Obama asks the wrong question about American values

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There are those, writes former President Barack Obama in an extract of his next memoirs published at Atlantic Thursday, who would “give up the possibility of America”. They examine our national history and our present moment and conclude that American values ​​have always been a lie, that “the ideals of this nation have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism. , and to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. “

He is not among them. The world “is looking at America – the only great power in history made up of people from all corners of the planet, including all races, religions and cultural practices – to see if our experiment in democracy can work”, Obama said in A promised land, which comes out this next Tuesday. “To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.”

Obama himself is watching too. It is not sure, he writes, if we will overcome our deep divisions to build “an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us”. I’m not sure if that’s the right question to ask: Obama’s dichotomy of betrayed or defended ideals assumes that a unified set of American values ​​exist to betray or defend. Millions of Americans disagree.

A survey by Pew Research this fall asked registered voters supporters of President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden if they think they “share a fundamental commitment to the same core American values” with fans of the other candidate. In both camps, eight out of ten say no. They are convinced that the other tribe disagrees not only on what to prioritize in politics – practical issues – but over the higher goals of politics itself – issues of principle. The political struggle in which they imagine themselves participating is not about different means for the same good end, but a constant and painful tussle for entirely disparate ends.

It is important to pause here to warn. Registered voters who are ready to pledge to support a presidential candidate about a month before the election are not fully representative of the country. As I noted recently, the largest third of our electorate is truly independent of either major party, meaning that a slight plurality of voters does not have the degree of partisan loyalty. and certainty to produce such a harsh assessment. Many in that 40ish percent of the voting public bounce between Democrats, Republicans, third parties and abstention, making it unlikely that they share supporters’ perceptions of foreign values.

Moreover, this alienation is often exaggerated: American supporters believe that the political extremism of their opponents almost double its real rate. Indeed, they find it increasingly difficult to achieve even a basic understanding of how the other party thinks and feels – to grasp what inspires them, scares them and makes them angry and , above all, why. If we broaden our examination of Trump and Biden’s registered voters to the entire American public (Pew’s report does not), it seems reasonable to assume that only a small part of the country denies a broad commitment to core American values. It may even be that a majority accepts Obama’s hypothesis.

I think I am in that likely majority, but my acceptance is highly nuanced. Whatever their historical status, the national values ​​that we can betray or defend now are more limited, pragmatic and subject to different interpretations than the former president suggests here.

Obama mentions “the notions of self-government and individual liberty, of equality of opportunity and of equality before the law” as a seemingly shortlist of American ideals. Of these, self-government is the only one, I would say, that enjoys near universal support (and it is framed by a strong paranoia about elections and governance compromised by malicious foreign actors. and national).

Individual freedom is widely supported, yes, but scratch its surface and you will find that the right focuses on the negative. rights and freedoms and the attention of the left to their positive variants are more and more distant. (And it’s not just one side that goes from the center – even the ACLU is not what it used to be.) Equal opportunity is increasingly disadvantaged on the left (the new preference, as vice president-elect Kamala Harris has explained, is fairness), while too much of the law hardly cares about equality before the law, supporting special legal protections for the police and ignoring the rule of law when it serves their purposes.

Americans might be broadly willing to say that we support freedom and justice for all, government of the people, by the people, for the people – all that sort of thing. But the ground on which we really converge is shrinking, surrounded by a rising sea of ​​differences. This presidential election, so narrowly decided and likely producing another divided government, reiterates that reality. There is no clear majority for one variant or another of our national ideals. Our consensus is thin. We can “share a fundamental commitment to the same core American values,” but we also have fundamental commitments to various values ​​outside of this diminished core.

The diversity of these other commitments is a part (among others to discuss here) of what worries me about the current turn towards illiberalism in the corners of the world. left and law look alike. The great pragmatic advantage of liberal governance is that it can create conditions for a peaceful and fulfilling common life for people who agree on few things. Nowhere can illiberal attempts to impose a set of values ​​through state power be more dangerous than in a country like ours, full of minority tribes jostling each other, unsure whether we have a national belief and, in so, if we can or should try to live up to its meaning.

I share Obama’s hope that our governance will cling to the classically liberal notions of self-government, freedom and equality that he listed – but I wonder if it is possible for a popular government to enshrine values ​​that its public holds so tenuous.


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