Nov 16, 2008

E Pluribus Unum

Or, Why I Voted for Barack Obama: Identity Politics for the 21st Century

I am a middle-aged white man, and I voted for Barack Obama. I did not vote for him because he was African-American, young and charismatic. I voted for him because he addressed the most difficult issues of our troubled time in a reasoned manner based on concrete analyses that offered the possibility of pragmatic solutions. I voted for him because he transcended the histrionics of fear-based ideologies on the left and the right and spoke to all sides with the respect and concern that the citizens of a representative democracy deserve. I voted for him because he placed intellect above emotion without sacrificing his humanity. I voted for him because he harnessed the power of words in order to defeat the demagogic populism that pandered to our most easily frightened fellow citizens.

Still, I must confess that Barack Obama made it easy to for me cast a vote that in my heart also atoned for past injustices. As I stated, his race alone was not enough. But his race was a factor nonetheless. I am not blind to the horrors that began in 1492, and whether or not there is a God, there are some things that demand atonement even if those of us who atone did not commit the original sin. We cannot change the past; but we can cleanse ourselves for the sake of justice and reconciliation.

It is not a question of shame or politically-correct guilt. I am proud of my European ancestors’ nobler achievements even as I acknowledge their predations. Achievements can be praiseworthy. Race, however, should never be a source of pride. I cannot be fully human unless my identity extends beyond the narrow limits of race and geographic origins. I cannot be an American unless I embrace my fellow citizens as brothers and sisters bound in an experiment known as the United States of America—an experiment based solely on the abstract concept of shared humanity through a social contract enshrined in the Constitution and the radical idea of equality under the law. Yet even that is not enough.

A political document, no matter how well written or effective, is only a shadow of the larger moral responsibility that stems from the human condition. I am human because I exist in the middle ground between individuality and community—neither one governs me, yet I cannot separate one from the other without being less than human. It is that delicate middle that lies at the core of morality and—yes—politics. I do not have to be a socialist to grasp that what affects me also affects my fellow citizens. I do not have to be a laissez-faire neo-conservative to grasp that I have a right to individual liberty. I become a man when I learn to balance my rights with those of the many. I become a citizen when I enter into the constitutional community. I become fully human when I do the right thing for its own sake.

Barack Obama is not a messiah. He cannot save the world or even the United States. He is, however, the president-elect of the United States. On January 20, 2009, he will be the president of the most powerful country on earth. His duty will be to lead in keeping with laws of the Republic. It is a job for a realist who aspires to the ideal. It will be a nearly impossible task. But it will not be his alone. As the president Barack Obama will be an extension of us—all of us—the true body politic that is the Republic. His successes and his failures will both be ours. And while the “buck” may stop at his desk in the Oval Office, the ultimate responsibility will fall upon us, the citizens of the United States of America, a country that perhaps at last is truly a nation—out of many, one.

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