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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.

To retrieve what we’ve lost and to move democracy forward requires our rethinking democracy’s meaning: As long as it is primarily a structure — elections plus a market, or a string of programmatic advances — we are vulnerable. We’ve seen, as noted above, that in just one generation much of the underpinning of democratic freedom can be stripped away.

Obama can use his remarkable intellect and oratorical power to remind us that democracy strong enough to meet today’s challenges is not a set system but a set of system values and norms — inclusion, fairness and mutual accountability, for starters. It is a culture whose premise is that solutions require the insight, experience, ingenuity, energy — and therefore the buy-in — of citizens.

If we are truly to unite, to stop blaming and start solving problems together, as Obama suggests, millions and millions of us must be able to see a rewarding place for ourselves in democracy. But with over two dozen lobbyists walking the corridors of power in Washington for each person that voters have elected to do our work, is a culture of citizen empowerment possible? So long as Red and Blue alike — almost 90 percent of us, according to a 2002 Harris Poll — believe that corporations wield too much political power, many will assume it’s not worth our time to engage.

In his speech Obama refers to “a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests.” But he can even more forcefully focus Americans on this mother of all issues: noting that the danger is not only private power’s distortion of public priorities but its shutting out of the real force needed, that of engaged citizens.

Even as he calls us to overturn the barrier of corporate influence, Obama can use his unique voice to remind us of the power we each have now. He can call out the innumerable — but invisible to most Americans — exemplars of citizen-driven initiatives, often partnering with government, that are succeeding: from state-wide Clean Elections now in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut to the citizen-driven planning process that turned smog-clogged Chattanooga into a U.N. environmental-award-winner to community-led initiatives in low-income Kansas City neighborhoods that pushed high-school graduation rates up 40 percent in less than a decade to government-community partnerships in Burlington, Vermont, that made that city the nation’s leader in the share of its housing that is permanently affordable.

What many classify as an historic speech about race may, on reflection, also be an historic speech about democracy. This time, each of us must push Obama and ourselves to bring its messages to life.

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