Yes He Can
Robert N. Bellah March 3, 2008 - 2:40pm
This year’s presidential election is surely one of the most important in recent history. After more than seven years of the most incompetent administration in American history, it is time for a change. The question is, What kind of change?
Before trying to answer that question, let me put my cards on the table: I am highly partisan. I have never voted for a Republican in my sixty years as a voter. I have on rare occasions voted for a third-party candidate, but on the whole, often as the lesser evil, I have voted for Democrats. Although I think I would have done the same wherever I lived, I must also confess that I am conformist in terms of my immediate environment. It is rumored that there are Republicans in Berkeley, but no one knows who they are: they are perhaps a secret society. Voting consistently for Democrats makes one something of a conservative in Berkeley terms. I suspect if I had lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as I did for the first twenty years of my academic life, it wouldn’t have been much different.
I must also confess that I am highly partisan in the present Democratic primary race. I have a high regard for both Clintons and I believe Hillary Clinton is a strong candidate. But Barack Obama has stirred my political hopes like no one since Franklin Roosevelt. Yes, I am old enough to remember Roosevelt. He became president when I was five years old and died when I was eighteen. Even as a child I was partisan and, while too young to know enough to support him in 1932, I did strongly support him in 1936, 1940, and 1944, though I was not yet old enough to vote.
Hearing Obama give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was one of the most electrifying experiences of my political life. “Who is this person?” I thought. How is it possible for anyone today to formulate the very best of the American tradition in such eloquent terms? (Needless to say, with a sense of the centrality of rhetoric to the Western political tradition from Aristotle and Cicero to Jefferson and Lincoln, I have never accepted the derogatory use of the word. I believe that speaking well and thinking well usually go together, and vice versa, as the incumbent president so vividly illustrates. It will be easier for John McCain to attack Obama’s “rhetoric” than to equal it.) Recently going over my 2007 checkbooks for tax purposes, I noted that I wrote a check to Obama for America on February 10, 2007, which was the very day he announced his candidacy. What impressed me during the last long year of campaigning was not so much his stand on particular issues (I generally agree with him, though on health care I think Clinton’s plan may be slightly better); it was the way Obama framed where we are today and how we can move to a better place. In other words, what I first heard in 2004 has only become clearer in the past year: Obama, like no one I have heard in a very long time, understands our political tradition, how it has been distorted in recent years, and how we can return to it at its best. I know Obama talks a lot about hope, but that is what he has given me: hope, when I had begun to believe that the situation in my country was hopeless.
I believe both Clintons have read Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, because they have told me that they have, and I believe Hillary Clinton would try to put into practice some of the things that I and my coauthors were talking about in those books. I have no reason to believe that Obama has read the books, yet he has caught their spirit in a most remarkable way and expressed it more eloquently than anyone in living memory. In Habits of the Heart I and my coauthors described four traditions that are powerful in America today. We called our primary moral language “utilitarian individualism,” the calculating concern for self-interest that is natural in our kind of economy, and a language that all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, must often use as they appeal to various interest groups to support them. But we have three secondary moral languages that give a greater richness and moral adequacy to our discourse (even as they are often shunted aside by the dominance of the language of self-interest), expressive individualism, biblical language, and the language of civic republicanism. All candidates use the language of expressive individualism when they try to show us their human side, tell their individual stories and the stories of those who support them. But the substantial alternatives to the language of utilitarian individualism are biblical and civic republican. Biblical language, like all the others, comes in several forms, but here I am referring to the language of Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin—that is, a language that expresses the dominant biblical concern for those most in need, a language that reminds us of our solidarity with all human beings. When Obama says “we are our brothers’ keepers; we are our sisters’ keepers,” when he suggests, as he does in so many ways, that we all need one another, all depend on one another, he is using that biblical language at its most appropriate. And in his emphasis on public participation at every level, in his refusal to take money from lobbyists and political action committees, he is reviving the spirit of civic republicanism, of voters as citizens responsible for the common good, not political consumers concerned only with themselves.
The probable Republican nominee, John McCain, seems to be a better human being than his Republican rivals, more human and more moral. But to the degree that he relies on the politics of fear—apparently the Republicans’ only hope—and demonizes Islam in the process, he would lead us to follow our worst instincts and continue a policy that has the gravest consequences for the world and the place of America in the world. That leaves the only real choice (I’m writing this in late February) as that between Clinton and Obama. I am not sure Obama can deliver on what he promises—he will surely face fanatical and powerful opposition to anything he tries to do. And I am not sure he can resist the temptations of our political culture to compromise—not to compromise for the sake of doing what is realistically possible, but to compromise principles. And I believe Hillary Clinton is probably better prepared to deal with the realities of the presidency from “day one,” as she has said. But there is a grandeur and a hope in Obama that makes me want to give him the chance to lead our country.
Should Clinton be the nominee, I would strongly support her. I hope that Obama’s example would encourage her best instincts, as Edwards’s example has encouraged both Obama and Clinton. But if Obama is not the nominee, and if he is never elected president, I am sure that, God willing, he will long be a political presence that will forever be calling us to heed “the better angels of our nature.” I am not as confident as many that the Democratic nominee will win in November. Americans of late have been very vulnerable to the politics of fear, as have many nations in the past. I am reasonably sure that the Democrats will have a significant majority in both houses of Congress, that if McCain wins it will be a personal victory with very short coattails. That means a great deal of conflict and gridlock in a period when we can ill afford it. If we have, as expected, a Democratic president next year, the road will still not be easy. Both Democratic candidates have promised what amounts to universal health care, but opposition to that is enormously well financed and it will be a struggle to keep even a significant Democratic majority sufficiently together to pass it. Every significant issue, domestic and foreign, will be contested, will require both presidential leadership of a high quality and public pressure on the Congress to do the right thing. We may be confident that, whoever is elected, things cannot be as bad as under George W. Bush. Yet that is a very low standard. I cannot say I am very optimistic that the standard will be significantly lifted. Still, hope is a theological virtue; it is something required of us. Whatever we may fear, we must keep hope alive.
This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.
About the Author
Robert N. Bellah is professor of sociology emeritus, University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is The Robert Bellah Reader (Duke University Press).