On Tuesday I suggested that Barack Obama’s inaugural address draws deeply from the historical well of the civic humanist or republican tradition in America. (And I am not alone). His emphasis on duty and the dangers of self-interest sound a lot like some of our so-called Founding Fathers.
Though he does not use the term “civic humanism,” E.J. Dionne offers a similar interpretation of Obama’s speech, focusing particularly on the president’s assault on two varieties of individualism. He writes:
What makes Obama a radical, albeit of the careful and deliberate variety, is his effort to reverse the two kinds of extreme individualism that have permeated the American political soul for perhaps four decades.
He sets his face against the expressive individualism of the 1960s that defined “do your own thing” as the highest form of freedom. On the contrary, Obama speaks of responsibilities, of doing things for others, even of that classic bourgeois obligation, “a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”
But he also rejects the economic individualism that took root in the 1980s. He specifically listed “the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” as a cause for our economic distress. He discounted “the pleasures of riches and fame.” He spoke of Americans not as consumers but as citizens. His references to freedom were glowing, but he emphasized our “duties” to preserve it far more than the rights it conveys.
Obama’s rhetoric will confuse both sides of the political spectrum. This is a clear sign that he is on the right track.