Too Good for Politics
Is Barack Obama just another high-toned liberal doomed to failure?
All presidential candidates have their signature rhetorical moves, and Barack Obama's has been to make a virtue of defying pressure groups. In a recent debate, he boasted of telling a crowd of automakers—rather than "some environmental group," as he put it—that we need to raise the fuel efficiency standards of cars. He has also hyped his frankness in urging merit pay on teachers and in lecturing African-American groups that unwed fathers need to act more responsibly.
Never mind that none of these positions is terribly controversial, even among liberal Democrats. In touting these acts of supposed rebellion, Obama isn't really seeking to stake out dangerous ground; he's trying to score points for appearing to brave powerful constituencies on behalf of a larger common good. Telling Detroit to go green may (or may not) bruise him in the Michigan primary, but overall it will help him much more by buffing his aura as a truth-teller and healer.
Pundits call these gestures "Sister Souljah" moments, in honor of Bill Clinton's 1992 speech before the Rainbow Coalition blasting the rapper for seeming to advocate black-on-white violence. But that label doesn't really apply to Obama's gestures. Clinton's comments were tied closely to a specific subject matter—racial politics. Though arguably opportunistic, they were aimed squarely at Reagan Democrats who felt their party had become too tolerant of black radicalism. The particular objects of Obama's attacks, in contrast, are irrelevant. It's the larger image of candor on behalf of the general interest that he's after. A more apt precedent, then, is the rhetoric of a different Democratic standard-bearer from the past—Adlai Stevenson—who, not coincidentally, also embodies the strain of high-minded reformism that, of all liberal traditions, influences Obama most.
Stevenson, the famously virtuous Illinois governor who nobly went down to defeat against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, remains the model Democratic loser. He was the sensible champion of civility who gallantly upheld the liberal banner in a conservative age, even while getting drubbed at the polls. One of his favorite tactics was to proclaim his ability to flout his audiences and instead act on behalf of the whole public. "I remember the night in Dallas when I spoke to Texans of my views of tidelands oil," he said in a televised speech on election eve, 1952. "I remember the crowd in Detroit when I said I would be the captive of all of the American people and no one else. I remember the evening in the railroad station in New Haven when I identified a powerful Democratic leader as not my kind of Democrat. ... I have done my best frankly and forthrightly." The same theme marked TV commercials like this one—an ad that also lends some insight into why Stevenson had so much trouble that year.
The appeal to the greater good, as opposed to sectarian interest, was typical of Stevenson—and of a persistent persuasion within liberalism that has now given rise to Obama's candidacy. It's an appeal that aims not only to create an image of principled candor, but, equally important, to distinguish the candidate from the familiar Democratic interest-group pluralism. Whereas most Democratic politicians have succeeded by building alliances of disparate groups, each with its own pet issues, Stevenson's approach tended to deny or elide the fact that the demands of particular groups often conflict. Instead, he was partial to language about "the common good" and "the public interest" and spoke loftily to "all Americans." This sensibility wasn't inherently hostile to Democratic constituencies like blacks, blue-collar workers, or immigrants whose interests often fell outside conventional notions of the "common" interest, but it did tend to marginalize their concerns. Conversely, it resonated most with intellectuals and well-educated upscale professionals.
Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It's a style—an ideology, really—that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Sen. Barack Obama by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.