The Politics of Symbolism

As we go deeper into the 2008 election season, I continue to be struck by the politics of symbolism that surround the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Perhaps if I were not as fearful as I am about both the situation in Iraq and the potential for a Bush-initiated war against Iran, I could sit back and be amused. But amused I am not.


Much too much has gone into the symbolism of the potential for a woman or an African American receiving the nomination and ultimately being elected President of the USA. Clearly, the election of a woman or African American would be historic, yet this symbolism seems to have blinded or muted, depending on one’s point of view, too many people to real issues of substance.


The other day, I ran into an African American man I had not seen in some years. We started talking about the Presidential race and he indicated that he was an Obama supporter. I indicated that I remain undecided but that I was concerned that Obama was the equivalent of an inspirational speaker in this race, yet on the issues he seemed too concerned about not making waves. The eyes of this man looked quickly to the floor and he acknowledged that what I had to say was correct, but it was also clear that the discussion was over. He had made up his mind and there was nothing more to be said.


In listening to many of our own leaders and opinion- makers, I am startled by the lack of substance that is brought to the table when it comes to a conversation about the possible nominees. Particularly in connection with discussions of Senators Clinton and Obama, the sound bites are all too similar. They focus on the historic significance of a victory of a woman or a Black person. They suggest that these individuals are outsiders – depending on how one defines "outsiders" – from the mainstream political process. Most importantly, they suggest that we will be witnessing the introduction of new politics.


With all due respect to both Senators Clinton and Obama, I do not see it. With Senator Clinton there is nothing that indicates that she is an outsider driven by a concern and linkage with those traditionally dispossessed by the politics and economics of the contemporary USA. With respect to Senator Obama he comes from background of community organizing and, in the realm of foreign policy, there is an indication that he is prepared to sit down with a greater number of world leaders than has President Bush. Nevertheless, I keep getting the sense of Senator Obama as the ".yeah, but." candidate. In other words, he is someone who agrees with the core arguments of the mainstream politicians, but then offers his own spin. Rather than taking a principled stand based on some conception of new politics, I keep getting the sense of being treated to feel-good sessions where I am asked to have faith that, once elected, he will do the right thing.


Let’s look to an extreme to make a point. In the 1970s, it was historic when a woman became the prime minister of Britain. Margaret Thatcher certainly changed, in a very fundamental manner, British politics, and much of the rest of the world, serving as an inspiration for Ronald Reagan. The fact of her being a woman was an important statement against male domination of the political arena, but her politics were not in any respect emancipatory.   They were among the coldest politics of the Cold War era. With regard to race, we do not have to go to Britain to find examples of where Black candidates for office, whose appearance on the scene was historic, have advanced politics that are not necessarily in the interests of the Black masses.


Contrary to Margaret Thatcher or, in the case of the USA, a Clarence Thomas, I suspect that neither Senators Clinton nor Obama will be terrible. I just do not know that they will be first-class, introducing the domestic and international policies so badly needed. If I want to feel good, I will go see Les Brown. If I am concerned about the future of this planet, I want to see and hear candidates that offer radical solutions to an increasingly critical situation. This is a lot more than symbolism.


BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.


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