The Audacity of Mush

Barack Obama wants to move past the culture war--but perhaps not far enough.


The first time Barack Obama seized the country's attention, he was celebrating the shades that lie between the more distinctly defined colors of the spectrum. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states," he declared at the Democratic convention of 2004. "We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states….We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama was puncturing some obnoxious stereotypes, but there was something about his rhetoric that seemed empty and cloying to me. It might have been its pedigree. There are three standard stances in mainstream American politics: loyalty to the Red Team, loyalty to the Blue Team, and a can't-we-get-along centrism that claims to fuse the best of both sides. The third stance makes a fetish of political action; its partisans, from Michael Bloomberg to Bill Bradley, sometimes call more loudly for "reform" or for "change" than they do for any actual, specific reform or change. That posture's popularity last peaked during the election of 1992, when the media consensus held that our greatest affliction was "partisan gridlock." It might have been a nightmare brought on by overexposure to the Larry King Show, but I even seem to remember a reporter asking the president if it mattered which party controlled both Congress and the White House, as long as the government was united and able to get things done. The ease of passing a bill was apparently more important than the bill's content.

It's not hard to understand the appeal of bipartisanship, especially when you compare it to the blind fealty and dimwitted demonization that often characterize the alternatives. But the centrists' empty invocations of "unity" usually amount to an equally blind fealty to the conventional wisdom and the rule of experts. Ross Perot captured that spirit in the early months of '92, before his own unconventional views began to emerge, when he said he'd solve the country's most pressing problems by asking panels of specialists what to do. His idea of giving specifics was to say he'd take each of their proposals and "pilot-test it, de-bug it, optimize it."

The true alternative to the culture war is not to declare that we are, as one book put it, "one nation, after all." It is to recognize the near-infinite number of shades beyond red and blue: the authentic, sometimes eccentric combinations of opinions that emerge from people not named Hannity or Colmes. We can hope, perhaps a little audaciously, that there is something in Obama's biracial, globe-trotting identity that leaves him more open to those hidden hues, and thus to ideas outside the Washington consensus. To give the man his due, the senator sometimes offers more than centrist mush. He was against the invasion of Iraq when it was politically risky to say so, and he has criticized the Patriot Act and other assaults on the Bill of Rights. He is clearly more libertarian than his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton—in foreign policy, in issues of personal freedom, and at least arguably in economics. Not that that's a high bar to clear, or that Obama stands in any consistent way for liberty. To judge from the rhetoric that dominates his speeches, as opposed to the policy proposals tucked away on his website, he mostly stands for youth, "change," and platitudes; for "an insistence on small miracles" and "the audacity of hope," whatever the hell those are supposed to be.

You can catch a few more unfamiliar colors flickering behind Iowa's other victor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Protestant whose outlook mixes touches of anti-state populism (the Fair Tax, homeschoolers' rights) with thick lumps of center-left nannyism (smoking bans, sin taxes, a war on obesity). Huckabee's roots on the religious right give his nanny-state proposals a curious cast: If Democrats like Hillary Clinton have secularized what used to be moral issues, giving us public health arguments against video games and TV violence, then Huckabee has sanctified the public health agenda, turning weight loss and smoke-free living into moral crusades. I don't find that appealing at all, but it does reflect important elements in American culture—the megachurches, the self-help shelf—that are usually absent from Washington's red-blue shouting matches. It's healthy to have Huckabee in the debate, though it's a debate I hope he'll lose.

The candidate who has moved the farthest beyond red and blue is, of course, Ron Paul. The Republican congressman's antiwar, anti-Washington crusade has created a real rainbow coalition: leftists and paleocons, gold bugs and cyberpunks, a patchwork of political positions that do not fit on the familiar spectrum. Like Perot's Reform Party of the '90s, but with a leader who embraces the diversity rather than fearing it, the Paul movement represents a world where "Red America" and "Blue America" are near-meaningless abstractions. Better still, his live-and-let-live libertarianism and federalism offer a workable way for all those multicolored Americas to coexist.

If Paul finishes respectably in New Hampshire, it will be because he draws support from the state's independent voters. If he does poorly, it will be because those independents opt for one of the "safer" alternatives to the status quo: Obama, Huckabee, John McCain. Either way, it's the independents who will be making that choice: not the hard-core Democratic partisans, not the hard-core Republican partisans, and not the drab centrists who would erase even the distinctions between those dueling partners.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.