“In your hopelessness is the only hope”
As Barack Obama was suddenly announced as the projected winner of the 2008 Presidential elections last Tuesday just minutes after the polls closed on the West Coast, jubilation surrounded me. The ascension of this most gifted, intelligent phenomena to the previously de facto “whites only” oval office was to be certain a moment enveloped by the spirits of history. Chicago’s Grant Park was a sea of multicultural faces – hundreds of thousands strong – all waiting for their newly anointed champion of their hopes and aspirations to speak. Obama came out to a thunderous chorus of applause and being the supreme orator that he is graced the nation with the most memorable moment of his campaign. While his Republican opponents were fixated on the image of “Joe the Plumber,” invoking his dilemma of riches, Obama’s words chose to symbolize the march towards a more perfect union by highlighting the trajectory of history that was witnessed by the lifetime of an African-American voter named Ann Nixon Cooper. Born a generation removed from chattel slavery, Cooper’s life became a metaphor for the sands of time in the United States and the historical tasks that presented themselves to its people. She was born in a shameful era when her status as an African-American woman doubly disenfranchised her. Now, in the twenty-first century, Cooper voted for Barack Obama, the first African-American to win a Presidential election in the United States. Tears streamed down the faces of those in Grant Park as they did also for those friends who watched this moment with me.
My historical consciousness is firmly rooted in a deep understanding of the African-American experience in the United States, so this day – November 4th, 2008 – carried with it the full measure of what it was due. However, though my soul was certainly captivated, no tears flowed from my eyes. Did I vote for Barack Obama? Yes. Did I do so, as Noam Chomsky had cautioned, without “illusions?” Yes. I have no qualms about admitting this even if it is to bring down upon me harsh criticisms from those who would see my actions as misguided. There is no abnegation of history nor ideals in doing so. During the mid-1930’s, after assessing their anti-vote campaign in a previous election, the Spanish anarchists opted for a vote of tactics – not principles – in supporting the “Popular Front” elections with the full intention of carrying out afterwards the real substantive change the ballot box is all too woefully impotent and incapable of bringing. McCain-Palin carried within them a proto-fascistic element in their campaign – stroked by the embers of racial hatred – that had not been seen in a long time. With McCain’s age, and Palin’s reactionary and easily manipulatable position as potential President, this was truly too dangerous of a possibility to be allowed to inherit the expanded authorities of the office granted by the constitutionally abusive rule of current President George W. Bush. Beyond this defensive measure, however, there is more to consider in this unprecedented historical moment that we find ourselves in with President-elect Barack Obama.
The first African-American President-elect in the history of the United States ran a brilliant campaign to achieve such a feat. There were tremendous moments that are certain to be etched forever in the stone tablets that recount our past. Perhaps understanding -as Adam Curtis has noted in his documentary “The Power of Nightmares,” – the extreme right, most vividly exemplified by President Bush’s “War on Terror,” had been profiting politically from the politics of fear, Obama sought the slogan of its antithesis – hope. Perhaps he also understood, as Alexis de Tocqueville did in his ruminations on Democracy in the states, that “Americans love change, but dread revolutions,” and accordingly offered stated policies of moderate centrism while at the same promising his electorate that he would bring about “change we can believe in.” This effectively articulated political propaganda captured the collective unconscious of a tremendous number of people in the United States. The “shock” of a neo-liberal economic collapse coupled with the symbolism of his campaign and the allure of history which was promising to put an African-American family into a White House constructed by slave labor was overwhelming – as was the amount of money that supported it.
As it were, we now arrive to the perennial question of “What is to be Done?” We are in the most contradictory and uncharted political circumstances in recent memory. President-elect Barack Obama has a background unlike any others who have held his office before him and yet now leads a party, the Democrats, that has betrayed the people’s wishes time and time again as Lance Selfa’s book critically charting their history so cogently illustrates. The instant position of progressives in reaction to this knowledge is the conventional wisdom that suggests now is the time to foment social movements on critical issues such as the war, health care and the economy so as to pressure Obama away from corporate centrist influence. This notion is guided by the sense that the second Gilded Age of the United States has come to an unceremonious end and now is the time to forge “New Deal” style concessions from the state as well as recuperate those lost in rollbacks carried out by previous administrations including the Clinton Presidency. The cynicism of this position has been recently fortified by the appointment of conservative centrist Democrat Rahm Emanuel to Chief of Staff in the new Obama administration. This effect can be so clearly seen in the back-to-back articles authored by foreign policy critic Stephen Zunes in Alternet that first assesses the reason for hope in the election of Barack Obama, and subsequently displays its banishment by the bellwether sign of Emanuel’s appointment!
This wretched pendulum of political emotions is shared by many and certainly will be compounded by future appointments and policies of the Obama administration. What then is the prognosis for progressives and social movements seeking to counter centrist influences? In Roosevelt’s presidency, the labor movement was immensely stronger than it is now. The radicalism and assertiveness of its power could shut down entire cities in general strikes such as was the case in San Francisco. This force present in society was enough to make capitalists consider New Deal provisions that sought to appease the working class just enough so as to allow for the economic system to reconstitute itself. The New Deal in and of itself was not something radically anti-capitalist, but very proactive in saving it in a time of crisis. The neo-liberal consensus that governed through the administrations of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush, has radically diminished the power of labor unions in the United States. Trade agreements such as NAFTA, which had been a bipartisan effort with Emanuel reaching across the aisle to Newt Gingrich, have wrought their intended effects. As we find ourselves in an economic fallout, the position of progressive politics through a strong labor movement is unfortunately famished.
If the coming Obama Presidency seems to be bereft of the necessary pressures to propel it away from moderate centrist policies, why then does it give me hope? I opened this reflection with a Zen koan of Buddhist philosophy that suggests that there is hope in hopelessness. Social Buddhism informs that hope, the chief slogan of the Obama campaign, ultimately transforms into disillusionment. The pathway to enlightenment recognizes that this is the first step. For the critical left, the abundance of hope present in the Grant Park victory speech has already begun to dissipate into disillusionment with the appointment of Emanuel. However, while the labor movement is absent in the power it needs to possess in order to effect positive change, the left should assess the Obama phenomenon as a potential groundswell for a new constituency. The 2008 election and its victor do represent something different. Regardless of the measure of emptiness behind the campaign’s rhetoric, the people who supported Obama posses real hope on a scale not seen in recent memory.
There exists now, a tremendous new youthful base of first time voters. There exists now, an energized traditionally black progressive base that only asked the Obama campaign to accomplish the historical task of tearing down the race barrier which had previously guarded the White House. With that achieved, they publicly exhibit the hopes that he will now improve their lot in life upon the very same altar of power that previously demanded he sacrifice black liberation theology through the break with Reverend Wright. He is one of their own, and criticisms will be framed in new dimensions not previously available. Furthermore, the resurgent black vote has the bully pulpit of having placed Obama over the edge in several key swing states. These are significant changes in the political climate that are unprecedented and may substitute for a weak labor movement. They represent, both new and re-energized core constituencies, unlike others in previous administrations, that will not respond to the failures of the Democrats by swinging to the extreme right and could potentially halt the predictability of pendulum politics within the one-party dictatorship that rules the United States with two heads. If the incoming Obama administration fails to satiate the appetites for change from these two, as I fully expect it to, new realizations may emerge about the true nature of the American political system. In the end, hope may dissipate into disillusionment which according to traditional Buddhist thought, is the most fertile seedling of enlightenment.
True audacity resides in the hopelessness of hope.