President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America

What made President Obama’s Second Inaugural the best speech of his presidency was its great theme: He told the story of America as progressives understand it, and connected it with the progressive mission today.

In recent years, liberals have let conservatives own the big-picture story of America. If you hear somebody talking about the Founders and the Constitution, probably it’s Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul or some other hero of the self-styled “patriots” of the Tea Party.

Liberals have been more comfortable talking about peace and justice in the here and now: How are we going to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan? What can we do about levels of inequality last seen in the Gilded Age? How are we going to stop gun violence? How can we make sure that the sick, the old, and the disabled get the care they need? Can we stop profit-privatizing/risk-socializing bankers from crashing the economy again? And so on.

Facts vs. visions. I believe liberals actively shy away from this big-picture mythologizing because of our disgust at how conservatives abuse it: They must talk about their grand vision, because when you get down to the nitty-gritty of facts, they are just plain wrong. Rape causes pregnancy. The globe is warming. The rich are getting all the money. The economy has a demand problem. Taxes are low, spending is not out of control, and the federal government can’t go bankrupt.

Let Glenn Beck spin stories about the last 5,000 years, we’d rather point to things that are actually happening and say, “Look! Look!”

And yet … “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Without some larger context, day-to-day political efforts can seem meaningless. Why waste your energy? Make a nice dinner for your family. See a movie. Get ready for that thing at work. The immediate benefits of those efforts are clear. Politics? Not so much.

If conservatives offer their followers a role in the drama of History and we don’t, we will never match their intensity. Worse, by not offering a larger vision, we can seem to consent to the conservative narrative, in which “socialists” from FDR to LBJ to Obama have usurped the “libertarian” Republic of the Founders.

But progressives have their own story of America, and can offer a different role in the drama of History.

Progressive vs. fundamentalist mythology. In general, there are two main ways — fundamentalist and progressive — to turn history into a motivating myth. The generic Fundamentalist Myth begins with a Golden Age of divinely inspired prophets and larger-than-life heroes. From there, we devolved and corrupted their legacy. But deep inside our fallen shells glows the same spark that burned so brightly in them. So if we stoke fire of greatness and scour away the rust of corruption, we can recreate the world they meant for us to have.

a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night

The Progressive Myth reveres its past in a different way. Our legacy consists not of perfect past to which we should strive to return, but of a vision that has shone through the ages, always just out of reach, and of a journey towards that vision.

The Biblical motif is not the Garden of Eden, the Davidic Kingdom, or the Apostolic Church, but the Israelites wandering through the desert: We were slaves in Egypt when Moses gave us — not Freedom — but a vision of Freedom and the hope of a Promised Land. God is with us not as a once-and-future King, but as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, wordlessly marking the direction of our march. We move forward because the only permanent encampment behind us is Pharaoh’s.

It is not hard to see the Fundamentalist Myth in the Tea Party’s version of American history. The Founders are prophets, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are scripture.

But the Progressive Myth can also apply to American history. And like so much liberal/conservative disagreement, the progressive version stays closer to the facts.

The Second Inaugural Address. President Obama began his speech with the holiest words in the American canon:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

But that was not the establishment of a Golden Age to which we must return. It was the start of a journey with no turning back.

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

That journey has had two pieces: Change that became necessary as circumstances changed, and change that became necessary as we reached a clearer vision of the meaning of our founding principles. And so our journey included the abolition of slavery

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.

the construction of modern infrastructure from the Erie Canal to the interstate highways

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers.

the trust-busting of Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the SEC and other modern regulatory bodies

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

and Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

These are not corruptions or usurpations of the Founders’ dream, but its continuing realization.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone.

And we are not done yet.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

Looked at with clear eyes, American history is meaningful only as a place to be from, not a place to go back to. Where would you go? To the slave plantations? To Jim Crow? To the Trail of Tears? To the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory? To Love Canal? To marriages where wives own no property and have rights only through their husbands? To a time when old age and poverty were practically synonymous? Where?

As a nation, we can rightfully take pride in the challenges we have overcome, but not in where we have been. To go back, to give up all that progress, would betray our revolutionary heritage. Our forebears kept moving forward, and so will we.

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  • Kimc  On January 29, 2013 at 12:17 am


  • sepunka  On January 29, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    “Looked at with clear eyes, American history is meaningful only as a place to be from, not a place to go back to. Where would you go? To the slave plantations? To Jim Crow? To the Trail of Tears? To the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory? To Love Canal? To marriages where wives own no property and have rights only through their husbands? To a time when old age and poverty were practically synonymous? Where?”

    You have struck all the chords. Thank you.


  • By Here On Earth « The Weekly Sift on January 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    […] cover President Obama’s speech itself — the best of his presidency — in President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America. Short version: There are two ways, fundamentalist and progressive, to turn history into myth. […]

  • […] Doug Muder – President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America […]

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