Paul Buhle : The American Elections of 2008: A First Take

Banners congratulating president-elect Barack Obama hang Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008, outside of City Hall and the Cook County Building in downtown Chicago. Photo by José M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune.

‘Obama, former community organizer, is the figure of a new century, with the combination of unprecedented prospects and complications faced by any multi-racial leader.’
By Paul Buhle / The Rag Blog / November. 8, 2008

It was a historical moment not to be forgotten.

So many things about the Grant Park, Chicago, crowd of nearly two hundred thousand on election night, will remain in global memory for a long time. The young people, every skin-color, wildly enthusiastic, overwhelmingly hopeful offered television viewers breath-taking moments, alongside aging African Americans who had been part of the civil rights movement and remembered Chicago as one of the most brutally segregated cities in the US. These older people remembered most vividly the 1983 victory of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor, a victory organized by leftwingers of various ages but notably the old, former organizers of labor and radical movements of the 1930s-40s, still on the job, mobilizing local support among white working class people for a progressive black candidate and against racism one last time.

Until now.

Another political memory of Grant Park is quite different: police rioting against peace demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic convention, just forty years and some months before this year’s post-election events. Now, in 2008, the Chicago police were orderly (some of their former officers are under investigation or indictment for torture). Now, the young people and others were in support of a president coming to power, no longer successfully shut out by the hawks in the Democratic or Republican parties.

American society at large has changed greatly, of course, since the 1960s-70s, and that is no small part of the story. White men over age 60 seem to have voted, in majority, for John McCain, and so did rural counties of whites populations in many places. But first-time voters (68%) and the fastest-growing sectors, Latinos (67%), voters under 30 (66%) and Asians (63%) voted for Obama. The “silent majority” of Nixon and Reagan victories, not to mention the dubious majority of George W. Bush’s victories, had never been a real majority but its votes had been rallied by conservatives, especially Catholics and evangelicals. These are now populations stuck in the past and slipping away, grown increasingly hysterical about “our country” and its demographics, thus eager to take Sarah Palin as their heroine and consolation (nevertheless, 55% of American women voted for Obama).

Beyond all this, the historic role of the Left nationally is crucial to explain and explore here. The New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt corresponded, after 1934, with the Popular Front, some of whose local participants had already begun working in alliance with the Roosevelt administration before the global Communist declaration of a new, anti-fascist direction. The re-election of Roosevelt in 1936 was powered by the rise of the Left-led Congress of Industrial Organizations, that is, industrial unions and their voting power; while the cultural wing of the New Deal, its “public face” in the popular arts, was very largely a leftwing operation. Franklin Roosevelt quietly depended upon leftists, and Eleanor Roosevelt (more personally sympathetic) invited them to the White House.

Notwithstanding the “Pact Period” and Communist opposition to Roosevelt in 1940, the momentum of New Deal politics was owed greatly to the rank-and-file activists, the keen political strategists, the Hollywood Left, and all those who articulated and fought for a more egalitarian, inclusive American democracy.

All this seemingly ended in the Cold War era, with the martyred candidacy of former vice-president Henry Wallace in 1948 (supported by young George McGovern and actress Katharine Hepburn, among other notables). It was crushed by avowed warrior Harry Truman and by the anti-communist crusade directed by businessmen and political conservatives along with cooperative liberals, mobilized by Catholic and Protestant conservatives. The Wallace campaign marked the final push against the permanent militarization of the economy, and the rush of American empire-building to replace the fading European colonial powers with US control of the Third World. Afterwards, the defense industry and consumerism, weapons, suburbs, a national highway system and accelerated depredations of the natural environment went hand in hand, actually aided by fears of Atomic war and Communist influences elsewhere in the world. Notwithstanding Elvis Presley and a certain youth uneasiness, the system seemed to have become a self-enclosed loop.

The unlikely revival of peace sentiments during the 1960s, driven by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the associated draft, also by youth cultural rebellion, drew upon a new generation but also upon the children and political networks of the veteran leftwing activists driven underground but not quite out of existence. Communists, Trotskyists and others from the “Old Left” continued to have an influence, especially in mobilizing demonstrations, if little actual following. The Democratic party absorbed sections of young idealists uneasily, unwilling to accept peaceniks and quietly determined to preserve its leaders’ own close ties to the military and intelligence agencies.

The collapse of the organized New Left after 1970 found a generation of activists practically stranded, successful in dozens local campaigns or brief and vivid political moments, but forever stymied in any larger visionary agenda. The Clinton years introduced empire-building, civilian population bombings and invasions in a new vein, and exuded confidence in the wake of the East Bloc collapse. Even the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, one of the most vivid of the anti-war, Left-connected moments in recent history, ended in a practical demobilization. Momentum, as so often, could not be maintained, even as revelations of horrors increased. Minus the draft, minus major US defeats, the wars slipped to the back pages.

Until, that is, the opening of the nomination process in the Winter of 2007-08. Peace activists and others, now linked closely once more with civil rights enthusiasts and prominent African American personalities, seized onto the unlikely campaign for Barak Obama, pouring into it an amazing amount of energy, just as it seemed prepared to take off…or die. Close observers joked that the coalition could be called the “Harry Belafonte Left,” devotees of the aged Caribbean-born actor who had been hugely popular as a singer in the 1950s (many said, the first Black sex symbol in American life), but so committed to militant protest and leftwing activities that he was denied a Hollywood career. Now aged but joined by younger supporters (Danny Glover in the lead) eager to jump into the familiar campaigns against US invasions and for popular mobilizations, Belafonte symbolized all that was vibrant in American radical traditions.

During the process of the election campaign, especially after a hawkish Hillary Clinton had been defeated, Obama eased toward the center on foreign policy as in other issues. And yet, neither conservatives nor liberals could forget his past allies and political friends (the “red flag” for conservatives was William Ayers, former Weatherman, then respectable professor). More important, the more that conservatives appealed to a hard-right following of Sarah Palin, deeply racist and nativist, the more Obama seemed to represent something starkly different.

Newscasters, commentators, bloggers and ordinary people, not only in the US but world-wide, have for some months referred to the 2008 presidential campaign as the “election of a lifetime” or “election of a century.” As the voting approached, forty percent of each body of supporters in the US registered “fear” of the consequences if the other party’s candidate were elected. A degree of cynicism in all this is inevitable. The passions of the election season are highly orchestrated, and many billions of dollars will be rewarded to the winning party by lobbying and “friends” in one way or another. Popular sentiment, however, is unquestionably at its peak since the early 1970s, more widespread than even during the two Reagan election years, 1980 and 1984, when global and domestic policies were correctly seen to be facing drastic conservative changes.

Now looking back at the election season and the election itself, there have been two outstanding and utterly remarkable developments, accelerated over the last months of the campaign. That these events take place against the background of an economic crisis of unknown but vast proportions can be taken up shortly.

The first is doubtless the turnout of crowds, and the demography of crowds, for Obama rallies. While John McCain was forced to bring school children by bus from neighboring towns to bring an Ohio crowd to 20,000, Obama occasions ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 (in St. Louis, historically one of the most racially divided, heavily blue collar cities), with audiences of white, Latino, black and Asian in mixed numbers, age leaving heavily but by no means entirely toward youth. A single shared sentiment: that the direction of the country was, or might be, about to change dramatically, far more dramatically than the cautious candidate himself was likely to seek.

The second is the crowds for Sarah Palin, much smaller in number but no less intense, signaling something very different. In what Palin refers to as ”pro-American” regions of the country, a phenomenon nearly approaching an American fascism could be seen and heard. Among the crowd in Phoenix, at John McCain’s concession speech (as has been widely reported, Palin sought unsuccessfully to inject herself as speaker before McCain), scarcely a nonwhite face could be found, and the white faces were hard. Denied victory, they would be looking for revenge.

That the decisive factor in the popular (but especially “swing”) vote has almost certainly been the state of the economy rather than what could rightly be regarded as a “culture war” between two very different views of the United States and its place in the world, is perhaps the most predictable element of the outcome. But the willingness of large parts of blue collar America to vote against its own financial interests is so much a familiar part of the political landscape since 1980 (and long before, in many ways) that an eclipse of this support has been a shock to the system. In the “battleground” states, one in five votes of self-described conservatives and one in three self-described Evangelicals went for Obama.

Is the US now a “post racial” society? Definitely not. Will the Obama presidency bring changes as sweeping in public welfare, education, health and the environment as the New Deal did during the later 1930s? Probably not, unless allowed and compelled politically to do so by economic crisis and a popular mobilization that goes far beyond voting and may revive third party prospects at the local and state level (the Working Families Party enjoyed some modest advances in several states as part of an Obama team). Will an Obama presidency rein in the American pursuit of total global control and pull back upon the brutal demands of the American empire? That is the biggest question of all.

It should be remembered how ferociously Democratic power-brokers resisted supporting student peace demonstrators in the 1960s and early 1970s, how determinedly Democratic hawks (including the leaders of the American labor movement) deserted George McGovern’s peacenik presidential bid in 1972, and how the same figures schemed, gathered financial resources, and punished peaceniks within the Democratic party, as they returned to power within the Democratic party even before the Reagan years. The successful centralization of power by the Democratic Leadership Council, with its sources in Democrats for Nixon was foreshadowed by Nixon Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s defeat of antiwar “old left” congresswoman Bella Abzug in the New York Senatorial primary of 1972, and accompanied by the heavily-funded attacks against the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988. In the same years, Harry Belafonte was widely discussed as a possible Senatorial challenge, from New York against the repellant Republican rightwinger Alfonse D’Amato. He was dropped when the redbaiting by Democrats and Republicans set in. This story, however, brings us up strangely toward a moment, a symbolic image, in the present.

Belafonte, the global citizen dressed in his signature windbreaker on the cover of Life magazine at the end of the 1950s, looked like nothing so much as a late-campaign photo of Obama in the New York Times, dressed in a rain-spattered jacket. They were handsome brown men, almost beyond handsome in their charismatic looks. They were, everybody knew, also really intelligent, measured in their judgment, shrewd in their public personae. Belafonte, who began his activist career under the most difficult possible circumstances of the Henry Wallace campaign, had carried his generation’s message as far as it could go within the deeply racist society and the militarized economy of mid-century. Obama, former community organizer, is the figure of a new century, with the combination of unprecedented prospects and complications faced by any multi-racial (in standard American terms: nonwhite) leader.

Would the Empire drag him down? That was the question as large as the economy, and marked by the same immediate issues of “experts” brought over by the president-elect from the Democratic Clinton years. No presidential aspirant likely to win can avoid promising to defend America’s global supremacy, with the military budget (and near-certain bloodshed) to go along. Would an Obama presidency squander the extraordinary good will of a global population desperately eager for a new path toward peace and some greater degree of cooperation on the environment, health and all the other related issues? Or would some way be found, by Obama and beyond Obama, to make the mobilization across the US become a global mobilization?

These are questions for the near and further future, unavoidable and difficult. For now, the faces of the crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park tell us what we need to know. A new day has arrived.##

[Paul Buhle, publisher of the New Left journal Radical America during the 1960s, has written or edited many books on radicalism and culture. He now organizes leftwing comic books.]

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Paul Buhle : The American Elections of 2008: A First Take

  1. Anonymous says:

    Describing activists as “practically stranded” as the New Left faded away in the 1970s is perhaps the most flawed section in Paul Buhle’s thoughtful and hopeful essay. First of all, let it not be forgotten that the Weatherman faction abruptly and stupidly shut down SDS, which caused nationally-united activists to be isolated from one another (in the pre-Internet era), not exactly the same as “stranded.”
    Many activists spent the 1970s and beyond re-thinking how to be involved in social change while abandoning both Old Left and New Left commitment to dogmatic politics. They had to cope with such international events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Mariel Boatlift out of Cuba — raising major questions in the minds of many about their loyalty to “socialism” or, as some people used to like to say, “communism with a small ‘c.'”
    Phenomenal amounts of energy and creativity by many of these same activists were redirected into the environmental movement, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement, plus a deeper understanding of issues such as food, nutrition and health in the chemical and corporate age; the animal rights movement; the human potential movement, and so on.
    The 2008 election benefited from the transformation of 1960s-era activists, and the emergence of younger activists not beholden to the 1960s (though exhibiting a certain limited admiration and respect for old radicals and old hippies). There is a connection that should not be overlooked.

  2. I absolutely agree with ‘Anonymous’; I could add more, but he/she has done a fine job as stated.

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