We are on the cusp of a new politics in America. It should be dated
from March 18, 2008, the date of Barack Obama's landmark speech "A More
Perfect Union." The usual pundits have looked mainly at the speech's
surface theme: race. They weren't wrong. It was indeed the most
important statement about race in recent history.
But it was much more. It was a general call to a new politics and an
outline for what it needs to be. Just as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
was about much more than the war dead on that battlefield, so Obama's
speech -- widely hailed as in the same ballpark as Lincoln's -- went
beyond race to the nature of America, its ideals and its future.
To get an appreciation for the greatness of Obama's speech, we have
to start with its context: What were the problems Obama faced in writing
it, and what were the constraints on him?
He was under severe political attack, both from Republican
conservatives and from the Clinton wing of his own party. Here's what he
In addition, Sen. Obama faced certain constraints on what he could
Though he might have felt frustrated or even angry, leadership
demanded that he be his usual calm self, embracing, not attacking, even
those who opposed him. He had to be what he was talking about.
Try to imagine being in this position and having to write a speech
overnight. And yet he wrote not a speech, but the speech -- one of the
As a linguist, I am tempted to describe the surface features: the
intonation, the meter, the grammatical parallelisms, the choice of
words. These contribute to eloquence. I'm sure the linguistics community
will jump in and do that analysis. Instead, I want to talk about the
structure of ideas.
Any framing study begins with communicative framing, the context.
Contextual frames carry ideas. Sen. Obama is patriotic, and he had to
communicate not only the fact of his patriotism, but also the content of
it. And he had to do it in a way that fit unquestionable and shared
American values. Where did he give his speech kicking off his
Pennsylvania campaign? Not in Scranton or Pittsburgh or Hershey, but in
Philadelphia, home of the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution, and at once home of one of America's largest
African-American communities. What building was it in? Constitution
Hall. How did he appear onstage? Surrounded by flags. He is tall and
thin, as were the flagstaffs, which were about the same height. He was
visually one with the flag, one with America. No picture of him could be
taken without a flag shaped like him, without an identification of man
How did he start the speech? With the first line of the Constitution:
"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union ..." He called the
speech "A More Perfect Union." And that's what it was about. Union:
about inclusiveness not divisiveness; about responsibility for each
other not just oneself; about seeing the country and world in terms of
cooperation, not competition or isolation. More perfect: admitting the
imperfections of being human and making a commitment to do better;
distinguishing the ideals on parchment from the reality that our actions
must forge. A more perfect union: looking to a better future that it is
up to us to make, and that can only be done by transcending divisiveness
and coming together around the ideals of our Constitution.
That is what he has meant by "hope" and "change." It is the general
message. And race, though a special case, is one the hardest issues to
address. And though his opponents will continue to promote and exploit
racial divisiveness, race is an area where huge progress has been made
and needs to be made visible. If there is to be a test of character and
leadership -- a test of honesty, openness, strength, and integrity on
his part, and good will and American values on the part of American
citizens, race is as tough a test case as any. Not a test of Obama, but
a test of America. A test of whether Americans will live American
ideals. No pussyfooting. No sweeping it under the rug. This election
sets a direction for the country. Will we face our problems and follow
our ideals or not? Obama can hold the mirror up to us, and he can
endeavor to lead the march. What he asks is whether we are ready to
continue the march, "a march for a more just, more equal, more free,
more caring and more prosperous America."
Most of the adjectives are familiar in political speeches: just,
equal, free and prosperous. What is the crucial addition, right in the
middle, is "caring." A day later, Anderson Cooper asked him on CNN what
he meant by patriotism. His response began with "caring about one
another." The choice of words is careful. In his Martin Luther King Day
speech this year, Obama spoke repeatedly of the "empathy deficit," the
need to be "more caring."
Empathy, as I showed in my book Moral Politics, is at the
heart of progressive politics in America. And as UCLA historian Lynn
Hunt has shown in her book Inventing Human Rights: A History, the
inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became
self-evident by 1776 through the development of empathy. Democracy is
based on empathy, on the bonds of care and responsibility that link us
together and make us a nation.
It is the mark of a great speech, not just to mention its themes but
to exemplify those themes. Empathy, union and common responsibility are
the ideas behind the speech, as well as the ideas behind the New
Politics; and as the speech shows, they are behind the idea of America
itself. The speech works via empathy, via the emotional structure built
into the speech and into our national ideals. The speech works because,
almost line by line, it evokes those foundational ideals -- the ideals
we have and feel, but that have been far too long hidden behind
political cynicism, political fear, and the concern for advantage. And
it is the mark of political courage to confront those monsters head on
at the most critical point in a campaign for the presidency, when one
could play it safe and just count delegates but instead chooses the
right but difficult path.
At this point, the symbolic structure of the speech becomes easier to
He begins by discussing the achievement of the Declaration of
Independence in uniting the states, while seeing its flaw -- the
country's "original sin of slavery," part of the deal to get South
Carolina to join the union. The nation is great, and still flawed -- and
loved for its greatness despite its flaws.
The same is true of Reverend Wright. Reverend Wright's history
symbolizes the history of his generation of African-Americans -- a
bitter history of oppression by whites in an America in denial:
segregation, legalized discrimination, lynchings, a brutal fight for
basic civil rights. His bitterness and that of his generation is real
and understandable. We can empathize with him. And we empathize even
more when we learn of his positive accomplishments: service in the
Marine Corps and speaking to Obama "about our obligations to love one
another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. And he lived what he
preached: "housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day
care services and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering
from HIV/AIDS." He preached empathy, he lived empathy, and we empathize
with him for that.
And yet Reverend Wright's statements as shown in the TV clips were
wrong. Not just incorrect, but morally wrong: divisive and harmful,
raising what is wrong with America above all that is right with America.
Obama condemns those statements. But he won't fall into the same
mistake, raising what is wrong with the man above all that is right with
the man. Obama loves and is loyal to his flawed country, just as he
loves and is loyal to this flawed but fundamentally good man. Just as he
loves his wonderful white grandmother who is flawed by occasional racial
stereotypes. His relationship with Reverend Wright shows in Obama a
positive character: love and loyalty while acknowledging the reality of
flaws and not being taken in by them. It is good judgment, not bad
judgment -- about Wright and about America.
But Obama is not just black; he is half white. His wife has in her
veins the blood of both slaves and slave owners. Obama's empathy is not
just for black America but equally for white America. He speaks of the
real troubles of poor white Americans, and their real and legitimate
feelings of anger and resentment. But both black anger and white
resentment are counterproductive. They create divisiveness when unity is
needed to overcome "the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze -- a
corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting
practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and
special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many."
The poor -- black and white and brown -- are all victims of the real
culprits, whose weapon is fear and divisiveness. Race gets in the way.
It is a distraction from dealing with corporate greed.
Another culprit that stands in the way is the media, which uses race
for its own ends -- as spectacle (the O.J. trial), tragedy (Katrina),
and "fodder for the nightly news." Obama is courageous here. He is
taking on a media that has been especially underhanded with him, helping
the Right spread guilt by association by showing the Reverend Wright
tape snippets over and over. For a candidate to talk straight to the
media about what it is doing to harm the country is courageous, to say
A bit of courage for a candidate who seeks the votes of Republicans
is to point out that a serious flaw of Reverend Wright's is also a
central flaw of conservatism: "the notion of self-help, or what
conservatives call individual responsibility. It is central to
conservative Christianity as well: whether you go to heaven or hell is a
matter of individual responsibility. It is a mistake in both religion
What is called for is nothing less than what all the world's great
religions demand -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto
us. Let us be our brother's keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our
sister's keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one
another, and let our politics reflect our spirit as well.
American politics and religion come together on these moral grounds:
empathy and responsibility both for oneself and others.
And with all the Christian references in the speech, it is hard to
imagine him as a Muslim.
Obama begins the close of his speech with a riff on how talk is
action: "This time we want to talk about ..." followed by the plights of
Americans, plights that arouse our empathy -- or should. Speech, Obama
tells us, is action. Collective speech changes brains and minds, and
when the minds of voters change, material change is possible. And if
ever a speech was an act, this speech is it.
The closing portion is pure empathy -- the story of Ashley and the
old black man. Ashley, a white girl, out of empathy for her struggling
mother, ate mustard and relish on bread for a year to save on food
money. She became a community organizer out of empathy for those in her
community who were struggling. At an event she organized, she asked
everyone to say why they were there. She told her story, others told
theirs, and when they came to the old black man, he said simply, "I'm
here because of Ashley." The empathy of an old black man for a young
white woman. A moral for us all.
The true power of the speech is that it does what it says. It not
only talks about empathy, it creates it.
The speech achieves its power not just through the literal and the
obvious. Family metaphors abound: the nation is a family; the nation's
future is its children; it's flawed past is its older citizens, scarred
by past flaws. "The children of America are not those kids, they are our
kids ..." The nation is a family, and we have to care for our kids.
It is a common metaphor that an institution is seen as a person, with
the special case that a nation is understood in terms of its leader. In
this speech, Obama becomes contemporary America: as America is of mixed
race, he is of mixed race; as Americans have benefited from advances
over past flaws, so he has benefited. His story is an "only in America
story," an American dream story. His candidacy is only possible in
America. Indeed his genes are only possible in America. How could he be
anything but patriotic when he is America? And how can we, identifying
with him, be anything but patriotic when we are America?
No, this is not, as the New York Times says on its website, "a
speech on race." It is a speech on what America is about, on what
American values are, on what patriotism is, on who the real culprits
are, and on the kind of new politics needed if we are to make progress
in transcending those flaws that are still very much with us.
Finally it is a speech about policy and how he would govern. When he
says "This time we want to talk about ..." he is listing a policy
agenda: education, healthcare, overcoming special interests, creating
good jobs, saving homes, fighting corporate greed that works against the
common good, creating unity, bringing the troops home from Iraq, and
taking care of our veterans. As a list, this looks like Sen. Clinton's
list. But there is a crucial difference.
Sen. Clinton speaks constantly of "interests." In doing so, she is
doing what many other Democrats have done before her, engaging in
interest group politics, where policy means finding some demographic
group that has been ill-served by the market or government, and then
proposing a governmental redress: a tax break here, a subsidy there, a
new regulation. Obama does not speak of interests and seeks to transcend
interest groups and interest group politics. That is at the heart of
this speech. When we transcend interest groups, we transcend interest
And when he says, "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles
and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three
continents ..." he is making a foreign policy statement, that foreign
policy is not just about states and national interests, but about people
and the world's family.
What makes this great speech great is that it transcends its
immediate occasion and addresses in its form as well as its words the
most vital of issues: what America is about: who are, and are to be, as
Americans; and what politics should be fundamentally about.
The media has missed this. But we must not.
The media has gone back to the horse race, reporting counts of
delegates and superdelegates, campaign attacks, who endorses whom, and
this week's polls. Hardly irrelevant, but not the main event.
The main event is the new politics, what has excited Americans about
this election, what has brought young people out to political speeches,
and what has led voters to wait for hours in the cold just to catch a
glimpse of a candidate for president who has been saying what they have
been waiting to hear. It is this:
The essence of America was there in its founding documents,
carried out imperfectly and up to us to keep alive and work toward as
best we can.
At the heart of our democracy is empathy-made-real, a political
arrangement through which we care for one another, protect one another,
create joint prosperity and help one another lead fulfilling lives.
America is a family and its future is our children -- to be nurtured
and attuned to nature, fed and housed well, educated to their
capacities, kept healthy and helped to prosper, made whole through music
and the arts, and provided with institutions that bring them together in
these ongoing responsibilities.
The strength of America is in its ideals and how we act them out.
Americans have come here from around the globe, with family, ethnic
and cultural ties to virtually every country and with human ties to
people everywhere. Our actions in the world must reflect this.
All of this is politics. Politics is essentially ethical, it is about
what is right. And the nuts and bolts of determining legitimate
political authority -- the fund-raising, the on-the-ground organization,
the speeches, the campaign ads, the voter registration and the counting
of ballots -- should reflect these values as well.
That is the politics Americans have yearned for, and though we don't
have it yet and it won't be here tomorrow, it is what so many of us are
working for and that we have glimpsed through this speech.
No matter who wins the Democratic nomination and the presidential
election in 2008, these ideals are not going to be fully realized right
away. No candidate is perfect on this score, nor could be. But this is
the vision. It sets the goals that I believe most Americans seek. We can
make progress toward it in hundreds of ways. But in its vision it will
always be the New Politics we seek as Americans, in 2012, 2016, 2020 and
George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive
Science Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley; senior
fellow at the Rockridge Institute; and author of the forthcoming The
Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century Politics with an
18th Century Brain (Viking/Penguin), available June 2, 2008.
© 2008 All rights reserved.
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