I wouldn’t blame you if you took a pass on President Obama’s speech in Selma on Saturday. It’s been a long time since he delivered a riveting one. I skipped it myself, and then someone wrote to say, hey, he knocked this one out of the park, so I looked, and boy, he did. It was the strongest statement about the liberal definition of patriotism I’ve ever heard a president deliver. It was also confrontational and challenging—an unapologetic manifesto for the values of blue America (you can read it here and watch its 32 minutes here).
That’s something we don’t hear a lot about, the values of blue America. No, it isn’t because we don’t have them. It’s that we don’t parade them in the public square quite as much as conservatives do, while conservatives aren’t exactly shy about caricaturing in public their version of liberal values (we love sodomy and baby-killing and so on).
But there are liberal values. Some, we all know about—tolerance, diversity, etc. But another central one has to do with the way in which liberals love our country, and it goes like this: Yes, of course this is a great country. But it is change that has made it so. It’s a country that was founded on the highest ideals of the day, many of which are eternal, but it was also a country where ownership of human beings of a certain race was legal. So no, it wasn’t so great. It had to be made great. And by the way it’s not really as great as it should be yet. That’s a process that, the human condition being what it is, will never have an end.
This is exactly what Obama was talking about on Saturday, and it’s why the speech will be remembered. This wasn’t just another chorus of “Can’t we all just get along?” that you might expect to hear on such an occasion. This was an analysis of why we can’t—and a stirring defense of one vision of the country that was also an implicit and sometimes explicit critique of the other vision.
The battle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he said almost right off the bat, “was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the meaning of America.” The dots aren’t hard to connect here; he’s saying without exactly saying it that the meaning of America enforced then by the state of Alabama was immoral and illegitimate, manifested in the very name of the bridge where the action went down (Pettus was a 19th-century senator and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan; when the bridge was completed and christened in 1940, no one in Selma of any color could have missed the message the name was meant to send.)
That’s not all that controversial by itself, since no one today will publicly defend de jure segregation. But then a few paragraphs later he dropped this on them, speaking of the marchers’ actions and motivations back in 1965: “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” It’s not in the written text, but he ad-libbed right after this: “That’s America!”
In paragraph after paragraph, the speech essentially says: These are the truest Americans—the protesters, the outsiders, and the agitators who read the words of the founding texts and forced the system to live up to them.
But the system hasn’t been living up to them, especially with regard to voting rights, and especially lately, with the recent Supreme Court decision and the Republican-backed bills to “improve ballot security.” On voting rights, he became explicit, and I think I heard some anger and even mockery in his voice when he mentioned all the congressional Republicans who showed up for the commemoration: “The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred Members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right it protects. If we want to honor this day, let these hundred go back to Washington, and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law this year.”
I wouldn’t doubt that in the moment, a few of them thought, “Yeah, I know, maybe we should.” But forget that. Isn’t going to happen. The Republican Party has never in its history been as flagrantly open about specifically seeing to it that as few black people vote as possible as it has been in these last few years (and yes, yes, the Democratic Party was once worse, but that was a very different Democratic Party).
They’re doing it for one reason that, however appalling, is at least logical: Black voters vote against them (as well they should). But they’re doing it for another reason too, which is related to the themes of Obama’s speech. Conservatives don’t think that change is what makes this country great. Republican politicians say what they know they have to say about people like John Lewis, but they represent a conservative base and movement that has always resisted change and is today terrified of the greater changes (demographic, etc.) that everyone knows are coming. I can’t imagine their base letting them restore voting rights. The contest to determine the meaning of America is still a clash of wills.