“Freedom answers the need of the spirit, but must be sustained by the experience of the body.”
“Politics makes visible that which had no reason to be seen. . . .”
With the election of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the nation and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The reign of the rogue Bush-Cheney regime brought about a heightened awareness of the utter destructiveness of American Empire both at home and abroad. Coupled with a crippling crisis in global capitalism, the American electorate decided to entrust presidential power in the Illinois senator whose keen political sensitivity, adept media savvy, and boundless oratorical skill swayed a majority of voters to view his candidacy as the best chance for a return to some semblance of political normalcy.
The historic nature of Senator Obama’s campaign and election has been justly hailed as a signal event in American politics. Indeed, given the peculiar – to put it gently – history and character of Majoritarian Democracy in the United States coupled with the deep symbolic investments in the Office of the President, Senator Obama’s ascendancy to the nation’s highest political office will rightly be the subject of conversation and debate for many years to come.
But the election of Senator Obama raises anew the complex tensions between the American experiment with democracy and a just democratic politics.
Such a tension is particularly evident in recent assessments of Senator Obama’s election. Instead of an acute focus on the over two decades long evolution of a new black political class from the lower ranks to the higher echelons of major party politics and formal political power – from the late Ron Brown to Donna Brazile to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – there has been a pronounced tendency to follow one dominant narrative that telescopes all of African American life, thought, and history into the ascent of President-elect Obama.
These first drafts of history collapse the multiple and varied African American freedom struggles to the narrow terrain of electoral politics and make them absolutely commensurate with the politics of American statecraft. Such pronouncements not only diminish the significant ways in which African Americans have sought to fundamentally challenge the imperial and inegalitarian configurations of American power, but they also work to erase the more foundational challenge issued by these multitudes and movements in seeking to inaugurate new and more egalitarian social, political, and economic orders – locally, nationally, and globally.
Perhaps this narrative line says more about the class character and ideological hegemony of the chattering classes in their equation of power with justice and privilege with equality.
To be sure, political parties and electoral campaigns do not exhaust politics – particularly a just democratic politics. Furthermore, for all of their symbolic value, elections do not in and of themselves signal the beginning or end of radical and fundamental change. It can justifiably be argued that in a culturally and politically conservative democracy, such as the United States, elections serve as a channel to discipline the unruly dreams and radical political imaginations of the people.
While the election of Senator Obama to the American presidency is a pivotal event in American cultural and political history, it also serves as a prescient reminder that the work of politics is not solely funneled through the office of the President, but rather, through the critical consciousness of a people intent on creating a just social and political order.
As a new nationalism – one that replaces the violence of the bellicose nationalism of the Bush-Cheney regime with an equally violent one that narrates centuries of racialized chattel slavery, state sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination, and structural injustice and inequality as unfortunate but necessary preconditions for the election of Senator Obama – sweeps across the land, the work of a genuine and just democratic politics begins again.
Although there are those who seek to maintain the political status quo albeit with new actors, such as the Brookings based Hamilton Project which boldly states that “the most pressing need now is not new ideas, but greater political will and a bipartisan political process,” the work of a just democratic politics taps the creative energies of everyday citizens in expanding the terrain of freedom and equality while rejecting the sophomoric rhetoric of “bipartisanship” in its myopic focus on process instead of people.
As the nation and world transitions to the administration and policies of President-elect Obama, there must be an intensification and deepening of a just democratic politics that does not confuse political style with substantive change and soaring rhetoric with the hard work of doing right. Such a politics must focus on cultivating informed and responsible citizens and not a periodically awakened and mobilized electorate.
Along with a fundamental challenge and transformation of the formal mechanisms of politics – from a domestic policy that leaves citizens unprotected in the face of mounting economic devastation to an ideologically driven economic policy that privileges the wealthy over the needy to a foreign policy that fundamentally reinforces the dictates of empire to a virtually nonexistent environmental policy in the face of a planetary ecological crisis that threatens all of existence – there must be an equally dramatic reconfiguration of power between the American state and the American people.
Thus, while the nation and world breathes a justified sigh of relief, the searing words of Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a forceful reminder that the work of a just democratic politics has only just begun: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
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.