At Home, Abroad: Election Day

As I celebrate the glorious re-election of President Barack Hussein Obama, and as New York and my friends and family are still suffering from Hurricane Sandy, and a snowstorm follow-up, I have been in Europe, spending time with my daughter, and her family in Paris, giving a lecture and visiting Rome for the first time, and taking part in public talks in Warsaw and Gdansk on the occasion of the Polish translation of Reinventing Political Culture, offering my commentary on the American elections informed by the book. In Gdansk, I was honored to receive a medal from the European Solidarity Center for my work with Solidarność, and continuing work inspired by its principles.

I have been enjoying the joys of citizenship and patriotic hope, the love of family, and recognition for personal and public achievement. I have learned a lot in many very interesting discussions. I have been very busy, torn with mixed emotions, including a frustrated desire to put my thoughts down for Deliberately Considered. Some quick summary thoughts today; next, a close critical response to the election results and the President’s speech. In brief: Obama excelled once again as “story teller in chief.”

Election Day from afar: having cast my vote weeks ago. In Warsaw, I discussed the events of the day and the project of the reinvention of American political culture. As I have explained in previous posts and analyzed carefully in my book, I believe that Barack Obama is an agent of significant reinvention, changing the relationship between culture and power: the way he has used the politics of small things, his eloquence as an alternative to sound bite political rhetoric, retelling of the American story as one centered on diversity, as he embodies this, and his challenge to market fundamentalism, are the major contours of his transformational politics. On Election Day, I explained that as a social scientist I thought that the transformation that he has started would successfully push forward, Nate Silver enthusiast that I am. But I also confessed that as a citizen I was worried. Obama’s accomplishments to date were in danger and his promise has not yet been fulfilled. I am now hopeful.

Earlier in Rome, I spoke to a group of media students about the relationship between media and the politics of small things. We had a particularly interesting discussion about how the power of gestures work in different types of mediated settings. I explained how I think Obama has managed to use long form rhetorical skills to constitute power in the age of twitter and sound bytes. Specifically in the first debate with Romney, this wasn’t enough, but in his victory speech, he showed how this works once again. He is the most powerful person in the world thanks to his speech making.

I also told my Rome colleagues that I was pretty sure that the re-election of Barack Obama would make it likely that the next President of the United States would be Hillary Clinton or another woman nominee of the Democratic Party (I will explain my grounds for this conviction in a future post)

This led to an intriguing discussion. A post doc in the audience observed that the power of Obama’s speech is informed by a specific tradition of oratory, that of the African American civil rights leaders coming from the African American church. She wondered whether there is a comparable tradition among feminist political leaders, supposing that there wasn’t. The voice of African American authority empowers Obama, while the feminist authoritative voice is one of contemporary invention. This led me to wonder about a discussion I had with feminist friends during the Democratic primary season in 2007-8. Which would be the more significant breakthrough Hillary Clinton or Obama? I thought that given the legacies of slavery, the election of Barack Obama would be, but perhaps I was wrong.

In Warsaw, I spoke with two groups, associated with two cultural journals, Kultura Liberalna and Respublika Nowa, the former was an informal meeting in a private apartment, the latter, a meeting at the journal’s offices, which included a cultural center. These groups are part of a reinvigorated intellectual scene in Poland, young intellectuals seeking alternatives in a highly problematic political environment. In both meetings, we talked about possible collaboration with Deliberately Considered.

In the Election Day meetings, I reflected on the fact that what I had to say that day would be speculative, while in my next meetings in Gdansk, if I was right, they would appear as having been inevitable. Before the results and after, I observed how the project of reinventing American political culture was proceeding. How changes in attitudes toward questions of American identity and the relation between the state and the market, the rejection of market fundamentalism are advancing.  I expected Obama to win and he did. I explained before the fact that as a social scientist, I judged Nate Silver’s prognostications to be sound and thought it was highly likely that Obama would win.  The changes he has advanced are compelling, and they are backed by hard demographic, economic and political realities.  But I confessed that I was worried as a citizen, so much was on the line.

I knew when I left home that how comfortable I would feel at home when I returned depended on the outcome of the elections. By the time, I had my meetings in Gdansk, I felt very comfortable.

The first meeting, the day after election day, included a formal ceremony and discussion of the Polish translation of my book as it informed an understanding of the outcome of the elections and Obama’s Presidency. The second meeting, was the first session at a conference on the future of Europe, with focus on the Eastern half, in and outside of the Euro zone. I was asked, among other things, what was the significance of the election results and what America could contribute to an understanding of the crisis in Europe.

I answered both questions by highlighting the great transformation occurring in the United States, facilitated by the President.  In 1789, an American republic centered on the idea of liberty, in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln reinvented the idea of America, or more precisely, he gave voice to the reinvention that was developing, by making the principle of equality also central. He turned the Declaration of Independence into a central normative text, as Garry Wills powerfully has demonstrated. I think, and explained in Gdansk, that Barack Obama has also added a new critical note, using similar means. Diversity is becoming a central American principle and the basis of identity.  Obama in all his major speeches and in his actions is  charging the great seal motto E pluribus unum with new meaning and application. Diversity as the basis of our unity is now defined as central to our identity, concerning race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and much more. This is new, powerfully pushed forward by Obama and supported by American opinion and by demography. This is the renewed American story and recognized strength. I will explain more fully in my next post.