The Magazine

The Unity Fantasy

The donkey and the elephant are not about to lie down together.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Whether Obama really thinks such a thing is possible is anybody's guess. He doesn't look like a cynic to me. As a career politician, he has been required by his profession to face opponents and defeat them if he wants to get his way. Division is what politicians do. He's got to know this, even if his blissed-out followers don't. In his endless campaign, though, he never stopped talking as if the clashing political interests and contending ideas of a big, complicated, self-governing country were all just a terrible misunderstanding. His final stump speech--which his campaign called, with customary pomposity, the "closing argument," as though the candidate had suddenly turned into Perry Mason--was drenched in togetherness. Right at the top he promised that his victory would "put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election; that tries to pit region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat  .  .  .  "

Obama's theatrical gift is such that his listeners seldom pause to think about what he's saying. He communicates through a kind of subverbal music, half-heard and absorbed rather than cogitated on. But consider that promise above. What kind of "politics .  .  . divides the nation just to win an election"? Well, every kind. Elections presuppose a divided nation; if the nation weren't divided it wouldn't need an election. Besides, politics, of whatever kind, doesn't cause the divisions; it expresses them and clarifies them. Experience shows that this method of expressing division is far preferable to the alternatives, which often involve bazookas. You will note too that he declares his contempt for a politics that pits Republicans against Democrats. Republicans pitted against Democrats? Horrifying. Please make it stop.

And of course Obama's chief pledge is to make it stop. He'll be elected and unity will ensue. But how? It goes without saying that the easiest way to unify the country is to eliminate those elements within it that make trouble for the unifier. Stalinists and Nazis were terrific at unifying countries. Their techniques are closed to him, of course, Obama being neither a Stalinist nor a Nazi but only a hardworking, ambitious, well-meaning American pol. But in dealing with the wayward elements, he has other options. He can declare that the nonunifiers are philosophically or morally indecent. Or he can pretend they don't exist.

Obama does both, depending on the rhetorical point he's trying to make. When his opponents dissented from his tax plan, he said they were making "a virtue of selfishness." They were, he said, coddling criminal CEOs and responding with Pavlovian discipline to the commands of sleazy lobbyists. They refused to honor American troops and veterans. Their cynicism was instinctual. Obama's "new politics of unity" would end "the old politics of division" by labeling those old politicians and their arguments irredeemably corrupt, hence unworthy of consideration. Obama's supporters were asked to divide the country between those who were united--that would be them--and those who weren't, for whatever reason. In a platform trick reminiscent of Huey Long, Obama actually asked his supporters during campaign rallies how much money they made, the better to drive them away from the unsavory, nonunited elements that earn more than they do.

When these elements have been dispensed with, unity becomes a simple matter of people identifying their own best interests and falling into one another's arms. In his stump speech, Obama pretended that every major political disagreement was merely the consequence of a false choice. "When it comes to health care," he said, "we don't have to choose between a government-run health care system and the unaffordable one we have now." But of course nobody--really, nobody--thinks those are the only alternatives in the health care debate. "When it comes to jobs," he said, "the choice in this election is not between putting up a wall around America or allowing every job to disappear overseas." Who says it is? "When it comes to giving every child a world-class education," he said, "the choice is not between more money and more reform."