From The IPS Cave: A Conversation between Newman Fellows
November 9, 2010 · By Tope Folarin and Kevin Shih
Due to a recent move within the IPS office, the Newman Fellows are forced to share an office (along with New Economy Working Group Coordinator, Noel) in the side "cave" where nobody visits--this has forced them to talk to each other.
TOPE: Hey Kevin, Just came across this really interesting article by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic today. It’s a distillation of a few ideas I’ve been batting around for a few months – the most important of which (and Wilentz captures this really well, I think) is that President Obama set himself up to fail because his campaign was all about ‘movement building’ and his presidency, alas, has been about the typical horse-trading and politicking that accompanies much of what happens here in DC. The article is effective because it captures why so many progressives feel, well,used (I hate using relationship terms here, but hey, it works). But maybe not just progressives – maybe everyone (everyone who voted for Obama, that is) feels a bit used because Obama’s candidacy was premised on channeling the rage and disappointment that people felt about America circa 2007/8 towards an amorphous idea of a future in which ‘we were the change we could believe in’ or some such…and yet, there was never, well, a point. As Wilentz says:
Thus, the Obama campaign presented itself as a social movement that was more sentimental than political, pushing gauzy “values,” like “hope” and “change,” while leaving policy concerns to the wonks. Yet the successful movements of the past had more than values; they had specific goals.
Later, Wilentz says:
The point of the Obama campaign-as-movement was conceived differently: exciting people with the thrill of empowerment, and collective self-empowerment, by electing to the White House a community organizer who believed in “hope” and “change.” Why electing Obama was imperative required no explanation among the faithful; it was enough to get the spirit, share the spirit, and revel in the candidate’s essence, which, by definition, no other candidate possessed. The leader was the program.
Indeed! The leader was the program. So this got me thinking – have we (we being Obama supporters here, erstwhile and otherwise) given up too soon? After all, we knew what we were getting into…right? We knew that Obama didn’t offer up many policy specifics, we knew he was green, we knew that he’d do some learning on the job...we signed up for all of this. We believed in the man – we believed that his background and intelligence would enable him, ultimately, to succeed as no one else could. So are we just really fickle?
KEVIN: That is an interesting article, and like many progressives I do feel used by Obama (I firmly believe that we had a good thing going on there).
I do agree that in order for social change to happen, a coordination of the top and the bottom needs to happen. You need a grassroots movement to hold those in power accountable. And I think the reason why we are losing so much right now is because the grassroots movement got hijacked by the right (i.e. tea party). I've read a little bit of Ganz while I was in school, and we talked about this before, the Obama movement (which is drastically different from past movements) is that it is based on getting Obama elected, and I guess in extension, supporting the values and rhetoric that he was presenting to people. However, I don't know if I can buy into the fact that the Obama movement had no substance whatsoever, I mean it is a little harder to tell when you position him against Hilary Clinton, but if you pit him against McCain, there is a stark difference.
I think the problem we are facing here is that we are missing a robust progressive grassroots movement that is pushing the Democratic Party and Obama to do progressive things (i.e. single-payer health care system, more robust wall street reform, a true withdrawal from the Middle-East). I am starting to wonder whether it would have been better for the greater good of all of us if Hillary or any other democrat, with somewhat progressive values became president, and Obama, using his cult of personality and movement to establish a truly progressive grassroots movement to check the Democratic Establishment. But then again, the reason why Obama was so popular was because people were excited about seeing an African American in the White House, so who knows if he has that ability to rally people from the "outside." All in all, I think it is safe to conclude that what is desperately needed right now is a grassroots movement--how we go about creating that movement is something a little bit more difficult. And as always, we are open to suggestions!
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