Obama’s Victory: A Sociological Prayer

I’m a sociology teacher, a member of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, an almost-pacifist, and a libertarian socialist.  My intellectual heroes are people like Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and Noam Chomsky.  I believe democracy is much more in the streets than in the halls, and that Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the great icons of successful modern leadership.  I consider my life’s calling to be to raise my son well and to do as much as I can to help expose and publicize the dangers of corporate capitalism and market totalitarianism.

For all these reasons, and because my mama and granny didn’t raise a complete fool, I voted for Cynthia McKinney, not Barack Obama.  Think about it: Obama is threatening new and expanded wars; spurns single-payer national health insurance; voted for FISA renewal and the mother of all giveaways to Wall Street; wants to include Republicans when he doesn’t have to; thumbed his nose at public campaign financing; almost certainly won’t get tough on the rogue state of Israel; and has been utterly weasely about his quasi-promise to withdraw from Iraq.  To compound all that, he also selected as his running mate the Botoxed super-creep, Joe Biden, the figure who revealed his stunning secret disdain for democracy to a group of big-wig fundraisers in Seattle two weeks before the election.

So. . . .

Last night, as Obama strode to the podium for his victory speech, why did I find myself welling up with tears and choking out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on. . .

It isn’t that I’ve lost my deep skepticism about what’s on Obama’s agenda.  Sure, his speech was wonderful, what with its reference to the New Deal, its borrowing of a major line and an exact cadence from the last public speech of Dr. King, its sublime mention of a 106-year-old woman as a way to think about the future, and its promise of a new puppy.

But that’s not it.  Though all these things do raise my hopes a bit, that’s not why I felt, watching Jesse Jackson sob, that a new door has opened.  No, it’s something much bigger than Obama himself.  It is something my sociology work has convinced me of.

Permit me to explain:

Part of it is something explained by fellow sociologist John Markoff, in his book Waves of Democracy.

While we are trained by vested interests to believe that democracy is a smooth-functioning, stable-state reality that has already been fully achieved and operates mainly by voting and parliamentary procedure, the actual reality is quite different.  Democracy, Markoff points out, is an unending, self-expending process.  Moreover, it is as much about organizing and movements as it is about rules and procedures and ballots.

Indeed, think of all the things we rightly perceive to be the fruits and blessing of democracy: votes for women, votes for victims of racist apartheid, votes for everybody of a mature age, the 8-hour work day, the right to organize unions and other political societies, environmental standards, the ending of egregious imperial wars, etc.  All these things were only ever put on the public agenda and forced into the fabric of democracy by social movements.  Left undisturbed by mass mobilizations and principled trouble-making, even the kindliest overseers and the fairest of mundane elections would likely have let all the overcome evils run on indefinitely.  Hell, even democracy itself only won its day via fighting in the streets — think back on the American and French Revolutions!  Not exactly tea parties, Boston Harbor notwithstanding.

So, as Markoff argues, the reality is that democracy moves in waves.  It ebbs and flows.  It surges and retreats.  While Constitutions, Bills of Rights, and universal suffrage and fair elections are all necessary, they are neither sufficient nor the whole story of what democracy is and how it works.  In full sociological view,

we will find movements, often involving transnational components, demanding democratization; we will also find important anti-democratic movements.  We will find elites advocating democratic reforms, often in response to initiatives by other states; we will find anti-democratic actions by elites a well.  And we will see movements and elites interact: movements pushing elites and elites opening up opportunities for movements.  When the processes come together in a great multinational convergence, the result is a wave of democratization (or antidemocracy).

This brings me to the other part of my newfound optimism.  This second part comes from Harvard Sitkoff, the excellent historian of the Civil Rights Movement.

In his book, The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1992, Sitkoff observes that social movements crystallize only at the rare times when two things come into rough balance — anger and hope.

Nourished by anger, revolutions are born of hope.  They are the offspring of belief and bitterness, of faith in the attainment of one’s goals and indignation at the limited rate and extent of change.  Rarely in history are the two stirrings confluent in a sufficient force to generate an effective, radical social movement.

As Sitkoff also points out, it is hope that tends to be lacking, as the forces of brutality (the ones that have dared call themselves “Civilization”) tend to hunt out and crush down good, hope-inspiring examples.  Only when some tireless strugglers manage to push a daisy up through the pavement does lightning strike and a movement rise.  Anger is always there.  Given the power of the powerful, hope is usually the rain in the desert, the desperately-needed thing that goes lacking.

Yet, history is never over.  Every once in a while, we get a Brown v, Board of Education.   As Sitkoff explains, without Brown, there would probably have been no Civil Rights Movement as we knew it, and as we have so greatly (if only incompletely) benefited from:

Brown heightened the aspirations and expectations of African-Americans [and their sympathizers] as nothing before had.  It proved that the Southern segregation system could be challenged and defeated.  It proved that change was possible.  Nearly a century after their professed freedom had been stalled, compromised, and stolen, blacks confidently anticipated being free and equal at last.

This, then, is what I think and pray Obama’s breakthrough victory might ultimately mean — it might very well stand, whatever it ugly sort-run details may be, as the next Brown v. Board of Education, the next long-awaited spark, the next rain that brought a new and bigger and smarter wave of democracy that not only made the desert flower once again, but allowed us to claim still more territory for human decency, sustainability, and love.  Like Brown did before (although our schools are still deeply segregated aren’t they?), Obama’s win might yield a storm of new hope sufficient to unleash the ordinary people once again.  It might finally allow us to use, rather than just discuss and nurse, our anger.

So. . . .

Let us take President Obama’s victory and his invitation and make them ours, on our own terms: Let us seize this victory and move once again into the streets.  Let us do lay our hands on the arc of history, and use these next thirty years to bend it so as to undo and transcend the vast evils wrought over the last thirty years, by the benighted forces of privilege and reaction.  Let us use this landslide and this wave of new youthful energy to put huge pressures on President Obama and those who attend and follow him in Washington.  And let us turn this new wave into a wave of not just domestic, but global democratization.  Let us continue to fight and win in our culture war (and, yes, we are winning).  Let us seize victory from the jaws of defeat and fashion a humane, still-progressive world for our 106-year-old children!

Michael Dawson is a writer and sociology teacher living in Portland, Oregon, author of The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (University of Illinois Press, 2005) and Automobiles Ueber Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States (a book forthcoming from Monthly Review Press).  Visit his blog: <www.consumertrap.com>.

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