By PAUL SCHWEIKER
On November 4th, our nation was brought face to face with two manifestations of its own ideals in the emotionally charged election of Barack Obama. Although there has been significant discussion about the election’s implications on race relations, I believe Obama’s election more broadly indicates that our culture is experiencing a democratic moment, and that Obama has become an effective embodiment of this moment by occupying a position from which he can affect the course of social change. Before I can explain the implications of this moment and Obama’s position, I must explain what a democratic moment is and what it means to articulate one.
A democratic moment is a self-reflective instance of politics (politics defined herein as the assertion of an ideal by a social group) in which a culture attempts to redefine and reinterpret the ideals which constitute it. This definition does not mean that each social group within a larger culture will interpret this moment in the same way; rather, it implies a will to affect change to central ideals. A previous example of such a moment is the sexual revolution, which altered gender relations. Democratic moments are not frequent because they indicate that a culture is challenging its most fundamental ideals. However, they are the defining aspects of an effective democracy.
What we are witnessing is just such a democratic moment. Because of a variety of factors, our culture has begun to re-interpret three central ideas: the meaning of the American Promise, the purpose of government and its relation to individuals, and the ideological systems behind socio-economic distribution in the United States. These ideas constitute our conception of what it means to be American. The specific articulation of this democratic moment can steer its course.
Obama has become the most important articulator of the democratic moment. To articulate in this sense means something more than merely to bring to words; it also means to become a symbol of the culture’s newly formed conceptions of itself. Obama does this in his speeches by discussing those central ideas which are the subject of the moment and by acknowledging the importance attached to him by the culture – for example, the importance of his race. The emotional investment of his supporters in his campaign renders him a particularly effective articulator by turning him into an embodiment of many individual influences.
With all of this stated, we can return to the question of what Obama’s election implies or foreshadows. Obama does not represent significant change to government; he represents a will to change our cultural understandings. Obama’s election implies that the people are reinterpreting those three cultural ideals–the American Promise, the purpose of government, and socio-economic distribution–in new ways. I will address each of the three in turn.
In each of Obama’s speeches we have seen an allusion to the meaning of the American Promise, the foremost ideal challenged by the democratic moment. Up until this point, the American Promise has always been focused on the material advancement of an individual without regard for others. In Obama’s speeches, however, we hear something different and new. In his acceptance of the Democratic Nomination he stated that “[The American Promise is] a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.” In this articulation we see a new conception of the American Promise, which is now tied to concern for others. Reinterpretations of this ideal might originate in the economic crisis prompting questions about the viability and purpose of material advancement.
A reinterpretation of the purpose of government and its relationship to individuals, is shown most obviously in the people’s desire to see the government solve social problems, such as healthcare, which it was previously not expected to address. It would seem that Obama’s emphasis that our hopes can be fulfilled by the government stems from a redefinition of what it means to have a government for the people. That is, Americans are whittling away at the idea, most prominent during the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, that the government exists principally for defense. Americans are instead positing that government is truly for the people when it insures our inalienable rights-life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness-by guaranteeing the means necessary for us to manifest them.
The ideological systems behind the socio-economic distribution of the United States are being challenged by national pride in electing an African-American, a challenge that Obama acknowledged best in his speech about race. These systems are also being challenged by a new understanding of the purpose of tax policies as ensuring the economic viability of the middle class due to a concern for what Joe Biden calls “fairness, just simple fairness.” These two instances point to a radical new understanding of the idea that all people are created equal. The idea of fairness offers an avenue by which the American populace can conceptually alter and break race boundaries and demand that responsibilities be allocated such that all Americans have equal opportunity.
Obama is able to articulate a will to reinterpret the American Promise, the purpose of government, and the reasons behind our socio-economic distribution. He does not necessarily give a conclusive articulation, but the act of articulating has given him this amazing position of power. This poses a question: what can we expect to see from an Obama administration? I do not believe we will see significant change in the way the government functions (we will not see something akin to the New Deal) but we will see something more fundamentally important: depending on how Obama articulates the democratic moment, we may see significant ideological changes in American culture. Obama’s election implies change–just as his motto states–but it indicates a will towards cultural change which originated in the American people, not in him. The task of this administration is to articulate this moment to maintain the fervor for self-reflection in the United States, because this fervor is prerequisite for an effective democracy. In other words, Obama must be a true public servant in order to maintain this moment. If he can be, he will be remembered as one of the most important political figures in our history.
Barack Obama “Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech” New York Times. August 2008, 7 November, 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/28/us/politics/28text-obama.html?pagewanted=3&_r=1>
Joe Biden “Transcript: the Vice-Presidential Debate” New York Times. October 2008,7 November, 2008. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/debates/transcripts/vice-presidential-debate.html>
Paul Schweiker (’11) is a Political Science major at Johns Hopkins University.
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