Springsteen wrote about it a few years too early, but last night was a glorious chance to see that envisioned country, to grasp the promise of that hoped-for America made real. This wasn’t just a victory speech. This was a magnificent affirmation of that shining ideal of E pluribus unum towards which we always look: the beacon, in any and every storm, that guides all our ships home.
Are we divided? Perhaps. But Obama, like Christopher Hitchens, gets it — that debate and argument, even vigorous and bitter ones, are the crucible in which you test the mettle of ideas and eventually (painfully, tortuously) arrive at truth. (“Heat not light” is a misguided dismissal of conflict and confrontation; “heat produces light” is more accurate both as science and as metaphor, as Hitchens often observed.) Yes, this campaign was long, brutal, and sometimes petty and ridiculous — and it was frustrating for all of us who think that our own beliefs and values are self-evidently true and should be universally accepted without complaint. But it’s never a bad thing to revisit first principles — to be forced to settle (or at least reconsider) the existential questions that determine how we treat each other and how we make a nation together. In the President’s words:
That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.
The President, of course, points out that argumentation can only be the beginning; that our national debates must never lose sight of the need to seek and find common ground, in order to move forward together. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” said Lincoln after his reelection — and there’s more than a conscious echo of that here:
Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock, resolve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward.
But that common bond is where we must begin.
And more than an echo of Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech as well:
But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
He cuts through the clutter and noise to get at the very essence of American community:
This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.
And, like many others, he compellingly makes the case for optimism — not idle Pollyannaism, but clear-eyed hope with a spine of steel:
I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.
And in a rousing finale that recalls both his own electrifying 2004 keynote speech and Lincoln’s invocation of “the better angels of our nature,” Obama calls us to be our best and highest selves:
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America.
This speech gave me chills, made me weep, made my heart soar. But don’t take my word for it! Read the entire transcript here. Watch it again. And cherish it. This is one for the ages.
Adding: Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s take — nearly as eloquent as the President himself, and always worth reading:
As for the next four years, there is time enough for that. But I stand by these words. And one felt something tectonic shift tonight. America crossed the Rubicon of every citizen’s access to healthcare, and re-elected a black president in a truly tough economic climate. The shift toward gay equality is now irreversible. The end of prohibition of marijuana is in sight. Women, in particular, moved this nation forward – pragmatically, provisionally, sensibly. They did so alongside the young whose dedication to voting was actually greater this time than in 2008, the Latino voters who have made the current GOP irrelevant, and African-Americans, who turned up in vast numbers, as in 2008, to put a period at the end of an important sentence.
That sentence will never now be unwritten. By anyone.
Also adding: Greg Sargent thinks, as I do, that this campaign wasn’t as petty or trivial as it sometimes seemed on the surface. Rather, it was a consequential battle of ideas about the very nature of American society:
1) What is the true nature of our collective responsibility towards one another?
2) What is the true legacy of the great progressive reforms of the 20th century? Should their core mission — and the safety net they have created — be preserved and expanded upon to meet the needs of those who are still being left behind by the private market? Or does that mission need to be readjusted to deal with dramatically different economic circumstances in the 21st century?
3) What is the best way to guarantee shared prosperity and economic security at a time of rapid economic change? Should we take collective action, via democratically elected leaders, to try to guarantee a good life to as many people as possible, and to defend those who are suffering economic harm at the hands of the free market? Or are we currently at risk of overreaching in that direction, doing people more harm than good?
There were many petty-seeming battles throughout this campaign, no doubt, but you can find these questions lurking just beneath their surface. The battles over so-called “gaffes” and controversial remarks on both sides often turned on deeper questions about the nature of the society we want to live in.