Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
With Senator Barack Obama the official presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, the Obama campaign will now focus on winning the general election. If some have noticed a pronounced “centrist” shift in the candidate’s rhetoric since the close of the primaries, then we should not be surprised that over the next couple of months the campaign will be, well, quite ordinary. For as the junior senator from Illinois so powerfully reminded us in his acceptance speech, “Change does not come from Washington, it goes to Washington.”
After a primary season filled with promises of “change” and a “new” politics, we will enter a general election campaign that will saturate the airwaves with a faux economic populism that will placate the capitalist class while perpetuating the myth of the American dream. We will be inundated with talk of a muscular diplomacy that fails to challenge the fundamental dictates of American imperialism. And of course, we will hear affirmations of a conservative Horatio Alger-esque social philosophy leavened by neoliberal prescriptives for public policy.
To all of this, we should not be surprised. Senator Obama is not campaigning to be president of a radical union local, but rather for the presidency of an empire. As such, the dominant dictates of power in America mitigate against any radical transformation of capitalist economic relations, imperial diplo-military power, and conservative domestic policy.
So, what is to be done?
Every four years, Americans are directed to do their civic duty and participate in – in as low-intensity and unobtrusive a manner as possible – what has come to be the mass-media spectacle of presidential politics.
Every four years, we weather an avalanche of claim and counter-claim, partisan posturing, and endless political commentary that reinforces the dominant frames of political discourse.
Every four years, we are dazzled by a new class of political technocrats who frame the election around the personalities of politically (in)distinguishable opponents built around a series of false political choices.
Of course, this does not mean that the choice between the major party candidates for the office of president is inconsequential. Only a political novice will believe that a single presidential election will change everything. Conversely, only a rigid ideological dogmatist will argue that this presidential election is a choice without choice.
It should go without saying that Senator Obama is the better choice among the major party candidates – hence the persistent and robust criticism from the genuine left of his policy proposals and political philosophy.
But after eight years of the rogue regime of Bush-Cheney and twenty eight years after the institutionalization of a vicious conservative politics signaled by the election of Ronald Reagan, one presidential election – even a campaign with historic implications – will not significantly alter the dominant configurations of political power in the United States.
Fundamental change will not come from an ordinary campaign, but rather, from an extraordinary politics.
With the severe constraints of the American system of electoral politics and the narrow confines of political discourse in the United States, an extraordinary politics moves us from an ordinary casting of a vote every four years to taking part in an extraordinary struggle to transform the everyday conditions and displace the prevailing ideas that marginalize hopes and life chances of the majority of citizens.
Extraordinary politics challenges the entrenched narratives that animate the narrow focus of dominant discourses of politics. Challenges to established authority, new configurations of political power, and alternative proposals for public policy are the life blood of an extraordinary politics. And ordinary people coming together and doing extraordinary things to change the way we live, think, and act are the proper subjects of an extraordinary politics.
Through an extraordinary politics, everyday citizens will once again raise the “big” questions which are a significant part of our public lives. What would it mean to develop public policy that does not prioritize private gain over the common good? What would an American foreign policy be if we fundamentally disavowed the mandates of imperialism? What would an economic policy look like absent an underlying philosophy of that views America as a “society of abundance”?
To begin to entertain these questions will require an extraordinary politics that pushes the boundaries of legitimate political conversation pass the arbitrary limits of what is considered possible and pragmatic and reverse the severe atrophy of political imagination in the United States.
Given the very ordinary character of American political discussion the very idea of an extraordinary politics will be readily dismissed as unrealistic, unworkable, and unthinkable. But such dismissals only serve to continue the very political practices that diminish the extraordinary political potential of everyday citizens.
If we are to move beyond the current crisis of American democracy – which is not just the result of the past eight years of the presidency of George W. Bush, but rather the result of the telescoping of politics to the discipline of electoral campaigns – then we have to commit ourselves to an extraordinary politics.
COREY D. B. WALKER is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University and the author of A Noble Fight: African American Freemasons and the Struggle for Democracy in America, which will be published in October.