Obama is asking the wrong question about American values
There are those, former President Barack Obama writes in an excerpt of his forthcoming memoir published at The Atlantic Thursday, who would like to "abandon the possibility of America." They survey our national history and present moment and conclude American values were always a lie, that "this nation's ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start."
He is not among their number. The world "watches America — the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice — to see if our experiment in democracy can work," Obama says in A Promised Land, which releases this coming Tuesday. "To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed."
Obama himself is watching too. He's not sure, he writes, whether we'll overcome our deep divisions to build "an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us." I'm not sure whether this is the right question to ask: Obama's dichotomy of ideals betrayed or upheld assumes a unified set of American values exists to betray or uphold. Millions of Americans do not agree.
A Pew Research survey this fall asked registered voter supporters of President Trump and President-elect Joe Biden if they believe they "share a fundamental commitment to the same core American values" with the other candidate's fans. In both camps, eight in 10 said no. They are convinced the other tribe disagrees not only about what to prioritize in politics — questions of practicality — but about the higher purposes of politics itself — matters of principle. The political fight in which they envision themselves participating is not about different means to the same good end but a constant, painful tug-of-war to disparate ends entirely.
It is important to pause here for caveat. Registered voters who are willing to commit themselves to support of a presidential candidate about a month before the election are not entirely representative of the country. As I recently noted, the largest third of our electorate is truly independent from either major party, which means a slight plurality of voters lack the degree of partisan loyalty and certitude to produce such a stark assessment. Many in this 40ish percent of the voting public bounce between Democrats, Republicans, third parties, and abstention, making it unlikely they share partisans' perception of alien values.
Moreover, that alienness is often exaggerated: American partisans estimate their opponents' political extremism at nearly double its actual rate. Indeed, they increasingly struggle to reach even a baseline understanding of how the other side thinks and feels — to grasp what inspires and scares and angers them and, crucially, why. If we broaden our examination from registered Trump and Biden voters to the whole of the American public (Pew's report does not do this), it seems safe to suppose only some smaller portion of the country denies a broad commitment to core American values. It may even be that a majority accepts Obama's assumption.
I think I'm in that probable majority, but my acceptance is heavily qualified. Whatever their historical status, the national values we can betray or uphold now are more limited, pragmatic, and subject to variant interpretations than the former president suggests here.
Obama mentions "notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law" as an apparent short-list of American ideals. Of these, self-government is the only one I'd say boasts anything close to universal support (and it's framed by vivid paranoia about elections and governance compromised by malevolent actors foreign and domestic).
Individual freedom is widely supported, yes, but scratch its surface and you'll find the right's focus on negative rights and liberties and the left's attention to their positive variants are increasingly distant. (And it's not just one side moving from center — even the ACLU ain't what it once was.) Equality of opportunity is increasingly disfavored on the left (the new preference, as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has explained, is equity), while too much of the right barely bothers with equality before the law, backing special legal protections for police and disregarding rule of law when it serves their aims.
Americans might be broadly willing to say we support liberty and justice for all, government of the people, by the people, for the people — all that sort of thing. But the ground on which we truly converge is shrinking, surrounded by a rising sea of difference. This presidential election, so closely decided and probably producing another divided government, reiterates that reality. There is no indisputable majority for one variant of our national ideals or another. Our consensus is thin. We may "share a fundamental commitment to the same core American values," but we also have fundamental commitments to various values outside that dwindled core.
The diversity of those other commitments is one part (of too many to discuss here) of what worries me about the present turn toward illiberalism in corners of the left and right alike. The great pragmatic advantage of liberal governance is that it can create conditions for peaceful, flourishing life together for people who agree on very little. Illiberal attempts to impose one set of values via the power of the state may be nowhere more dangerous than in a country like ours, full of jostling minority tribes unsure of whether we have a national creed and, if so, whether we can or should try to live up to its meaning.
I share Obama's hope that our governance will cleave to the classically liberal notions of self-government, freedom, and equality he listed — but I wonder if it's possible for a popular government to enshrine values its public so tenuously holds.