"To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn--I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too."
--Barack Obama, November 4, 2008
"Today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent: To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."
--George W. Bush, November 3, 2004
He was a college professor with strong political opinions--two marks against him right there--but even so he seemed to be a very smart man. Like all but 17 of America's college professors, he was an Obama supporter. He had noted my skepticism.
"But don't you see Obama has the potential to be a unifying force," he said. "He could bring the country together, the way Reagan did to win the Cold War."
I didn't know what to say. How do these things get started? Reagan as a unifying force?
I spent a lot of time during the Reagan years in faculty lounges, on college campuses, with men and women just like this professor, and I don't remember Reagan as a unifying force. Just about everybody I knew hated him--really couldn't stand him, with a teeth-grinding, skin-crawling disdain. Even beyond the leafy lotus land of higher-ed, he was acknowledged by admirer and critic alike as a "polarizing presence." Weekend after weekend, protesters swelled our great cities and hoisted placards calling him either a psychopath or a buffoon (they could never decide which). His foremost political adversary, Tip O'Neill, said he "had ice water for blood." His landslide reelection victory in 1984 was impressive, but even then, at the zenith of his presidency, more than 40 percent of voters wanted to give him the boot. For that matter, his victory in 1984 wasn't as big as the victory recorded in 1972 by Richard Nixon. Now there was a unifying force.
Only in retrospect has Reagan been tagged as a twinkly, grandfatherly presence, a firm but gentle leader who transcended ideology and brought us together to defeat the Soviet Empire. Things didn't go so smoothly at the time. In his dealings with the Soviets, for example, Reagan was hampered at every step--first by liberals for being too rough, then by conservatives for being too soft. The firing of the air traffic controllers, the huge tax cuts of 1981, the huge tax hike of 1982 (in the middle of a recession!), the nuclear freeze movement, aid to the contras and to the mujahedeen, the "three million" homeless, budget cuts, the invasion of Grenada, the Iran-contra scandal and the subsequent calls for impeachment--the real story of the Reagan years is a story of endless contention, much of it bitter, wrenching, and, to a squeamish public, unpleasant to watch.
What fogs our memory and makes the retrospective Reagan seem like a unifying force is his success. Success, they say, has a thousand fathers, and we kid ourselves into believing we all of us were papa to the Reagan revolution. According to today's popular accounts he won the Cold War and touched off a great economic boom, so of course the country stood unified in support. Who, after all, could have argued with such improbable accomplishments as they took shape? Everybody loved him!
Trust me, though: They didn't.
Our infatuation with "unity" is a recurring delusion of American politics. Among the many examples are the hapless attempts that political geeks make year after year to form third parties that will transcend ideology and return us to our natural, prelapsarian state of cooperation. Ross Perot capitalized on the delusion by telling voters they could join together, hire a managerial expert to run the government "like a business," and do away with a political class that was driving them apart (and not paying enough attention to him). The most recent and consequential example of it is the mesmerism of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Unity is a phantasm raising hopes for something that can't be delivered--or that, once delivered, would be so un-American it would scare us half to death. Yet unity was Obama's theme. The sales pitch was a proposition that seemed self-evident: The only way "to get things done" and "move this country forward" was to "bring us together," just as we believe Reagan did even though he didn't.
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."
This is more than rhetorical license. By positioning himself as the third way between two absurd alternatives that no one favors, Obama has persuaded voters of his reasonableness and moderation; and thus of his ability to get things done. That illusory advantage will go poof soon enough, though. Think about his third way in education reform. There he sits, or so he says, nobly perched between the (nonexistent) more-money and more-reform factions. President Bush, if I can mention the unmentionable, thought he was putting himself in the same position in 2001. He managed to bring his "conservative reformers" together with liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy, water carrier for the educational establishment. Together they produced a complicated and expensive set of reforms that appeared to lasso every warring faction into a united effort.
The unity didn't last long, as you've probably noticed, though in a way, I suppose, No Child Left Behind did prove a unifying force: When put into practice, it managed to frustrate and anger nearly every interested party--for contradictory and irreconcilable reasons. When the law lapses next year, President Obama will find himself smack in the middle of these crosswires, where every move touches off an explosion, often on time-release, set to blow when you least expect it. If we're lucky he won't go back to blaming criminal CEOs and sleazy lobbyists. But we probably won't be lucky.
Like vacation brochures or soft-core pornography or TV ads for Ronco's Chop-O-Matic, political campaigns are exercises in fantasy. They sell something that could never exist in the real world, at least in its advertised form. Certainly the campaign of Obama's opponent--who promised, among much else, to balance the federal budget in four years--was built largely on fantasy. Reagan sold some fantasies of his own, as his critics never tired of pointing out. Obama's chief fantasy is that he's a politician who will relieve us of the burden of politics. He may wind up, like Reagan, a successful president. But if he does, it will be because, like Reagan, he engaged his ideological and political opponents in ferocious battles and beat them. Maybe unity will ensue--but only in hindsight, 20 years on or more, after we've forgotten how we got there.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.