Posted on November 9th, 2008 in musings and
Since last Tuesday night I have been trying to steal a few moments to ruminate on the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Of course, the post-election commentary is voluminous, insightful, nuanced, maybe ignominious, even hateful, and apparently emitting from a range of perspectives that spans the globe. What could one add to this sea of voices? In doing so, I merely document the event with a few brief impressions and as likely many questions. I am provoked by other missives from out there in the digital ether (actually, a couple of Chicagoans: Dan Wang and Heath Schultz, and some chatter on Nettime) whose thoughtfulness and perspectives are appreciated and helpful.
The image of Obama on that stage in Grant Park before tens of thousands, standing before them as the first black man to be elected president, was powerful (and hyper-constructed, as his political representation has so skillfully been). Even more touching was the moment when his family joined him and darted about with warm smiles and vigorous embraces — how wonderful, how momentous to see all of those black faces on that stage in commemoration of his victory! His oratory was characteristically intelligent, adept, and affecting, full of rhetorical flourishes and a vernacular cadence that channeled the great black orators of those generations that struggled before to prepare his way. Yet, his words and demeanor were also somber (as many have already pointed out) and nuanced as he sought to prepare us for the truly daunting challenges this country faces. Absorbing that media event, I felt genuinely moved by the result of this election, momentarily drunk on the optimistic rhetoric (and images) of “hope” and “change” and reveling in its historic grandiosity.
Apparently, I sober up pretty quick, because, while Obama’s achievement is impressive, it must be understood within the context of a demonstrably corrupt and increasingly militarized and corporatized neoliberal political system. Yes, Obama won — and I may take pleasure at that because I support the winning side this time — but he won in no small part because of his superior gamesmanship, by playing the game better than his opponents. The rules of this political and electoral game have absolutely not changed. A more productive “hope” we might have now is that under this new leadership there might arise the possibility to change the nature of the American political system. Will Obama work to change the rules of the game now that he has been elected? Will the Clintonites with whom he is apparently surrounding himself change the rules? Will they change the rules (as Bush did) to consolidate and secure power, or to distribute power? Emerging from the hazy warmth of the election, I ask: With this incredibly significant democratic event, how do we leverage this slight shift towards the Center-Left to do the work that needs to be done in order to (re)build a civil society where economic and social justice extend to all of our fellow citizens? How can we work to open up authentic spaces for participation, discourse, and difference?
For example: I was interested to hear Glenn Loury speaking with Bill Moyers on his Journal program last week about all of the issues that have not been thoughtfully discussed during the course of the campaign. Loury says: “We draw lines and boundaries about what is legitimate and illegitimate to be said. And then we conduct our political conversations mindful of those boundaries. And often times profoundly important, substantive matters get left by the wayside.” He then offers as an example of an often ignored issue the epidemic of incarceration in the US and how a disproportionate percentage of those in prison are black men and other minorities. Underlying the monolithic vagaries of “the economy” and “energy innovation” and “health care,” there are the complexities of such issues like incarceration which demand sustained and systemic attention in order to change deep structural inequities in our society. Thinking back over the last two years (gasp!) of this campaign, I find it difficult to identify anything resembling substantive discourse that occurred within the narrow confines of the campaign scripts.
While reading among the pages of Group Material’s Democracy project, I came across a reprinted Letter to the Editor written 20 years ago in the New York Times by Mark P. Petracca (an Asst. Professor of Politics and Soceity at UC-Irvine at the time). He responds to an article which apparently lambastes the American electorate for its huge failure to vote in recent elections. He writes:
Electoral politics is the politics of inclusion; elections incorporate and co-opt the citizenry in a stable and nondisruptive form of political participation. Definitions of democracy and good governance that focus on electoral participation are a potent instrument for social control. Elections offer the illusion of participation in exchange for political quiesence. In sum, they limit and constrain our interactions with our government — substituting subordination for the promised liberation of participatory democracy. Electoral involvement does not necessarily empower its participants; rather it tends to create power over them.
Millions of citizens donated small amounts of money and greater amounts of volunteer time toward Obama’s campaign and his ultimate victory. (I am not included among them.) While I am inclined to agree with Petracca’s assessment of electoral politics, there does seem to be an amazing amount of potential energy located within the masses of Obama volunteers (some veteran activists, some political newbies), and this energy may be productively applied towards true grass-roots social and political change. Whether or not President Obama aggressively pursues a more open, democratic, and just society (through both policy and tone), we must pursue it. We, as an engaged citizenry, must hold his administration accountable and apply the necessary critical perspective. We must participate locally (and globally), not only for the narrow goals of getting our guy elected but more importantly for the building of a just society and a progressive democracy.
Postscript: I must finally recommend Rebecca Solnit’s reaction to the election as well (which I’ve just read after writing most of the above). Her thoughts are pragmatic and measured, and for me present circumspect call to action that lands somewhere between the ecstasy of the current Obamamania and the cantankerousness of some of the radical Left’s extreme skepticism.