There are few people today who write as well as columnist Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and winner of the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for the book The Content of Our Character.
Writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Steele tries to explain Barack Obama and Obamaism as a counter-culture phenomenon requiring the president to be the national “redeemer” on whose shoulders’ rests the responsibility to set right that which is wrong.
That need, however, is not confined to the economic problems currently gripping the nation. It is a much larger, much more profound task; one that requires him to, in essence, lead an effort to remake the nation in a new image, one that expunges the wrongs of history in a way that denies completely the idea of American exceptionalism.
It is a brilliant essay--as well as a persuasive and powerful one.
Broadly defined, America is divided into two camps. There is, admittedly, plenty of overlap between the two. In the main, however, one camp thinks of America primarily--if they think about it in these terms at all--much as the pilgrim father John Winthrop did, as a new civilization that was, to the rest of the world, “a shining city on a hill.” Or who continue to believe, as Lincoln did, that America represents “the last, best hope of earth.”
The other camp, consisting of what Steele and others have called “the counter-culture” but which dominate many of the nation’s elite institutions including the media and the academy, think of America as an imperialist actor of the world stage, forever stained by its imperfections, a maker of war crushing indigenous cultures in other parts of the globe while pillaging its natural resources and unfairly husbanding much of its wealth.
Not being a member of the latter camp I am almost certain they would disagree with my description of their views but it is this camp that Obama heads. And it is these views that lead him to say things about the need to “punish our enemies” when talking to Latinos about immigration or remarking to “Joe the Plumber” about the need “to spread the wealth around.” It reflects the idea that America is, at its core, a bad actor.
This, Steele writes, “puts Mr. Obama and the Democrats in the position of forever redeeming a fallen nation, rather than leading a great nation. They bet on America's characterological evil and not on her sense of fairness, generosity or ingenuity.”
“Among today's liberal elite,” says Steele, “bad faith in America is a sophistication, a kind of hipness. More importantly, it is the perfect formula for political and governmental power.” Obamaism “rationalizes power in the name of intervening against evil--I will use the government to intervene against the evil tendencies of American life (economic inequality, structural racism and sexism, corporate greed, neglect of the environment and so on).”
Over the last two years we have seen emanating from Washington a near-perfect exercise in that kind of power, an effort to abuse the democratic process in ways that lead to equalities of result trumping the liberty of opportunity.
The members of the Tea Party movement and others have stood up in defense of opportunity, of the idea of American Exceptionalism, however unformed and artesian their protests might be. They may be a little fuzzy on their policy prescriptions--although no more so than the Democrats--but they have been clear about which side of the divide they are on. This may ultimately explain why the national polling data is as dramatic, even historic, as it has been over the last several months.
If the debate has come down to in its purest, most basic form a question of whether America is a good country or a bad country, it is somewhat cheerful to know that so many people still line up on the side of it being a good one, no matter which party ends up in control of Congress after November 2.
Corrected on 10/29/10: A previous version of this blog post incorrectly identified the gender of Shelby Steele.