Reflections on the election of Barack Obama.
Published in Dissent.
On Election Day 2004, I worked on a get-out-the-vote drive for John Kerry in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. After a long day, the polls had closed, and I started my drive home to Brooklyn, listening to electoral returns on the car radio. Early signs were good. Passing through New Jersey, when the announcer declared Pennsylvania a win for Kerry, I felt satisfied with having contributed in a small way to a victory. But by the time I was crossing Staten Island, the electoral count had started to sour. I began listening to the best of the 80s and 90s, only periodically flipping back to the news for updates. When I arrived home in Brooklyn, the race had not yet been officially called, but I went to bed with the dread of living under another Bush administration.
Traveling earlier this fall in Florida, I talked with a friend who is a lifelong trade unionist and an unrepentant Nader voter from 2000. I, too, had supported the Nader campaign that year as a strategy to curtail the Democrats’ rightward shift, although I argued that swing-state voters should use a “Nader-Trader” program to symbolically exchange their votes with Gore supporters in safe states. My friend and I recalled how Gore had been the Clinton administration’s hatchet man at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, seemingly doing his best to aggravate organized labor. We remembered, too, how his selection of Joe Lieberman seemed uniquely designed to alienate the left, especially since both came from the conservative wing of the party.
Putting aside the bitter debate about soundness of the Nader 2000 strategy, I never could have felt so elated with the election of Al Gore—or, for that matter, of John Kerry—as I now feel with the election of Barack Obama. On Election Day, it was evident that the historic nature of his candidacy tapped a deeper stream of emotion. Never before had I knocked on a stranger’s door for a campaign and, immediately after explaining where I was from, received an overjoyed hug—something that happened when I returned to Pennsylvania yesterday as part of a labor mobilization for Obama. With the exception of the Seattle protests, never have I been a part of a street celebration so jubilant—people were dancing on the hoods of taxis—as the one that erupted on my block in Brooklyn later that night.
Obama will be our first African-American president—not in the way that Clarence Thomas is one of the first African-American Supreme Court justices or the way Sarah Palin might have been the first woman vice president. Thomas and Palin have at once benefitted from the social movements that made their ascents possible and worked to undermine the legacy of these movements. Obama, in contrast, will become the first African-American president by realizing the hopes of civil rights activists and honoring their contributions.
Obama rose to the top of a Democratic pool that, as a whole, positioned itself notably to the left of what we had come to expect in the Clinton-Gore years, when top officials scrambled to prove their pro-corporate bona fides and to declare their allegiance to the Democratic Leadership Council. Today’s contenders, while far from perfect from a progressive perspective, campaigned as opponents of an unjust war and of faulty trade agreements such as NAFTA, as advocates of pro-worker labor law reform and of serious national health care.
To be sure, the struggle to fulfill the vision of the civil rights movement—like the more contemporary fight to thwart the rightward-pushing forces within the Democratic Party—is not over. The likes of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers hover over Obama’s victory. Progressives face the challenge of asserting that Obama’s victory should mean not only a rejection of the brash, imperial globalism of the Bush years, but also of the softer model of corporate rule that grew under Clinton.
This fight has just begun. It will be a difficult task to convert a movement to elect Obama into a drive to build grassroots power and to hold him accountable. But, for now, as we celebrate the end of the Bush era, there can be no doubt that we are in a better position to act than just a day ago. And it’s not often when we can say that with confidence and genuine joy.
Photo credit: Warren Taylor / Wikimedia Commons.