As Barack Obama's campaign hits its stride after delivering in Iowa, the pundits are stumbling over themselves trying to make sense of it all. Many sense that something beyond a common political victory has taken place and are attempting to pin down the essence of a growing movement. Until I heard Obama's victory speech, I wasn't even confident that he and the campaign were entirely aware of what had motivated the many who braved the frigid temperatures and made their voices heard in a complicated public caucus process. Clearly, "change" is the buzzword of the moment. But running on change always begs the questions: What are we rejecting and , even more importantly, what are we changing to?
What Obama is tapping into is the sentiment that people want to believe in America again. Americans are seeking a sense of civic purpose. People want to, at the very least, understand on some level what it means to be an American.
Under the Bush administration, Americans have been asked to identify in a negative sense out of fear. Even after 9/11, Bush seized on a new day that will live in infamy as a pretext for a policy of military adventurism abroad. His only real request domestically was that people go shopping. Americans are bombarded with contrived corporate advertising campaigns on one hand and a politics riddled with corruption on the other. If America is a brand, not only is the world not buying into it but neither are Americans. Where does this leave the sense of American identity and purpose? Collectivist projects of identity of dangerous, but in a nation rooted in abstract values rather than ethnicity, the project to cultivate an American character is essential to the health of the society.
Both Obama and Mike Huckabee are responding to this crisis of confidence and strive to revitalize American purpose. Evangelical Churches are growing due to people's growing need for identity, community and spiritual expression in a world of amoral corporatism and shifting community dynamics. But while Huckabee taps into the American identity through its outmoded protestant-Christian roots, Obama presents a multicultural and secular vision of the American character for the 21st century.
Fortunately, Obama's vision offers a way to fill the gaping hole in the American soul without appeals to religious fanaticism. He offers a vision of America that overturns the conventional political categories and frames that have come to polarize political participants and define national politics in the country.
Obama knows what Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine recognized over two hundred years ago, that only through public political involvement on a massive scale can government operate effectively and in the interest of the common good. When indivduals are actively involved in the process and vote their interests and consciences, a public spirit can rise to challenge the banality of a consumer culture. This new civic ethic requires changes at the top to make the process more transperant and accessible, but ultimately the real change must be generated from the bottom.
The answer is not to shore up some holes in the social safety net and proceed as usual. Building a bridge to the 20th century is not a path towards a fundamental reorientation of the process. The real solution is to radically alter the way in which Americans view themselves. Americans need to think of themselves, in Aristotelian terms, as "political animals." Aristotle argued that human beings have a fundamental need to be politically engaged. Barack Obama seeks to appeal to that desire and build a coalition of supporters that can truly overturn the undemocratic policies of a previously unaccountable establishment.
Obama's politics of change and hope are oriented around a fundamental appeal to the American people's lack of purpose and speak to a crisis in American culture. Bush administration scandals and a pernicious corporate culture have left Americans searching for meaning. Hopefully, an Obama administration can alleviate this crisis and allow people, domestically and abroad, to believe in the potential of America again.