To the horror of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama inexplicably changed the course of the Democratic primary by publicly praising Ronald Reagan. A Democrat, hoping to imitate the Republicans’ own Winston Churchill? Madness!
Few then could see how Obama might actually render Reagan’s legacy a mere premonition or imperfect intimation of his own. By following Reagan, paradoxically, Obama might leave him in the dust: “He just tapped,” after all, “into what people were already feeling, which was ‘we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.’”
It turns out we Americans are always already feeling this way. Like Yogi Berra, we feel more like we do now than we did before we got here. Now, more than ever, our national motto is Now, More Than Ever. Despite all that Reagan altered, the one thing he could not change was the same American attitude that lifted him to power. Though he might end the Cold War, he could not bring us peace.
There is something in the nature of democracy that opposes us to the task of electing the best man in America. We much prefer the opportunity to vote for the man (or woman) who represents the best of America. Reagan, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, was just such a ‘representative man’—less a heroic executive than a popular legislator elected to embody public opinion in a vast district that reached from sea to shining sea. Obama, like Reagan, reinforces our collective understanding that ‘America at its best’ describes, most of all, an attitude.
Our most representative leader doesn’t actually represent our national attitude the best—meaning most accurately. Rather, he best represents our attitude—that is, he makes our most positive self-image in history seem better suited than ever to the present moment. Actualize the attitude, and the rest follows—including the tolerance for risk, or, indeed, the affirmative appetite for risk, that powers the dream-big, go-for-broke ethic of American actors great and small. If Obama is right about Reagan, then it hardly matters how much he thinks of himself as fulfilling the Gipper’s legacy; if the American people are captivated in the same way, that is enough. Reagan’s legacy is a rough draft for Obama’s largely to the extent that the American people want it to be.
And they want it to be to the extent that they want—now, more than ever—clarity, optimism, and a renewed sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship! Note: a sense of a thing is not that thing. But often we want both to have the thing and the reflective feeling of experiencing it—what use is dynamism if we can’t feel ourselves being dynamic? Consider, however, that this attitude can encourage us therapeutically to live in denial. Just how little real freedom, we might ask subtly, do we actually need to retain an inspiring-enough sense of freedom?
Indeed, we frenetic Americans—now, more than ever—know that we must surrender and outsource many of our daily activities in order to ensure that daily life isn’t a raw deal. Who has time, as Obama’s nominees can attest, to do their own taxes? Who has time to raise their own children? Who has time to do the petty, slow work of local citizenship? We shore up our fragments of faith with the audacity of ‘senses of’: faith in the sense of civic-mindedness that persists when we are not doing civic-minded things; faith in the sense of parenthood that persists when we are not parenting; faith in the sense of citizenship that persists when we elect and celebrate leaders who promise that a sense is enough because attitude, just as we needed to hear, is the one needful thing.
Right about here, communitarians and paleoconservatives will announce that the clarity and optimism of Reagan and Obama are in fact mere senses of clarity and optimism—not least because true clarity and true optimism are utterly contradictory. As the late John Patrick Diggins argued in Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, optimism weds the misleading doctrine of Thomas Paine that we can ‘make the world over again’ to the dangerous claim of Emerson that this eternal makeover should always be in the image of our own desires. For Diggins—and George Will, among other admirers—American optimism is not a thing of freedom but a delusive act of denial, the very opposite of true clarity.
Yet clarity about our optimism would seem so depressingly to seal our fate. Jimmy Carter, under the influence of the brilliant sociologist Christopher Lasch, threw a national malaise; everybody came, but no one wanted to be there, and the Democratic party became the Worst. Party. Ever. Reagan rode to triumph. There is one thing that critics of optimism’s excesses might miss: Though we’re shy about it, Americans really do want to be ennobled. Representative Reagan was no blueblood, but his stand against the reality of communism was elevating in its greatness. And Obama, to the extent that he may not have much of a choice, has a chance to inspire millions of Americans to heroically trust that the best of our attitude can survive a return to reality.
This may mean that Obama ought to accomplish less than Reagan, that he should be less of a savior. Ironically, conservatives may regain Reagan’s legacy in salutary form if Obama becomes precisely what they think they do not want—an even more ‘merely’ symbolic president, and thus a greater symbol. The reconciliation of our American attitude with the reality of American life will not be wrought by more and greater government programs, issued with fiat and fanfare from the White House lawn. If a somewhat cultish enthusiasm for representative presidents is a permanent part of the American soul, isn’t it better that they resist our attempts to hand over all our hopes—and our responsibilities—for heroism?
James Poulos is the former Political Editor of Culture11.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin