Fearing the Change That Has Already Happened
By Maurice Harris
Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.”
In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama.
The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements.
Somewhere around 1990 our nation crossed a cultural tipping point, and Republicans have been fighting that reality ever since. American culture has been shifting from being dominated by white, Protestant conservative culture to a new landscape in which no one group is in the majority or in a position to dominate. So, try as they might to preserve an America that is “recognizable” to Romney, Palin, and CPAC, they are fighting something they can’t stop and that has already happened.
There is nothing that the NASCAR fans who booed Michelle Obama and all of Rush Limbaugh’s ditto-heads can do to undo the cultural changes that have taken place in this country. Even if Obama’s 2012 campaign stumbles and he loses (don’t bet on it), the cultural trend line isn’t going to change. There’s no undoing the America we live in now. It’s an America of the Tea Party, rodeo, and Michelle Bachmann, but it’s even more so an America of Jon Stewart, Oprah, and “It Gets Better” videos. The problem Republicans face is that they don’t recognize the real America that’s out there all around them. The audience they’re speaking to – the audience that shares their fears – represents a permanent minority in this country now. It’s a minority large enough to win an election cycle or two for now if the stars align right, but a minority nonetheless.
I hope Obama wins decisively in 2012, and that his victory opens the eyes of those who demonize him to the truth of what America is now. Most importantly, I hope they’ll come to see that it’s an America that white, conservative Protestants don’t have to fear. If they would just take a deep breath, they would notice that the America they’re a part of is an America they can belong to. It’s not an America that wants to kill their culture, but it is an America that isn’t willing to submit to the rule of their culture. It’s an America without a single dominant sub-culture, but instead a vibrant society made up of many different communities who share some wonderful common values: a love of freedom, a respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a sense that being American is one of the luckiest things that can happen to a person.
It’s a cliché to say that our country’s diversity is our strength, but it’s true. No other country in the world has what we’ve got in terms of diversity and opportunity. No other country in human history even comes close. This is why I believe that the American experiment is still in the beginning stages of its influence on humanity. It is America’s diversity and multi-culturalism combined with its tremendous freedom that are the engines of its worldwide relevance. Obama didn’t create this America; he is the product of it. History will likely recognize that he is the product of the very best of it.
So my message to the fearful defenders of white, Protestant conservative culture is this: your fellow Americans are not the enemy. We’re your neighbors and we share this amazing country with you. Obama is your president, so please, shut down the conspiracy theories and at least hear the man out. Even if you end up supporting one of his political opponents, that shouldn’t make him your enemy. The change you fear already happened, and contrary to what your leaders have told you, it didn’t kill you and it never tried to. This change is actually a good thing. Please stop the fear-mongering. America will grow beyond it, but you may do a lot of tragic damage before that happens.