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A Tale of Two Democratic Women

Michelle Obama and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez dominate the quest for the Democratic Party’s identity.
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Michelle Obama in Miami, FL, USA on 9/28/2018. © Hunter Crenian / Shutterstock

August 19, 2020 07:13 EDT

Michelle Obama’s husband, Barack, was president of the United States for eight years. In the eyes of many Americans and certainly the media, Michelle has aspired to and achieved a status of moralist-in-chief of the nation. Having focused on issues such as healthy eating habits to combat obesity during her husband’s two terms in the White House, the former first lady created a public persona that clearly promotes not power or influence, but what philosophers have, since Socrates, called the “good life.” In other words, ethics.

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Speaking at the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, Michelle has assumed the mantle of moralist. Like the rest of the Democratic Party, she regrets what the United States has become during President Donald Trump’s tenure. She laments the degraded image of the nation offered for contemplation by today’s youth. She lists the visible scars that nearly four years of Trump’s leadership have left and that the younger generation must ponder.

“They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else,” she said in a speech broadcast on August 17.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Winning is everything:

The basic principle that guides the action of the entire political class in the United States and many other democracies, in which the goal of exercising power and having control of public resources trumps all other ethical or even pragmatic considerations

Contextual Note

No one more than Trump has emphasized the deeply-held American belief that life is all about competition. According to its dominant Protestant theology that innovated half a millennium ago by banishing purgatory, humanity falls into two categories: winners and losers. Michelle argues that this is too simplistic. She appears to reject this staple of US culture that clearly defines attitudes relating to war, sports and TV talent contests. 

There is, after all, another dominant feature of US culture that in some ways mirrors and in other ways complements the logic of competition: public moralism. It implies boasting of one’s virtues and explicitly or implicitly condemning those who lack them. It has spawned cultural phenomena as diverse as the Salem witch trials, revivalist preachers, McCarthyism and today’s political correctness.

Since the New England Puritans, the nation has always had a taste for a form of moralizing leadership often coupled with the triumphalism of representing a “shining city on a hill.” From its inception, the nation has insisted on believing in its moral superiority. The man who wanted to replace British rule with something better because he believed that “all men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was, after all, an impenitent slave owner. But compared to the English crown, the new nation thrived on proclaimed ideals rather than inherited privilege.

Which brings us to the ritual taking place this week that is repeated every four years in the US, the closest thing to a British coronation: the convention of one of the two reigning political parties. This year, the first truly unconventional convention takes place in an ambiance of technological hyperreality, a perfectly appropriate medium for its political hyperreality. What most of the speakers appear to be offering as they unanimously condemn Trump’s sins could be called  a version of “hypermorality.”

As a moralist, Michelle knows what she is talking about. As a black woman, she understands the feeling of entitlement that successful white people may have, who understand that the system that supports them requires the deprivation and dependence of her own race. As a close friend of billionaires and someone who has become very wealthy herself, she is well placed to understand the ethos of those Americans who believe “greed is good.”

Michelle has certainly seen Oliver Stone’s movie, “Wall Street.” She knows that people like Gordon Gekko who proclaim “greed is good” are fundamentally evil and capable of destabilizing the American system whose moral arc, like that of the universe itself, “bends towards justice.” In contrast to Park Avenue Trump and his ilk, she and her Democratic billionaire friends know that only some greed is good. In other words, greed is a product that should be consumed in moderation.

Her critique of “winning is everything” is a bit harder to reconcile with her own family’s political ethos and that of the party she was addressing in her speech. Anyone who has experienced a political campaign knows that campaigns are about one thing only: winning. (Disclosure: This author was, in a remote past, on the campaign staff of a prominent Democratic personality known for his commitment to ideals, but even more so to winning.)

Michelle may nevertheless have a point. In recent times, Democrats have excelled more at losing than winning. And yet they still manage to keep going. Her husband was a champion at winning, but he hasn’t been quite as successful in his quest to promote candidates capable of winning. Barack Obama pushed Hillary Clinton to run for office in 2016. It was thanks to his initiative that all the moderate candidates dropped out of the Democratic presidential primaries this year to back Joe Biden, effectively eliminating Bernie Sanders from what had begun to look like a potential dark horse victory. Despite his current lead in the polls, in November, Biden may face a humiliation similar to that of the “sure winner” Clinton in 2016.

Historical Note

When Michelle Obama condemns entitlement, she is denouncing the culture of inequality that exists in the US, an inequality that Donald Trump has frequently apologized for and sometimes actively promoted. She avoids mentioning another form of entitlement practiced by all US presidents, including her husband, that applies to the rest of the world. 

This other form of entitlement contains the notion that certain people (Americans) know what values should regulate the lives of other less advanced people. America’s financial and military capacity helps those people to understand the value of that entitlement and sometimes punishes them for refusing to understand.

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Like many Americans, Joe Biden believes that equality means the nation has the mission of imposing equality wherever it may be convenient to do so. This reasoning has been used to justify invasions, wars and imperial conquest. It even provided the pretext for the genocide of native tribes whose cultures, if permitted to persist, would not have been compatible with the notion of equality entertained by enlightened Europeans.

The media agrees that Michelle made a powerful case against President Trump, whose guilt in the eyes of all Democrats is patent. Like most Americans, she has little idea of what Biden might do to cancel and replace Trump’s sins, turpitudes and errors. Treating the Democratic Party as her parishioners, she struck the fear of hellfire into their hearts when, prefaced by “trust me,” she boldly predicted that things would get even worse unless they elect Biden. Not too much about how things might get better.

That job was left to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez — who endorsed Bernie Sanders for the presidency — to accomplish the following day in the 60 seconds the party generously allotted to her to speak her mind. AOC, as she is known, arrogantly took a full 90 seconds to speak about repairing rather than denouncing wounds, addressing “the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few” and listing the issues, such as health, education and the environment that affect people’s daily lives. 

Rather than bemoan President Trump, she recognized that “millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crises.” If granted 60 more seconds, she might even have given a few details about the programs she had in mind that effectively imply a systemic approach.

Michelle and Alexandria have been the two stars of the first two days of the Democratic National Convention. An outsider may feel that their messages complement each other. Democratic insiders, including the Obamas, probably regret that they allowed AOC the 90 seconds that defined what the most dynamic elements of the party stand for.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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