Sunday, October 30, 2022

The America I Believe In

Over the last couple of days, Barack Obama raised the roof on the campaign trail in Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I'd love to reflect on all the ways he's re-energized Democrats at this crucial moment in time. But that would require a whole post in and of itself. Instead, I want to highlight one moment in Georgia where he addressed the most crucial issue of this election. It comes at the 0:21 mark of this video compiled by Stacey Abrams.
There have always been certain values that bind us together as citizens, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we look like, or who we love. That's the promise of America. That's who we are. And in this election you have the chance to vote for leaders...who will fight for that big, inclusive, hopeful, forward-looking America that we believe in."

I was reminded of the fact that, even in a divided country, there's one thing most voters agree on. 

Seven in ten Americans think that our democracy is under threat. Where we're at odds is over what, exactly, poses a threat to our democracy. The difference is stark and rooted in the story we tell ourselves about this country. 

I recently watched the movie, "The Good Shepherd," in which Matt Damon plays a fictional character  (Edward Wilson) who spearheaded the formation of the counter-intelligence division at CIA. Late in the film, he tried to force an Italian mobster into becoming a government asset by threatening to deport him. The target responded by saying, "We Italians got our families and the church. The Irish have their homeland. The Jews their tradition. Even the n****rs, they've got their music. What about you people Mr. Wilson? What do you have?" Wilson answered with, "The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting." That is a story of America that consistently runs throughout our history.

The radical right continues to embrace that story - describing an ugly place where we’re all divided into tribes that see each other as the enemy. It’s a zero sum story where, in order for me to win, you have to lose - where advances in civil rights for people of color, women, and LGBTQ Americans pose a threat to those who assume that this country belongs to them. 

That's why that clip from Obama's speech in Georgia is so important. It is a theme he returned to over and over again from his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention to the one he gave during the 2008 election when he talked about "perfecting our union." But it was his speech at the 50th Anniversary in Selma that was devoted entirely to articulating this story of America. 
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny. It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America...

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it... 
Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Back in 2017, John Favreau wrote that "every election is a competition between two stories about America." Never has that been more true than this year. I think about that when I see candidates like Stacey Abrams campaign on the slogan: "One Georgia." 

My own Governor, Tim Walz, is campaigning on a similar slogan. 

And I'll never get tired of watching this! 

Our democracy is being threatened by those who assume that America belongs to them based on their gender, race, religion, and/or sexual orientation. But as Obama said, "in this election you have the chance to vote for leaders...who will fight for that big, inclusive, hopeful, forward-looking America that we believe in."


  1. Just terrific, thank-you. Good things happen when people have hope. First, they're more likely to take part in public life (including politics, including voting). Second, the kind of change that results is generally change for the better.

    It's one of the lessons I suspect Obama learned from his brief career as a community organizer. Yes, anger is essential fuel. But anger without hope leads to some pretty dark places.

    1. Nice comment! We're in real trouble very much because of that. The GOP uses fear to rile up its base, mixed with hatred that offers, if not hope, at least a way to feel good about oneself. And of course its stirring up fears about the economy, crime, or whatever else for the given campaign season helps deprive others of hope, and without hatred to get them excited or empty promises about how "we," unlike the Democrats, will address the fears, too many just sit out the vote or become vulnerable to those false promises and empty fears. They may even turn on the Democrats for failing to address empty fears, just as they might blame Biden or Hillary or whoever for not having the magic wand. Same gambit in the GOP blocking legislation and then running against government.

  2. Nancy's comments here are based on one of Obama's strongest speeches ever: the 'We' element of the United States' message--'We the People'. Rather than divide and remove others, the 'We' works to establish community, tear down walls, open doors and see that everyone in America is free to earn a living, vote as s/he wishes, live where one desires, marry the person s/he loves, and basically be heard without fear of recriminations. And, yes, my comments above are based on a refutation of the Nazi nativist propaganda that was so prominent in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and even today. We all should 'Build a longer table, not a higher wall.'


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