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Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism

Paul Waldman uses the perfect phrase to describe Obama’s speech last night:

For the last eight years, Obama has been making a case for a progressive patriotism, one based on the idea of “a more perfect union,” that phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that he returns to again and again. It’s the idea that the American story is one of constant improvement and progression toward the realization of the country’s founding ideals. In that story, change isn’t incidental, it’s essential. And it’s a fundamentally different kind of patriotic story from the one conservatives usually tell. It’s why Obama frequently brings up dark periods in our country’s history, like slavery (as the first lady did on Monday) or Jim Crow or McCarthyism — those periods are a critical part of the story, because they remind us what we overcame.

So over these years, Obama has taught Democrats how to clearly and unequivocally celebrate America while remaining true to their progressive values. And in the process, he turned his party into a confident one, after it had cowered in fear for a quarter-century before his arrival. It seems like a long time ago now, but during that time Democrats were constantly afraid — afraid they’d be called unpatriotic, afraid they’d be called weak on crime, afraid they’d be called tax-and-spenders, and afraid that Republicans who always seemed more skilled and more ruthless would whip the stuffing out of them.

They don’t look that way anymore, do they? This may be a party that has suffered defeats at the state level (as the president’s party often does), and is still in the minority in Congress. But Donald Trump’s campaign of white nationalism has made Democrats more sure than ever that the future belongs to them, their broad coalition, and their inclusive vision.

And more than a few Republicans understand it too. On Wednesday evening, Tony Fratto, who served as a spokesperson for George W. Bush, tweeted, “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America.” As Obama neared the end of his speech, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Reviewtweeted, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

But it isn’t their stuff alone, not anymore.

What these Republicans are responding to isn’t just that Obama is stealing their rhetoric or their optimistic stance. There’s a real kinship between progressive patriotism and the patriotism of the conservative movement, inasmuch as both assume that what America is about, and what makes her worth fighting for, is ideological in nature. There are real differences between the left-wing progressive and right-wing liberal versions of that ideology, but in either case America is something that mere Americans can only aspire to live up to.

The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content. Progressive patriotism, like movement conservatism’s version of patriotism, turns dissenters into un-Americans.

Worse still, it invites the inversion of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. The promise of democracy is, maximally, that we will learn to reason together towards arrangements that we can all live with, and minimally that the government will be accountable to us for its actions. But if the ideal arrangements are objectively out there, rather than something we reason together towards, then democracy becomes a test of the people — they are the ones held accountable, the ones who fail if they vote the wrong way.

Donald Trump’s appeal is, in part, a visceral reaction to that way of thinking on the part of both the right and the left. He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

Trump’s alienated voters don’t feel what Obama feels. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed him. That means he’s failed them, in the sense that he has failed to speak to them in a language they understand, which is his job.

You know who knew how to speak that language? Bill Clinton. Take a look at his speech from Tuesday night. Ostensibly aimed at Sanders voters, what struck me as most important about it was the way in which it reflected a real understanding of the mentality of those who have moved, over the past twenty years, from Clinton to Trump.

Or just check out what I had to say about that speech in my latest column for The Week:

Here’s how the important part begins:

There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you. [Bill Clinton]

As someone who’s argued that loyalty should be the key theme for the Clinton campaign, this brought a smile to my face. But it’s worth noting as well that loyalty is also a cardinal virtue among Appalachian whites. Moreover, suspicions of disloyalty are precisely what have made Barack Obama uniquely unpalatable in this region. Bill Clinton is taking this tack not only because it’s a good one for his wife, and because it connects her personal story to her qualities as a candidate in an effective way, but because it’s a good way to speak to the voters she’s having the most trouble with.

She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

This may be the most important sentence of the whole peroration, but not because of the content. He’s talking about the primary against Sanders, but the argument works equally well to puncture the magical nonsense claims of the Trump campaign. But what’s really important is how the argument is being made. Bill Clinton is talking to voters in West Virginia. He’s talking to them, not about them. He’s not reducing them to psychology or sociology. He’s giving them agency. What they think matters. What they do matters. And it’s their choiceThey have to decide whether they are going to let themselves be played for sentimental fools or not.

It’s sad to realize how infrequently Democrats in the Obama era have talked this way, particularly to this constituency.

And so I say to you, if you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes and you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over somebody that wants to send you back.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.

If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be, help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future. [Bill Clinton]

The most important word in this section is “if,” and the application of that conditional is instructive. Clinton isn’t saying to native-born American citizens that they should welcome immigrants. He’s saying to undocumented immigrants that if they love America, then they should try to stay. He’s not saying that Christian Americans should avoid prejudice against Muslims. He’s saying to Muslim Americans that if they love America, then they should join the fight against America’s enemies. He’s not saying to white Americans that black lives matter. He’s saying to African Americans that if they are afraid of police violence, then theyshould work to reduce violence generally, both by and against the police.

Implicitly, Clinton is assuming some of the key premises of the archetypal Trump voter. There is such a thing as “America” that can be loved or not, and that the condition of entry to a political coalition is demonstrating that love. The job that the police and the armed forces do is inherently noble, and even those who fear being on the receiving end of state violence can only join the coalition to reduce it if they first acknowledge its essential nobility of purpose. He’s challenging the people who Trump’s voters likely view as the ones making demands to instead become allies of the sorts of folks implicitly assumed to already be in the fight, because we already know they love America.

It’s a vision of broad national unity across a multiracial and multicultural nation. But it is a vision that builds that unity on a core implicit identity of Americanness that must be chosen, even earned. Which, as it happens, is just how lots of white folks back in Bill Clinton’s part of the country tend to view the matter.

My conclusion:

Donald Trump is telling a story about American identity that is exceptionally ill-suited to the country that actually exists, much less the country that is emerging. That story is a corrective, though, to the failed ideological stories told by the past two administrations, one a story that put Christian religiosity at the core of American identity, and another that put progressivism at the core.

If the Democrats are to be able to speak to America as a whole, and have a chance of becoming a true majority party and not just capturing the presidency from time to time, they will need a way of talking about American identity that is neither exclusively ideological nor narrowly ethno-national. Their audience for any such message will have to include the most nationalistically minded among the American tribes.

And the starting point for speaking to anybody is learning to speak their language. Even if your aim is to change it.

We already know that Hillary Clinton won’t inspire progressive believers the way Obama can. We’ll see tonight whether she’s learned a trick or two from her husband.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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