The first I heard of Barack Obama was at a conference this spring when I asked the president of the League of Conservation Voters why the environmental poster children seem to be wealthy liberals from San Francisco rather than kids in Harlem growing up with asthma. Why does a movement fighting an evil whose immediate victims are disproportionately the poor and people of color have an image which is so bourgeois?
After acknowledging the problem and defending LCV’s progress on the issue, she told me she’d just shot an ad endorsing a progressive black state senator from a working-class background who was running against several millionaires in Illinois’ Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. And while vetting Obama on-line afterward yielded a few disappointments — like his abstention on parental notification before abortion — his overall record, like his personal narrative, was tremendous and left him poised to become the most progressive member of the all-too-conservative U.S. Senate. Obama’s liberal record also explains why the Democratic Party leadership united behind one of the millionaires. Fortunately, Illinois voters had other ideas. And the Democratic Party, recognizing a good thing after everybody else saw it, chose Obama to keynote its convention with a speech that prompted another wave of voters to wonder why we he wasn’t the one running for president.
So I and others from outside Illinois started wearing his T-shirt, less as a sign of support for his Senate candidacy, now 40 points ahead (so much for liberals being unable to win swing voters), than as a vote for his vision of the Democratic Party: one which revives the New Deal for a new generation rather than muffling popular agitation; one which pursues national unity through reckoning with our national demons rather than papering over them; one which places its faith in the empowerment of the disenfranchised rather than the wisdom of technocrats. Of course, Obama will have many chances to fall short of the ideals he so compellingly articulates. Even a progressive hero like Paul Wellstone let himself be talked out of his universal health care plan in favor of the Clintons’ plan, which failed by offering too little to the left without moderating the fierce opposition of the right (so much for triangulation being the route to success).
But whether Obama will serve as standard-bearer of a revived progressive Democratic Party matters far less than whether the left can build a movement that could elect an Obama as president. Or perhaps a younger Granny D, the woman who walked across the country for campaign-finance reform before ending up at the last minute as the Democratic candidate for Senate from New Hampshire, whose name the Democrat running for governor couldn’t bring himself to speak when asked in his debate. Candidates are easy to build; movements are hard. And it’s the movements, not the candidates, who shape history. If it had been left to Kennedy, we never would have had freedom rides.
So it rests on popular movements both to get politicians elected to office and to hold them accountable while they’re in there. Unfortunately, too many on the left see critiquing politicians as noble but electing them as petty or contaminating. And too many in the Democratic Party wax poetic about the importance of the grassroots to get their candidates into office but expect them to stay out of the way once the policy-making begins.
Electing John Kerry is the beginning, not the end, of the path out of the “long political darkness” Obama spoke of at the convention. To see it either as a dead end or the end of the road is misguided. Organizing from a position of powerlessness is more straightforward than organizing from a position of limited power. So it’s no surprise that the labor movement has done a more effective job mobilizing against Bush’s flagrant anti-worker record than it did challenging Clinton’s shifts to the right on trade and welfare. But organizing out of powerlessness doesn’t do much good unless it manages to seize power.
The idea, floated among segments of the left, that a Bush re-election would be good in the long-term because it would radicalize the country demonstrates a willful blindness to the wreckage Bush has already wrought. It shouldn’t be surprising that so few of the vocal proponents of a second Bush term as a boon for the left are the ones who have borne the brunt of the first one: the unemployed and underemployed, the uninsured and underinsured, the profiled and detained, the kids in Harlem with asthma. What’s needed now is the will and wisdom to demand both immediate amelioration and progressive transformation of the systems of injustice that suffocate the realization of our shared ideals. A Kerry presidency will mean higher wages, better schools, stronger security and greater freedom than another Bush term. And by better protecting the right to organize, the freedom to dissent and the transparency of government, it will open new avenues to build beyond the next few years. It’s a crucial step in building a resurgent left, a progressive party and a more just country — with stronger movements yielding better leadership, be it Barack Obama or someone else who today is branded hopelessly unelectable.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.