Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Springtime of Possibility (Speech to the November 15, 2008 National Committee

November 15, 2008

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Edwin Stanton, the tireless Secretary of War in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet said at the time of Lincoln’s death, “He belongs to the ages.” Much the same can be said about this election: It too belongs to the ages.

The election challenged long-held assumptions, broke voter turnout records, and shattered seemingly unbreakable barriers – none more historic than the election of an African-American president for the first time. And all this happened in the face of negative appeals to the worst angels of the American people. But to our credit, we repudiated the old politics of fear, division, racial code words, red-baiting, immigrant bashing, and nostalgic appeals to a country and time that never were.

If the election of Barack Obama was a monumental victory, election night itself was a magical moment. In Chicago and across the nation, tears of joy and exhilaration mingled with memories of how far we have come. As the President-elect greeted the hundreds of thousands of well wishers in Grant Park, it was hard not to think of the many struggles for freedom mapping our nation’s history.

If anyone believes that democracy is nothing but smoke and mirrors in capitalist society, the election of Barack Obama should cause them to reconsider such paralyzing notions. Once again we learned that the struggle for freedom is a contested idea turning as it always has on whether one views freedom as inclusive or exclusive, as giving priority to human rights or property rights, and as accenting the common good or the individual good.

While millions can and should take pride in Obama’s election, African Americans have special claims. While the American people in all their diversity elected the new president, Obama is a son of the African American people. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, that African Americans and their leaders have dramatically inserted themselves at critical junctures in our nation’s history to expand democracy for all.

The breaking of the color line constitutes a landmark in the struggle for equality and against racism. To be sure, we haven’t entered a post-racial era, but the opportunities to further weaken racist ideology and to tear down the institutional barriers that sustain racial discrimination and exploitation have grown considerably. Hasn’t Obama’s election and Obama’s statements as President-elect demonstrated beyond a doubt that the struggle against racism in its ideological and institutional forms is as much in the interests of white workers as it is in the interest of the nationally and racially oppressed? As Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never be free, as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”

To say that a sea change occurred on Nov. 4 is no exaggeration. On one side, the arguably worst president in our history leaves Washington disgraced. His party’s policies, ideology and cultural symbols are discredited. The GOP is in disarray and the blame game has begun. The red/blue state paradigm and the southern strategy, a strategy conceived exactly forty years ago to divide the nation along racial lines, are in shambles. And the entire capitalist class, not only its most reactionary section, is weakened.

On the other side of the changing sea, a sense of joy, catharsis and renewal is in the air. Expectations are high. A new era of progressive change is waiting to become a reality. If the past eight years of the Bush administration seemed like a winter of discontent, Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency feels like a springtime of possibility.

Man, moment and movement

The outcome of this election was due to the convergence of several factors. First of all, the political environment was toxic for the Republicans. Could it have been any worse? The spontaneous mass upsurge, beginning in the primaries in January and continuing to Election Day, was another factor. Then there was the diverse coalition of people and people’s organizations that mobilized millions to vote for Obama. Another factor was the Obama campaign, notable for its sound strategy, near-perfect execution, and employment of new techniques of communication, networking and fundraising. Still another reason for the outcome was the wisdom of the American people, especially the readiness of so many to throw off ignoble and self-defeating racist ideas. To suggest, as some have, that many white people momentarily set aside their prejudice to vote for Obama is an incomplete reading of the election results. Some did; but what stands out and what we have to take careful note of is that millions of white working people of all ages and nationalities responded to and voted for Obama enthusiastically. Finally, the candidate himself was brilliant campaigner. When all of these factors are combined, they turned this election into a rout of right-wing extremism, a reaffirmation of the decency of our country and people, a leap forward on freedom road and a people’s mandate for change.

No one, of course, expects that the securing of a better future will be easy. There is, after all, eight years of extreme right-wing misrule to clean up. The economic crisis is widening and deepening. Right-wing extremism, while badly weakened, still retains enough influence in Congress and elsewhere to block progressive measures. And class realities are still embedded in our society.

Nevertheless, in electing Barack Obama and larger Democratic Party majorities in Congress, the American people have taken the first and absolutely necessary step in the direction of building a more just society. We are not on the threshold of socialism for sure, but it is easy to see the further congealing of a growing majority that will realign politics, not incrementally and momentarily, but decisively and enduringly in the direction of economic justice, equality and peace.

While we should look at the outcome of the elections objectively, I would argue that the biggest danger is to underestimate the political significance of what has happened. I am suspicious of advice that suggests that we temper our understandable joy and enthusiasm as if nothing of great importance has happened.

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