"We understand that this democracy is ours."
Last Thursday night in Charlotte, the death of the American dream was on full display. While adoring throngs cheered President Barack Obama’s hackneyed bloviating, Barack Obama gained points in the polls. Whether those points last or not – whether Obama wins or not – the fact is this: America is now a nation balanced on the razor’s edge between the self-reliant and the self-declared victims.
The 2012 presidential campaign was supposed to be a referendum on two major questions about Obama. First, has he done a good job? Second, what will he do if given four more years? And Thursday night provided Obama with his first opportunity to answer both those questions.
Instead, he answered neither. Obama knows something the rest of us don’t: this election isn’t about what Obama has done or what he will do. This election is about whether the American people consider themselves victims requiring a savior, or entrepreneurial individuals who value freedom over the comfort of faceless community. This election is about the crowd inside the Time Warner Arena, not about the politician on the stage before them.
And that crowd considers itself a group of victims. Walking around the Arena, two connected phenomena rose above all the chatter: worship for President Obama, and the perception that both Obama and his fans had been somehow slighted. Any opposition to Obama was considered treasonous bullying. That perspective infected the campaign itself; Obama for America wouldn’t even allow major Democrats to speak to the conservative media arrayed at the Arena. Conservatives were victimizers; liberals were the victimized. The philosophy of unearned victimology dominated the lectern.
Obama played on this perspective throughout his address. According to Obama, America is no longer a place where “everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules.” Some people cheat. And those people are winning. Said Obama, “I ran for President because I saw that basic bargain slipping away … when the house of cards collapsed in the Great Recession, millions of innocent Americans lost their jobs, their homes, their life savings.” Those “innocent Americans” were apparently helpless to get back on their feet; someone had rigged the system. Republicans, said Obama, wanted to “stick it to the middle class.” Insurance companies, said Obama, wanted to put Americans at their “mercy.” Companies wanted to “release toxic pollution into the air your children breathe.”
In this world of victimhood – in this world where individual Americans simply can’t get ahead thanks to the obstacles imposed on them by others (the wealthy, the businessmen, Wall Street, Republicans) – what is required is an army. Led by Barack Obama.
Obama’s military language pervaded his speech. This was a war speech, given by a would-be war leader. It was a speech that celebrated “The values my grandfather defended as a soldier in Patton’s Army; the values that drove my grandmother to work on a bomber assembly line while he was gone.” Obama utilized territorial analogies: “We’re not going back. We are moving forward, America.” Obama likened himself to America’s last great non-Cold War military leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, calling for “common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued.”
The speech wasn’t merely martial. It suggested that Americans can only accomplish things by ceding power to the government. Or, as the slogan went during a DNC video, “Government is the only thing that we all belong to.” As individuals, we are nothing; as a collective, we are infinitely powerful.
That collectivism formed the central component of Obama’s speech. Obama never used the language of compulsion – he suggested that government was a way we “ask” each other to do things. That, of course, is a lie – government compels people to do things. But according to Obama, that’s just fine. In fact, that’s the only way to get things done and to stop the victimizers from victimizing the victims. Citizenship is, according to Obama, giving up your autonomy and your rights to a government that can protect individuals from each other. “This country,” said Obama, “only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.” Those obligations include forcing CEOs to pay higher salaries; forcing banks to bail out bad borrowers; forcing taxpayers to subsidize the women’s studies courses of every little girl.
More than anything, government, said Obama, is not the problem. We are the problem, if left to our own devices. “We don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles … America, we understand that this democracy is ours. … America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together.” Individuals are the problem. Government can be the solution.
And the would-be victims in the hall cheered for a leader they would hand as much authority as possible. They saw in him the hope to escape their lonely destinies in favor a greater communal one. As Obama said, “the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you.” Obama is the vessel.
But he isn’t an empty vessel, as the American people will find out during his second term. Government, in the end, is still comprised of men. Men who exercise their power. Men who have agendas. Men who are individuals – the same sort of individuals Obama tells us not to trust, except given unspeakable power.
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