Obama’s Defense of Democracy Sounds in the Midst of National Crisis

Former President Barack Obama Spoke at the National Democratic Convention last night at the Museum of the American Revolution.

Daily Democratic National Convention Opinion Coverage in Sepia

Thursday, August 20, 2020 Day 3 Coverage

It was a voice we came to know in Dreams From My Father — deliberate, circumspect, cerebral and cunning. It flashed with passion and promise in Boston at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and we marveled at it. Over Trayvon and Sandy Hook it sounded above innocent dead children. At Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston it stammered and weeped before the knowing congregation, and then sang a threnody in cracked, croaking cadence.

The nation has watched Barack Obama through a course of years shift through permutations of leadership that have taken up the causes of the commonweal — observed him survey the cragged terrain of our common associative lives and have heard him lift up the prospects of our better collective selves, even against the harsh realities of civic animus and fear, the xenophobia, the racial hostilities and the retrenchment from our collective ideals.

On last night, at the Democratic National Convention, Obama travelled to Philadelphia’s Museum of the Revolution to deliver a speech to a country spiritually bruised and on the cusp of crisis — a country caught in a pandemic that has cost the lives of more than 170,000 people, a country now suffering an economic downtown which is being compared to the Great Depression.

If democracy is somehow the civil religion of our nation, then Obama last night engaged the triple roles of prophet, preacher and overseer. As he spoke to the American people “about the stakes in this election,” he sought to rally and revive us against Donald Trump whom he roundly indicted as showing “no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

Obama’s demeanor and mien last night cast his speech in severe tones that indicated to his listeners that his concerns cut to the viability of democracy, given the crisis at hand. While Obama was clear about his endorsement of Joe Biden as his choice as the next president and that Sen. Kamala Harris was a sage selection, his comments waded into the deeper waters of our complex democratic practice and the fragility of freedom. In doing this, Obama ventured into the turbulent eddies of American history, accounting for the immigrant struggles, the repudiation of the Native American and public misogyny. He spoke of Americans who worked in “firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation,” of the “Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from,” and of “Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.”

For Obama, this tragic sense of history — and our struggle to unbound ourselves from it — is part of the much sought after democratic narrative and, is itself, an ethos to which the nation must maintain a commitment. But the Trump presidency threatens to unmoor these sacred civic sentiments, said Obama, and has jeopardized democracy as an otherwise noble enterprise — putting it perilously at stake.

Among all his foreboding exhortation last night, Obama reached for hope, calling the Black Lives Matters generation the very personification of fulfilling the promises of democracy, the embodied development of our civic theory gaining everyday practice, the word becoming flesh. Referencing the murder of George Floyd Obama said: “To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better — in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given — a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions.”

The state of the nation seems to yearn for words like these in the wake of all of its present troubles. It requires voices that reflect its intended purposes and public credo. It desires reason and visionary reach that resonate with the convincing power of grace and efficacy of common life.

Obama voiced those claims so elegantly last night.

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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