WASHINGTON — It is the tragedy of America that a story of freedom, self-government, religious liberty, entrepreneurship and inclusion is also a story of forced migration, stolen labor, routine rape and murder, lynching, vote stealing, racist piety, segregation, red-lining and mass incarceration.
Both these versions are true; but I hope they are not equally true. America's great advantage is that a powerful and subversive idea — that all are created equal — was built into our founding. This has acted as a kind of a virtuous virus in our country's code. Generation after generation has demanded a fuller realization of promises made by the Declaration of Independence but not yet delivered by the Constitution.
This dialectic between ideal and practice is the true story of the country. And this is why rhetoric has been so central to the advance of civil rights. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. set out to make the country's ideals so vivid and compelling that hypocrisy would feel like a failure, not just of morality, but of patriotism. They presented division as disloyalty to national ideals.
Who is addressing racial justice in these terms today? "We always go around it, never through it," former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently told me. "I don't know of any party or candidate dealing with it."
Besides Landrieu, that is. If one of the main purposes of the 2020 election is to heal racial wounds that Donald Trump has salted, and to provide serious reflection on the proper application of American ideals to current controversies, then Landrieu needs to be on the main debate stage during the Democratic nomination process.
Landrieu is known as the guy who took down the four confederate monuments in New Orleans. He should be better known as the guy who explained his actions in one of the best civil rights speeches since President Obama spoke at Selma in 2015. "These statues are not just stone and metal," he argued. "They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposely celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for."
The speech managed something difficult but important. Landrieu was morally unambiguous about his position, without dehumanizing his opponents. "I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought," he admitted. But then Landrieu urged people like him to see the monuments through other eyes. He imagined an African-American father or mother trying to explain the meaning of the monuments to their fifth-grade daughter. "Can you look into that young girl's eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?" he asked. "Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story?
Before the 150 years of the Trump era (in felt time), there was actually a word for this: empathy.
We've seen this kind of balancing act before — presenting inclusive ideals in ways that might appeal to moderates or religious conservatives. It is what Bill Clinton did very effectively. Democratic governors (or mayors) can only win in the south by sounding inclusive of conservatives — or at least not treating them as the devil's spawn. A speech by most northern progressives on Confederate monuments would likely be a harangue.
I was in attendance during a speech Landrieu gave in New Orleans just before leaving office last spring. The audience consisted mainly of wealthy Republicans. He gave remarks on the theme of post-Trump national reunification that earned a standing ovation. What other prospective Democratic president could manage that? Or want to?
Does Landrieu think the 2020 presidential election will feature a serious discussion of racial and economic justice? "Having a president like Donald Trump," Landrieu told me, "stops thoughtful conversation." The former mayor speculates that a debate on these matters may take 10 or 15 years to ripen. "We are not addressing [issues of race and class] holistically," he said. "We don't know what is trying to be born."
In the meantime, Landrieu argues that Democrats would be unwise to focus on impeachment. "We need to heal this through the electoral process," he explained.
Landrieu is proposing a message of national healing to a Democratic Party that seems to want unrestricted warfare. This makes him unlikely to be the 2020 Democratic nominee. But it says a great deal about our current politics that reason, outreach and tolerance for those with differing ideological views are broadly seen as disqualifications.