“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Barack Obama said on Mar. 18 in his now famous speech about race. The speech directed attention toward his various and sometimes contradictory loyalties to different types of American communities. As I watched the speech on television, my mind wandered to the other candidates. Not because I wondered what would happen if they found themselves a member of Wright’s congregation (a silly question, especially in light of the speech) but rather because I realized that all seem compelled to prove their loyalty in some way.
Loyalty has become a central issue in this campaign. After well nigh eight years of loyalty toward political allies, financiers and old friends that verges on cronyism, President Bush has shown the American public what can happen if allegiances of the executive are misplaced. In the wake of economic downturn, a bungled war and the mishandling of appointments — leading to the FEMA disaster in New Orleans, for example — voters seem to be speculating about presidential loyalty more during this election cycle than any other in recent memory.
Obama’s detractors have continually insinuated that the candidate is disloyal to America. With a middle name of Hussein, he has been accused of being a Muslim (ironically, in a country that values religious freedom, one can be accused of affiliation with a specific confession). This preposterous allegation seems to imply that being Muslim shows some sort of disregard for the American dream. While I don’t think it has anything to do with anything, he isn’t Muslim. The groundless claim didn’t stick. The issue of Reverend Wright seems to go along a similar line of questioning: Does Obama believe in America enough to be president?
The other candidates have faced their own issues of loyalty as well. Before clinching the nomination, Senator McCain came under widespread and venomous accusation from right wing pundits for not being loyal enough to Republican principles (i.e. to conservatism). The New York Times article about two instances where he barely toed the party line surely made some Republicans nervous about their candidate. Similarly, detractors have accused Senator Clinton of not really being as against NAFTA as she claims, or as supportive of the blue collar working class as her campaign contends that she is.
This is all to say that Americans are choosing carefully. But the issue of loyalty runs deeper than questioning constituencies or patriotism. With the fate of two foreign countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — in their hands, voters must weigh their loyalty to a democratic expansion project that seems ever more unlikely by the minute. As the country invading, what loyalty do we owe the Iraqi or Afghani citizens that depend on our troops for stability? Or to the soldiers who have suffered injury or death? Furthermore, statistics show that the number of legal Hispanic residents who applied for citizenship in the last few years has skyrocketed; many say that the xenophobic bent surrounding much of the immigration debate convinced them to apply for citizenship in order to effect change in the dialogue through their vote.
Now, the candidates are trying to prove to the American people exactly how loyal they are to an American dream. But who are the American people? And what exactly is the American dream? As the definition of American changes with each new wave of immigration to the nation, we must continually redefine the idea of America. As an unquenchable optimist I have to wonder what it would take for us to have a broader loyalty, a loyalty that embraced all of humanity rather than constituents or co-religionists or fellow members of a race or creed. My American dream involves expanding the scope of loyalty altogether.
Historically we have empathized with the plight of others outside our nation as well as those within — our flirtation with isolationism never crystallizes into a steady relationship. But our outreach has yet to extend far enough.
The next progressive step will have us see the plight of others as part of our own plight, their suffering as our suffering. Presidential candidates should ideally appeal to a loyalty to humanity, rather than one to party. Only then will we unlock the true capacity of American loyalty. Only then will we witness the American dream fulfilled.
Dariush Nothaft is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.