For a long time after November 4, I found it hard to believe that Barack Obama had actually been elected President of the United States. Even as his inauguration approaches I still find it a remarkable moment in our history. There are two things I want to comment on about Obama: his person and what he stands for. Mostly I want to discuss the latter, but just a word about the former. What is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up. Growing up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don’t do a very good job of it. Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when we admire them. I’m not saying that Obama is perfect—no one is. But he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies, Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers. Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not very grown up. Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of what it means to be grown up. My amazement and near disbelief in Obama’s victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown up. In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young person, heard and admired.
There is a great deal of talk about what Obama stands for and many commentators claim it is hard to know. He is placed along a continuum in which the words “center-left” and “center-right” often appear. In fact in America we have never had a very clear left-right split; the very idea of one is rooted in European traditions we have not shared. For all the talk about culture wars, what in America unites left and right, liberals and conservatives, is a fundamental individualism that is perhaps the strongest, though not the only, strand in our tradition. It is rooted in the earliest and most pervasive religious culture in America, Protestantism, which has deeply influenced every other religious tradition that has entered our common life. It does not divide Evangelicals from liberal Protestants—it is something they share. We may argue about the value of the market or the state but the purpose of both to most Americans is to allow the maximum of individual freedom with the least encumbrance.
Some reviewers of Habits of the Heart believed the book affirmed a continuous decline of community and an increase of individualism throughout American history, whereas in fact the authors of Habits believed that we have had cycles of individualism alternating with periods when social solidarity was emphasized. Some historians even accused us of offering only another version of the old nostalgic “loss of community” narrative, applied to virtually every period in American history. In our current situation, as Obama seems to be emphasizing that we are all in this together, the cyclical theory is resurfacing, especially in Michael Lind’s argument that there have been four republics in America—corresponding to the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and now Obama—when a period of radical individualism has been reversed and a new emphasis on the common good has followed. Neither in Habits nor elsewhere have I ever argued for the long-term decline of community in our history, since I see individualism as powerful from the very beginning and social solidarity as always weak and vulnerable in American history, though stronger at some times than in others. Our fundamental individualism was vividly represented by the seventeenth-century New England Puritans. When the Church was no longer seen as the mediator of salvation but the exclusive club of the elect, whose members must experience conversion all by themselves before being admitted, we had a new emphasis on the solitary individual. When the Word eclipses the Sacrament, then it is society that suffers. Such an emphasis released enormous power, economically, culturally, and politically, but the price was high.
Efforts to restore a viable balance by reappropriating a sense of the common good and social solidarity have marked Western history for the last couple of centuries. In Europe such efforts were spearheaded by Catholic social teaching and democratic socialism, whose political expression in Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties created the decent societies that have marked the recent history of Britain and Western Europe. When the present Pope in his last year as Cardinal Ratzinger met with Jürgen Habermas, he expressed his sympathy with the tradition of social democracy and said that it was similar to Catholic social teachings. In its fullness that is surely the case, but when American Catholic ideologues reduce Catholic ethics to an exclusive concern with abortion and gay marriage they take the social out of Catholic social teachings and become spokesmen not for the authentic Catholic tradition but for a narrow quasi-Protestant sect.
For the reasons I have just suggested, radical individualism is what I call the default mode of American culture. It is where we go when things are relatively stable and we face no enormous challenge, or are denying that we do. It is the power of this core tradition that has given rise to American exceptionalism, what makes us so different from most other advanced nations in the world, none of which share this strand to the same extent.
American exceptionalism is often interpreted to mean how exceptionally good we are. In some respects this is warranted: I can think of no other society that has so successfully integrated immigrants. Race has been harder to overcome, but Obama is surely right that this is the only country where he could have achieved what he has. But it is important to remember also how exceptionally bad we are in comparison with other advanced nations. It is our radical individualistic culture that allows us to tolerate a level of poverty higher than any other advanced nation, a degree of income polarization that would be unacceptable in most advanced nations, a health system that leaves tens of millions without insurance, that is the most expensive in the world but leaves the health of our citizens only slightly above that of many third world nations, an environmental policy that has not only failed to lead the world to greater sustainability but actually stood in the way of the things which almost all the other advanced nations have tried to do, and these are only the most obvious of the many ways we have differed for the worse from most of the advanced world.
But when we are faced with challenges that we cannot deny, we do have other resources we can draw on, resources that we described in Habits of the Heart as Biblical and Civic Republican. Neither of these traditions is without an element of individualism (see the new Introduction to the 1996 paperback edition of Habits), but both of them have the capacity to talk about the common good in a way that the core tradition of radical individualism cannot do. Ruth Braunstein in her recent post has emphasized the centrality of the idea of the common good in Obama’s thought, drawing as he does from both the Biblical and Civic Republican traditions. He has found in the Black church tradition, and even in the theologically somewhat vacuous UCC tradition, an emphasis on social justice and the plight of the poor that is at the core of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Although I have no evidence for it, I would be surprised if Obama has not also been influenced by Catholic social teaching with its focus on the common good, perhaps when he was a community organizer.
But our default individualist tradition finds the very idea of the common good incomprehensible. This is well illustrated in an article by Simon Critchley in the November Harper’s entitled “The American Void,” where Critchley describes Obama’s talk of the common good as “an anti-political fantasy.” Critchley seems to be unaware that the idea of the common good lies at the core of the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic traditions in Europe that have led to the creation of the most humanly viable societies, for all their imperfections, that this earth has yet seen. He is also unaware of how profoundly political the idea of the common good is, how strongly it is resisted, and what power, in ideology, public opinion, and legislative votes, is required to implement it.
If you look at Obama’s specific policy concerns you will find the common good at the core of almost all of them. Universal health care is an obvious example. And why, except for our culture of radical individualism, don’t we already have it as every advanced society in the world has it? Because in normal times common good arguments do not carry the day in America. Obama’s jobs program, his environmental program, his foreign policy concerns are all examples of making the common good the focus of politics. What all this leads to in my opinion is that Obama is not concerned with center-left or center-right but with making America into a country with a concern for all its citizens and not just the privileged few, a country like other advanced countries and less like a third world country.
There is another element in Obama’s thinking that needs comment: his concern for America and its historical promise. It has been hard for his opponents to call Obama unpatriotic when he speaks so glowingly of our nation and its heritage. It is the eloquence with which he did that in his keynote address in 2004 that first told me that a remarkable new presence had arrived on the American scene. But what Obama has stressed is the promise of America, one that is still unfulfilled. It is our task as he has so often said to help create a more perfect union because this one is so imperfect. Obama has rejected the idea that supporting the Iraq War is a measure of patriotism. He has said, in effect, that the true patriot will oppose such a war.
Already in 2004 this reminded me of what I wrote in my most frequently reprinted article, “Civil Religion in America,” which was a call to see that the best of our tradition required opposition to the Vietnam War, not support of it. Too many have read that article as describing American civil religion as “integrating,” or “Durkheimian,” in a way that doesn’t appreciate the radicalism of Durkheim. Some friends who do understand what I had written in 1966 told me they thought Obama had read it. I have no reason to think he has. He doesn’t need me to see that the promise is the core we must celebrate, not the often desperately disappointing reality, which he notes when he promises to close Guantanamo and renounce torture as American policy. That one can see America as a beacon of hope, even, in Lincoln’s words, as “the last best hope of earth,” while also recognizing that America has committed the gravest of crimes from the colonial period to the present, seems to escape critics from the left and the right. Obama would never speak like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but he knows, as any serious American knows, that Jeremiah Wright was telling the truth, even if not the whole truth, and that denial of the terrible side of our history is no more healthy for us than it would be for Germany or Japan.
Late in the campaign, McCain and Palin began calling Obama a socialist, because he believes in a progressive income tax. There is a deep irony here. Every normal modern nation has been influenced by democratic socialism. If that tradition has been weak in America, it, or something close to it (the New Deal and Social Security, which, like the progressive income tax, was also denounced as socialist), has never been entirely absent. Universal health care would put it on the agenda again, leading possibly to reform in our deeply unjust educational system and other areas as well. In the context of comparative modernity, democratic socialist equals normal. For the first time in a long time the possibility that we too could become normal, that we could better realize our good exceptionalism and avoid more of our bad exceptionalism, seems to have arrived. It will take a very grown up leader and massive public participation to make that happen. But as Obama has said so often, “This is our moment, this is our time.” I am glad to have lived long enough to see even such a possibility in this great but benighted nation.