Doubtful about Presidents; Optimistic about Us

Writing for Time Magazine on November 5th, Joe Klein called Barack Obama’s victory a sign that our country is a "younger, more optimistic, less cynical" place. "It is a country that retains its ability to startle the world — and in a good way, with our freedom." The Boston Globe editorialized that the new president will usher in "a decisively different direction" for the United States.

What is it that liberal elites are celebrating exactly? I suspect they are more or less happy with the core values of the U.S. political and economic system, and they are just relieved that it’s dressed in nicer clothes, comes in a multicultural wrapping, and will continue its forward march in a more congenial, multi-lateral manner.

Many of the liberal elite are excited about Obama’s victory today because of the more palatable manner in which he will forward the elite’s agenda.

But even left-of-liberal Michael Moore writes about crying tears of joy and relief. Progressive friends all over town are waving enthusiastically and giving me the thumbs up. I smile back. It’s not that it’s hard to muster the smile. I understand people feeling uplifted by Obama’s historic election win. For all the reasons that many progressives have recited – the important symbolism of having an African American in the nation’s top office, the repudiation of the Bush/Cheney agenda, the populist-leaning domestic agenda, etc. – I agree the outcome of the election is as positive as it could be given the constraints of the current electoral system.

But I wonder: is there something wrong with me? Must I insist on seeing the massive structural injustices in Obama’s agenda? Must I focus on his hawkish foreign policy? Must I go around reminding everyone that his victory will only be as meaningful as we make it? That it’s unlikely he’ll enter office as a centrist reformer and emerge as a leader who is willing to address structural injustice?

Many people I talk to are impatient with this line of thinking. They think it is pessimistic. They think I’ll die young if I keep thinking such negative thoughts. They think I should un-furrow my brow and revel in this great American moment. They think it’s okay to believe in Obama. One person said something exactly like that: "Oh let me feel happy about this. It feels so good to have someone to believe in."

But wait. It’s not that I don’t have someone to believe in. I do. I believe in the power of movements. I believe in all of us.

When I was in Brazil in 2002, and Lula of the Workers Party, was on the brink of winning the presidency, I had the privilege of talking with members of the Landless Workers Movement. They said they would be happy if Lula won, but they had no illusions that it would change the essential nature of their work. On the contrary, Lula would be pressured by the banks and by international financial institutions to carry out their agenda. Only a sustained grassroots movement would keep him from succumbing to those pressures. They were hopeful that the Workers Party would win, but they wouldn’t put their faith in what Lula would do once he was in office. Instead, they were investing their hope and energy in movement building, knowing that strong movements would be the only way to ensure what Lula would do once he was in office.

I remember seeing Howard Zinn speak to an audience in Cambridge some months before the Iraq war started. An audience member asked, "What do we do if Bush invades Iraq?"

"That’s not the question to ask," Zinn pointed out. "The question to ask is: what are we going to do to make sure he doesn’t invade Iraq?"

That’s ultimately an optimistic stance. It sees grassroots power as a match against corporate and imperial power. It’s a harder row to hoe. It takes longer than an election cycle. It involves mobilizing a truly democratic base to become powerful enough to actually determine what institutions look like. Most importantly, it’s a stance that projects the possibility of real change over the long term and does not settle for nicer versions of rotten institutions.

To the person who is desperate for something to feel good about: Why do you need Obama for that? History shows over and over again that reform happens when people at the grassroots organize together, take risks, and refuse to obey. You could have been feeling good about that all along. You could have been believing in yourself. I do.

Cynthia Peters is the editor of The Change Agent.

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