It came to me as I watched Will.I.Am's video “Yes We Can” — I encourage everyone to watch it — Obama is a cheater. Now, I don't mean that he condones or abets shady election practices. Rather, I mean that he understands the state of American political culture, his place in it, and how to translate American exceptionalism into “liberal-ese,” if you will.
If you watch the aforementioned music video, you will note the impressive string of clueless celebrities looking resolutely into the camera and saying, “Yes We Can.” Interspersed with this are clips from Obama speeches, this collection amply demonstrating his rhetorical ability. But it's the content of the clips that make the point. Obama's recapping American history here—civil rights, women's suffrage, World War II, and the like, and connecting these American triumphs to himself and his candidacy. It works because we, as a people, do not assume the good intent of our political adversaries.
Candidates don't, and voters most certainly don't. Oh, most of us can be polite at dinner parties, but secretly we wonder what planet the other side's voters inhabit. So this multi-racial, great-looking guy comes along with a recap (though undeniably the Democratic revisionist version) of our own history, and he's a revelation, a vessel for millions of hopes and dreams. Most progressive Democrats view most conservative Republicans as vaguely backward at best, and the essence of evil (Satan) at worst. Republicans view Democrats likewise as naive tools of dictatorial ideologies at best, and fascists, socialists, or communists at worst. (Same difference.)
We need not simply civility; that has been called for endless times. We need to rediscover political theory. We need to rediscover within that process shared assumptions, and our debate ought to be centered around what divergent lessons we draw from our national story. Our discussion of specific issues should never precede the one about those divergences.
Obama sees a people clamoring for a “common purpose” and steps right in. “Common purpose” is another way of saying “shared assumptions, values, and affections as Americans.” Obama's program may well be other than these, but generally people don't know or care. Republicans usually don't bother building that kinship with the audience and our shared history; we simply assume that we have it, and quite incorrectly.
Senator Obama himself is a picture of shared history; before he says anything, he's connected with us in some way. He doesn't have to say, “Vote for me because I'm black!” because, unless we are bigots, we want to anyway. And Obama knows this. He doesn't have to build a bridge between our shared history and his policies, (and the theory behind them) because he knows that in many minds, conservative thought is in opposition to that history – not that it is in reality.
Obama also knows that conservatism is counterintuitive. It takes an exceedingly likable Republican (Reagan or George W. Bush) to even begin to overcome this. It also takes a person deeply committed to the animating principles of conservatism, and John McCain isn't. If he were deeply committed, Bob Barr would be stumping for him, not running against him. McCain is not the sort of fellow who can sell a counterintuitive political philosophy (that he doesn't truly share) to a skeptical public.
America's allegedly capitalist party has run up mountains of debt, expanded government, enabled socialism, and been generally corrupt. The GOP is crying “Wolf!” and no one is listening. Obama could be Eugene V. Debs, and it won't matter. If one is not credible ideologically or personally, “Obama's a socialist!” sounds the same as, “Obama's a Muslim!” The result is that Obama doesn't have to explain himself at all. And that neither serves us, nor our country.
Jason Kettinger is a contributing editor to Open for Business.