Barack Obama’s speech was partisan, needless to say. It was delivered at a major party’s national convention, it endorsed the party’s national ticket, and it was rooted in the core values of the Democratic Party, more than in the legitimate but different values of the GOP. (I disagree with some conservatives who apparently believe that Obama’s speech was to the right of the Democratic mainstream. In its elements as well as its overall spirit, it struck me as conventionally Democratic.) However, there is more than one way to be partisan, and some ways are better than others for our political culture.
In all my teaching and professional work, I am relentlessly non-partisan and aim to be neutral with respect to most of today’s controversial issues. I’m professionally concerned about our political culture, not about particular policies. I have never before singled out for praise a partisan speech or even an individual politician. But I do believe in parties–and in intense partisan competition–as mainstays of democracy. Everything depends on how the partisans play.
So consider the most quoted passage from Tuesday’s speech:
The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?
There is a lot of simple truth in this, especially in the first paragraph. To be sure, Obama takes some shots at unnamed opponents who are allegedly exploiting the Patriot Act, who are cynical, and who won’t admit that Democrats are religious or that Republicans have gay friends. In other words, he uses rhetoric against the other party, and I’m not sure that all his implicit charges are 100% fair. However, the critique is oblique and general, not scathing and personal, and for the most part he competes to be more inclusive and more unifying. His aim is to appear more positive about all segments of the American population than the other side is. He is also positive and optimistic about the main features of the political system itself.
Imagine that both major parties competed with this kind of rhetoric, instead of constantly imputing wicked motives to each other. Based on evidence like this, I strongly suspect that the rate of participation would rise. We might even see citizens trust one another more.