Michelle Obama’s Convention Speech Reveals an Anti-Politics, Calls for Civic Empathy

Michelle Obama’s keynote speech opened the Democratic National Convention with a critical message that encouraged voter turnout against Trump, while criticizing traditional politics. (Photo Credit Vox)

Daily Democratic National Convention Opinion Coverage in Sepia

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

During the middle of an impassioned public plea that Americans reject Donald Trump at the polls this November, Michelle Obama in a speech to the nation last night bluntly inserted: “I hate politics.”

To the observing public which has followed her closely over the years she served as First Lady, this sentiment is not new. Michelle Obama is morbidly repelled by the noxious environment that now functions as the venue at where we conduct the business of national public life — where momentous decisions are made on issues ranging from Medicare to mortgage policy. She avoids our current politics because she sees it as a menacing dimension.

In its place Michelle Obama embraces, what may be called, a pragmatic humanism that cohere with sympathies saturated with deep moral claims of fairness and community. It is a perspective woke to the realities of the suffering and the disadvantaged that must be attended to everywhere and all the time.

This is the brand of Michelle Obama’s anti-politics. It was on display as she made the opening keynote speech last night in the mostly virtual broadcast of the Democratic National Convention, where Joe Biden will be likely elected as the party’s presidential nominee later this week. It is a brand that is a coherent worldview of politics that is a specific kind of meta-politics. It goes beyond the banal transactional power-wielding and brokering to matters of human care and compassion. It is not unlike the meta-political sentiments conveyed in the novels and short stories of Flannery O’Connor or F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is similar to those understandings of shared values and the noble intentionality unveield in the works of the visual art of Romere Bearden or the poetry of Rita Dove or Claudia Rankine.

Michelle Obama is at home with her anti-politics seemingly because, for her, it cuts through the morass of partisan positioning she feels offer false choices and serve as barriers against which sound ethical judgements can be made about policies that impact the everyday life chances of millions of Americans. Her anti-politics invariably places her in the column among the democratic party devotees. But this, it seems, is not so much out of calculated choice. Instead, Michelle Obama is guided by a concern for the well-being of others that is deeply relational and spiritually bonded to notions that are of a caring, familial sort. This attitude functions as her internal compass, a North Star that generates a practical, yet commiserating perspective on the meanings of public justice.

Claudia Rankine’s epic poem, Citizen, An American Lyric, represent the meta-politics sought in American life as a response great partisan division. (Photo Credit: Goodreads)

A fine-tuned civic empathy clearly animates Michelle Obama and it shapes her character and the ideas she projects. It is a disposition that calls for looking at the needs of people first as a barometer that measures the degree to which we direct public resources that ensure safety and well-being. It’s an attitude that prioritizes a different typology of politics and summons the inclinations of heartfelt associations that generate people who can identify with the pain of others. It is an empathy that is fueled mostly by the varied categories of compassion that are at once discerning and desirous of — what the philosophers call — right action, and which also resonate a determination to create common ground and commonwealth. It is disinterested in stinginess and unholy self-regard; it flinches negatively at greed and graft; it chafes at public callousness and the constant partisanship that determine the dysfunctional workings of power in the nation’s capital.

Michelle Obama’s new podcast is devoted to the idea of becoming. The theme embodies the notion of new possibilities ever on the verge of emerging in light of the past. And the idea implies that the best of ourselves is yet to come — with the application of hard work, a positive outlook grounded in realism and a resolve to move forward against all odds.

This is what Obama was urging Americans to see as she spoke eloquently at the convention last night: to move beyond politics by voting in vast numbers to foster a new civic ethics that reflects becoming a nation that is greater than the sum part of its toxic political parts; and becoming greater than the spiritual poverty that currently grip our mentalities.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

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