Obama's Usable Past

John Judis is one of our leading journalist intellectuals. His knowledge of American history and political culture is so deep and nuanced that it would put many academics to shame. How many political reporters today even know who R.W.B. Lewis is, let alone are able to frame an essay around the title of one of his most influential books, American Adam?

In that essay, the cover story of The New Republic’s March 12, 2008 issue, Judis argues that Obama is a quintessential American figure, "making a promise to voters that is as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch." Moreover, Obama, via his exotic, mixed-race background, escapes the greatest burden of American history—race—so that "Obama is at once part of black America and also removed from it and from its political history." Obama, in Judis's account, distrusts government and political parties, too. Judis wishes Obama well, but fears that this Adam-like figure, the kind of leader Americans turn to when they wish to "achieve a final and decisive break with history," may yet be broken by history—"in the form of race or war or deeply held partisan animosities."

I think Judis has written a brilliantly productive misreading of Obama. Rather than escape the past, Obama wishes, as, the critic and literary historian Van Wyck Brooks put it in 1918, to find a "usable past" in American ideals of equality, justice, and fraternity. These ideals are encompassed in the America of 2008, an America that could elect as president a mixed-race man named Barack Hussein Obama. Judis misconstrues Obama's plaintive redemption of the hoary promise of America as an Emersonian paean to a nation untethered to history.

It's a subtle distinction. Obama's exclusion from the classic African American narrative does not mean that he believes he has freed himself from any and all American narratives. Rather, his narrative is emblematic of an argument from Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams: Gitlin writes that the United States, albeit imperfectly, is the national expression of Enlightenment universalism—that every particularity of race, ethnicity, gender, and class is subsumed within the quiet grandeur of the Constitution’s opening phrase: "We the People…." While Judis sees Obama exemplifying an American ethos that paradoxically reinvents its ahistoricism periodically, what Obama is really doing, I think, is more interesting and more powerful: He is preaching an inclusive civic nationalism—an American ideology with deep roots in post-Civil War America onward—and juxtaposing it to a discredited ethnic or racial nationalism that sees blood and race and the entitlement they bring as constitutive of national creed.

The historian Gary Gerstle explicates both lines of thought in his important 2001 book, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century.

Gerstle, following the Canadian political thinker Michael Ignatieff, defines "civic nationalism" as, in Ignatieff’s words "a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in a shared sense of political practices and values." This almost precisely describes the vision of an American commonwealth that Obama alludes to in his major speeches. Obama frequently uses his own history and that of his wife, Michelle, to encapsulate American civic nationalism. On Jan. 29 in Kansas, the birth state of his mother, Obama said:

Our family's story is one that spans miles and generations, races and realities. It's the story of farmers and soldiers, city workers and single moms. It takes place in small towns and good schools, in Kansas and Kenya, on the shores of Hawaii and the streets of Chicago. It's a varied and unlikely journey but one that's held together by the same simple dream.

And that is why it's American.

That's why I can stand here and talk about how this country is more than a collection of Red States and Blue States—because my story could only happen in the United States.

That's why I believe that we are not as divided as our politics suggests, that the dream we share is more powerful than the differences we have—because I am living proof of that ideal.

Obama's multiracial, transnational background is the trajectory of American history in the 20th century. But Obama not only personalizes civic nationalism in his speeches, he links his vision of America’s future to a particular reading of its past. Obama repeatedly reminds his listeners of the wrenching but concrete history of American reform movements for social justice whose leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walter Reuther, and Martin Luther King Jr., appropriated the Founders’ universalist aspirations for their own uses.

Obama evokes that history—from the proto-post racialism of the abolitionists through the great social-justice movements of women, workers, and African Americans in the 20th century—in almost every major speech he gives. Obama's first speech of this campaign, his announcement of his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, in January 2007, depicted Abraham Lincoln, not merely as the Great Emancipator, but as the great synthesizer of an American civil nationalism forged in blood and struggle. Lincoln, Obama said, "was heard to say: 'Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through.'"

So there is nothing lazy or easy in the path Obama believes Americans must take if they are to actually construct a nation of "liberty and justice for all." The many will have to fight the few and the people will have to petition the powerful if the great words of our founding documents are to become a reality. The past triumphs Obama lists in the name of an emergent American civic nationalism—from the Civil War to the battle of workers against Pinkerton’s goons to Dr. King’s fight to assert the full humanity of African Americans—were always arduous. The struggle is long and difficult. It begins in hope but never ends there. Obama is always looking backward for examples with which to fortify Americans for the forthcoming fight. He reminds his listeners that their birthright lies in America’s universal creed but that that creed of freedom, justice, and equality has only been enacted through the historical agency of women and men like themselves. In Wisconsin on Feb. 12, Obama invoked the progressive movement even while telling his audience that social change does not come easily:

The politics of hope does not mean hoping things come easy. Because nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody somewhere stood up when it was hard, stood up when they were told, no you can't, and said, yes we can.

And where better to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the progressive movement was born. It was rooted in the principle that the voices of the people can speak louder than special interests, that citizens can be connected to their government and to one another, and that all of us share a common destiny, an American Dream.

Judis, by contrast, cites Emerson when arguing that Obama, like Emerson, is an Edenic man, shorn of historical ballast. Judis quotes Emerson as writing, "It is the opposition of Past and Future, of Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason." Emerson explained, "Conservatism stands on man's confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude." Yet even Emerson, the emblematic thinker of American self-invention, ultimately could not escape the crucible of American history -- slavery -- and, at first, reluctantly, and then powerfully, supported the abolitionists. "I will not obey it, by God," wrote Emerson of the Fugitive Slave Law. Emerson, too, understood that ultimately the impress of a history that cannot be evaded.

And so does Obama. The possibilities he raises are derived not from an appeal to historical amnesia but rather results in a plea for Americans to make a new history for themselves amid the fitted shards of the old. The history we will yet make is linked to the history we have already made. For Obama, history is not a Joycean nightmare he is trying to escape but a lived possibility he urges his listeners to create.

Correction: The article originally misstated the title of Todd Gitlin's book. It is The Twilight of Common Dreams, not The Twilight of American Dreams.