By Harry C. Boyte
At a level deeper than policies and prescriptions, elections are contests about different collective narratives — the story that each candidate is telling us about the future. These involve not only the candidate and what he or she will do but what the rest of us do as well.
All of us need to flesh out a new story for our future by building on President Obama’s successful challenge in the second debate to Mitt Romney on the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other US citizens.
Obama applied the “terror” label to the attack in his first public statement. But the more important aspect of the Administration’s response was a “different kind of politics.” Such politics, far from demonizing opponents, is based on recognizing different interests and finding common ground where it is possible. Though it goes against the grain of our highly polarized society, examples can be found, in very different places.
For instance, Minnesotans United for all Families is using such a politics in their fight against a proposed anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution. Such politics is emerging in efforts at reform in higher education. It has roots in civic and populist movements like the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
In the case of Libya, such politics needs to be explained.
In fact, Obama’s White House and the State Department responded to the Libyan attack and more broadly to demonstrations across the Arab world in the wake of an anti-Muslim film released on YouTube, in ways far different than the simplistic “good versus evil” foreign policy touted by Romney and his neoconservative advisers. And their response, in significant measure, worked.
By now, Mitt Romney’s story is well-established. He is less a diabolical right winger portrayed by many on the left than a “boss” who tells lame jokes and waits for people to laugh – and they better, as James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio” put it on Chris Matthews show “Hardball” after the second debate.
A boss-president would also throw his weight around in the world. A US leader trying to be a global CEO in the 21st century is a worrisome thought.
Do we want a boss or a president? Lipton asked, comparing Barack Obama, facing down Romney on the issue of Libya, to Gary Cooper on “High Noon.” Lipton has Romney down cold. But he misses on President Obama.
Obama generates hope and connects best with the American public when he is a “citizen president,” not a town marshal but rather an organizer of collective efforts to address common problems. Obama is more like Will Rogers, who brought communities together to address their challenges in his movies of the 1930s, than Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
Obama’s role as citizen organizer, widely missed (or dismissed) by political pundits, was key to the 2008 ‘Yes We Can’ campaign. Obama revived it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year, when he declared that “as citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Such citizen work is a different kind of politics. It engages people “where they are,” not where one would like them to be. It recognizes the right of people to be different, based on respect for their stories, interests, and cultures. Far from being weak or apologetic, it requires great skill and poise.
Such politics appeared in Obama’s Cairo speech to the Arab world on June 4, 2009. Long practiced by successful diplomats as well as by community organizers, it has been at work in the aftermath of the Benghazi attach and in the midst of the anti-American violence after the anti-Muslim YouTube video.
Republicans charge that the Benghazi attacks were part of the global Al Qaeda movement and that the Administration has been covering up the connection. But facts on the ground appear to be far more complex.
David Kirkpatrick reported in the New York Times on October 16 that Libyans who witnessed the assault and knew the attackers say they had another motivation. “A well-known group of local Islamist militants mounted the attack in retaliation for the American-made video. That is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without ever mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, or the terrorist attacks of 11 years earlier.”
It was important for the president and the State Department to send a message that “no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States,” as Obama put. It was equally important to signal respect for Muslims and for Islam, and to recognize that the anti-Muslim video generated legitimate anger.
This was the strong message of the administration immediately after the attack and in the weeks following, from UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s remarks on news shows to Obama’s speech at the United Nations. The press corps and voters should be pressing Republicans about their views on such respect.
As a result of the US message, Libyans turned out in large numbers in pro-American demonstrations expressing shock and shame about the Benghazi attack. Libyan officials declared their intentions to work with the FBI team investigating the attack. Across the Arab and Muslim world, the combination of behind the scenes pressure and public pronouncements from the administration distancing the US from ant-Muslim views calmed the situation.
Violence and anti-American demonstrations subsided.
In sum, the Administration’s different kind of politics helped to tame a wave of anti-Americanism threatening to get out of control.
Americans are desperate for such politics, in a time of profound dysfunction in ‘politics as usual.’
Harry C. Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and National Coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership.