Monday, March 24, 2008

Obama and Supersessionism

Scooped! Yale University Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar in Slate today put forward an idea that I have been thinking about but never got around to posting on, that the ideal way to solve the current Democratic dilemma on whose on who should head the ticket, and how this could be done without utterly pissing off the partisans of the other would be to alternate, and let either Hillary or Obama get the presidential nomination, with a public agreement beforehand that halfway into the term, the president would resign, the VP would become president, and then promptly name the other to the vacated VP slot. (Although as befitting a law professor, Amar spun out the implications of this at greater length then I considered.)

It seems unlikely that this idea will go anywhere (perhaps a bit more likely would be an agreement for the winning candidate t to name the losing candidate to the first opening on the US supreme court—by the way, in case any Democratic party leaders read this any are thinking of doing me a soIid, I would much rather be a supreme court justice than vice president.)

I suppose the idea of a co-presidency won’t go very far, but it is of course the very stratagem the oldest republic of them all, the one in Rome, used to avoid the problems of monarchy, by having two consuls elected annually to guide the affairs of Rome. Having two people share supreme power is a most effective way to deflate the charismatic aura that surrounds leadership, which tends to make those in power want to hold onto their position as long as possible. The consul system worked pretty well from 509 BCE to about 100 BCE, when the pressure of Roman imperialism made the system unwieldy, and eventually Pompey and Julius Caesar came along to exploit its limitations. In any event, we have become so supremely hierarchical in our views of power and human nature, that most of us assume that the any true power-sharing arrangement is doomed to failure, though I don’t know of any study (not that I have looked) that shows that executive power sharing is inherently more unworkable than the single executive model. Whatever one thinks of the Roman Republic, they were not a bunch of starry-eyed utopians, or lacking in the requisite executive toughness to make hard decisions.

But the main reason why a co-presidency would not work, in the current situation, is that one of the candidates, Barak Obama, has ascended to the status of front runner on the basis of a charismatic afflatus that would have made Jeremiah or Isaiah envious, and the routinization of that charisma in a co-presidency would not satisfy his many followers.

Holy Week having been recently concluded (and a happy Easter Monday to all, especially those of you mulling about outside the GPO on O’Connell Street) I was reading an interesting book about Jesus, and a word I picked up, a new one to me, is supersessionism , the act of superseding, which is what Jesus claimed to do (or rather what later followers of Jesus claimed that he had done) superseding God’s covenant with Israel, with a new dispensation, based on his expiation.

Anyway it occurred to me that Obama is one of the most supersessionist presidential candidates in recent American history. His whole aura bespeaks the creation of a new era, the turning of a page, the belief that we are making a rendezvous with a much needed transformation. Supersession is not abandoning the past, but fulfilling it, as Christians believe the New Testament fulfills the promise of the Hebrew Bible. He is sometimes compared, unfairly (even by himself) to Reagan, which misses the point. By the time Reagan became president, the “conservative revolution” had been gathering for over a decade, and Reagan just put into in practice. Obama’s transformation is far more inchoate (he is not the tribune of an obvious social or political movement, but the beneficiary of a mood, the conviction that things have gone down a disastrous path, and need changing. )

Obama’s wonderful speech on race represents his supersessionism at its purest. Jeremiah Wright was a good man, but labored under the old dispensation, one that believed race and racism were the fundamental principles around which American society is ordered. Have things changed? In some ways they have, in some ways they haven’t, but the promise of his candidacy is precisely that if you believe in it, the new era moves that much closer, and the promise of overcoming racial divisions has moved that much further along. Oh, I suppose I am still an Old Testament man myself, and I remain unconvinced that we have made as much racial progress as some of us seem to think. Too many people in recent years have proclaimed too easily and too facilely that we have turned a corner on race relations for me to be easily convinced. But the promise of Obama is that he can finally fulfill the promise of true racial equality in this country. Only time will tell if his supersessionism will bear the fruit that it seems to bear.

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