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Wasn’t It Also Obama’s “Democracy Speech”?

As commentators vie to predict the impact of Obama’s March 18, 2008, “race speech” on his candidacy, it’s easy to fixate on what it tells us about Obama the person — his steady courage, his nuanced thinking, his mastery of imagery and storytelling. All are important attributes to weigh as we choose our next president.

Yes, Obama’s speech was one of our nation’s most thoughtful on race and contained important character clues. But let’s not miss the speech within a speech — the one about democracy itself.

Obama implicitly reminds us, first, that democracy requires that we learn to hold competing truths simultaneously. “He talked to us as if we are grown-ups,” a friend told me last night, and I agree. But being a grown-up goes beyond nuanced thinking in any general sense: it requires a capacity to accept another’s pain as real without denying or belittling our own. Such appreciation of differing realities, the opposite of fundamentalism, is the beginning of democratic dialogue.

Second, this speech quietly but firmly reminds us of one huge reason American democracy has been thinning, rapidly and dangerously — from the drastic retreat in government transparency to the violation of constitutional protections to the reversal of progress in overcoming poverty. It’s that those who benefit from democracy’s regression encourage us to blame each other for our ills, to think, mistakenly, “zero-sum” — that “your dreams come at my expense,” to use Obama’s words. Race is a mighty tool in that blame-deflection game, and too many of us have been sucked in.

“Not this time,” Obama tells us. Yet, to ensure that this time will be different he must now help Americans understand precisely why and how the vast majority of us share common interests: That, to pick but one example, the burden on America is not the cost of anti-poverty efforts; the burden for us all is poverty itself. A 2007 study [PDF] estimates that damage caused by childhood poverty alone costs us in, for example, health care and lost economic output, $500 billion yearly — almost well over four times what we spent in 2006 on education, energy, and homeland security combined.

The third important democracy message in Obama’s speech is his reminder that democracy is an unending journey, not an endpoint. Faithfulness, then, to our founders’ vision means that we never proclaim our democracy perfect but relentlessly further its unfolding.

Now he and we must follow through on this core insight.