle class, but has never suggested that Romney is somehow not American. Remember that Romney recently called Obama’s ideas “extraordinarily foreign.” That’s about as close as a major party presidential nominee can get to holding up a fake
photo of “witch doctor” Obama with a bone in his nose.
Sorry, I didn’t intend to get that excited.
Daily Kos: What else about the book do you want to highlight?
There are two other things I’d like to emphasize about my book.
First, I know that perhaps a few of you are wary about the idea of a strong American national identity. I argue in the book that Obama’s vision of civic (as opposed to ethnic) nationalism can have a tremendously positive impact, for some of the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
One more reason is because Obama’s brand of civic nationalism offers a powerful contrast to the hyper-individualist, Ayn Rand, “I’ve got mine, go get yours” approach to economic policy that stands at the heart of contemporary conservatism in the U.S. Another reason is that a strong national identity that is both unifying and fully inclusive can powerfully counter hate and bigotry by painting them—as reformers from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Barbara Jordan to Harvey Milk have done—as un-American.
Second, if we progressives refuse to offer a definition of American national identity that reflects our values, then the primary definition out there will be the one coming from the right.
If I can quote again from the book :
In 1998 philosopher Richard Rorty issued a clarion call for the cultivation of a progressive version of national pride. He rightly emphasized that such a feeling is “to countries what self-respect is to individuals. A necessary condition for self-improvement.” Rorty went on to encourage left-of-center figures to take up the task. “Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past….to which the country should remain true….Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and betweenI’ll leave it at that.
differing symbols of its greatness.”
Nationalism must not be only a tool of the nativist right wing, nor must that right wing be allowed to define American nationalism. Nationalism need not be xenophobic; it can be inclusionary, cross-ethnic, and progressive, which is how Obama has defined it. He hopes that his concept of American unity and community will push us to see one another as brothers and sisters who, because we share a history together, also share a future together as one people.
Daily Kos: Thank you, Prof. Reifowitz.
8/10/2012 radio interview with Kagro in the Morning's David Waldman and Ian Reifowitz: