Back on the campaign trail after dazzling a national audience at the Democratic National Convention, U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama was greeted like a rock star in the small towns of downstate Illinois. Hours before his arrival, the banquet hall of the Turtle Run golf club in this hard-pressed town of nearly 40,000 was filled with 650 people, the biggest political rally in several decades according to local pols. The crowd bode well for his campaign but had national implications as well: Obama demonstrates how a progressive politician can redefine mainstream political symbols to expand support for liberal policies and politicians rather than engage in creeping capitulation to the right.
Danville — like the audience — is overwhelmingly white, but the plurality of its primary vote went to Obama, the son of a Kenyan student and a white woman from Kansas who met in Hawaii. He eventually settled in Chicago, where he worked as a community organizer and lawyer before becoming a highly regarded state senator who pushed through such policies as expanded health insurance, death-penalty reform and working-poor tax credits — “the go-to guy for anything progressive, whatever the cause,” according to one union lobbyist. His victory in the March primary — winning 53 percent of the vote overall against six substantial candidates, including many city, suburban and downstate areas with few black voters — seemed to open a new era in racial politics.
By virtue of being the only African-American in the Senate, Obama will become a national political leader — if he wins, as seems almost certain. After the primary, he had a substantial lead over his Republican opponent, who was later forced to withdraw in a sex scandal. Then after weeks of desperate floundering in search of a candidate, Republicans picked Maryland resident Alan Keyes, the black ultraconservative talk-show host and perennial failed candidate who launched his campaign with attacks on gay marriage and abortion and a pledge to win “for God.” His candidacy will intensify the war between hard-right and moderately conservative Republicans, who have managed until recently to do well in Illinois despite an electorate increasingly Democratic.
This gives Obama a wide-open shot at winning over independents and moderate Republicans. But he has only modestly tempered his progressive record — including early opposition to the war in Iraq — in a bid for the center. Instead, he has crafted a political message that articulates progressive goals in ways that connect with a wider audience. It is a muted, oblique populism, wrapped in red, white and blue bunting.
Much of his political success is personal: his exotic biography (a “Cinderella story,” one person in Danville said), education (first black Harvard Law Review editor), political record and charm all contribute. He’s also a poised, self-effacing, believable and eloquent speaker who can connect intimately with his audience.
But Obama also succeeds because he places his progressive goals within a context that expands support, not just rallies true believers. His unlikely candidacy, he told the Danville audience, is rooted in his belief that “there’s a fundamental decency to the American people that can’t be denied. If I could tap into that, my election couldn’t be denied.” But he also taps into the deep-seated American belief, despite widespread ideological conservativism, that even limited government can and should solve social problems.
It was Obama’s appeal for unity — for one country, not a nation divided between red and blue states, and for politicians attacking problems rather than each other — that most struck a chord with the Danville audience. “The whole idea is that it shouldn’t be ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” said Jean Riggs, 44, an independent for Obama. “We should all be working for the same goal, the best interests of our country in a peaceful world. I prefer this to ‘we’re going to beat them.’ ” And Judy Meyers, a hairdresser whose husband recently lost his job a few years before retirement, insisted: “There should only be one America. There shouldn’t be rich and poor, but we’re losing the middle class.”
George Bush ran as a “uniter, not a divider,” and Republicans, after catering to the rich at the expense of working-class Americans, regularly accuse any Democrat seeking a modicum of equity of launching “class war.” Bush also cynically exploited national unity after 9⁄11 to promote war and the Patriot Act. But just as Democrats need to capture the flag away from the right, they need to win the argument that they represent both the national interest and a sense of national community by serving the needs of the vast majority.
In his convention speech, Obama linked “faith in the possibilities of this nation” to America as “tolerant” and “generous.” His critique of the present often is expressed as the need to do more — for example, for Maytag workers in Galesburg, Illinois, whose jobs are being shipped to Mexico and are left without prospects for employment or health insurance. In redefining the meaning of national unity, he argued, “it is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper— that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.” In Obama’s message, unity is not submission to authority, but rather solidarity. “People have more in common than separates them,” he said to long applause at his Danville stop.
Conventional wisdom says that voters want to look forward to better days. But few politicians have as effectively evoked the “audacity of hope,” as Obama felicitously expressed it (borrowing the phrase, as his splendid memoir—Dreams of My Father—indicates, from his minister in Chicago). Hope should be the essence of a progressive politics, but too often the message of the left is mainly about how awful things are — jobs lost, inequality growing, casualties mounting from a fraudulent war. Yet a cheery emphasis on hope often ignores the real problems that must be confronted to make that hope realistic.
Likewise there is a risky ambiguity in celebrating America: It is not always clear whether political leaders are applauding America as it is or as it ought to be — or if they even acknowledge the difference. Partly, that ambiguity reflects a unique characteristic of American politics. Americanism is a vague but powerful ideology that obscures real differences of principle and, in the propaganda of the political right, can make criticism of American reality seem an attack on American ideas.
But it is nevertheless essential to define Americanism in progressive terms, as Obama tries to do. “I’d pick up arms right now to defend this country,” he said in Danville, adroitly balancing patriotism and criticism of Bush foreign policy. “But if I’m going to ask someone else’s son and daughter to go to war, I want to make sure it’s the right war.”
To his heartland audience, Obama affirmed “core values” of hard work, responsibility, family, community and faith — but insisted those values had to be expressed through government. The country deserves, he said, “a government as decent as the American people,” providing a “decent shot” in life to everyone, “a hand up” when someone suffers a “bump on the road,” a “job that pays a living wage,” protection against going bankrupt from illness and college education even for individuals with little money.
Even such skillful rhetoric can’t avoid hard policy choices. Despite his eloquence on healthcare, Obama rejects a unified national health insurance in favor of a more piecemeal approach that many progressives see as inadequate. And all the talk of one America can’t erase the profound conflicts between the interests of big corporations and workers, the public and the common environment. Obama largely avoids full-frontal critiques of abusive corporate power and the growing class divide. Despite such shortcomings, his campaign points toward a new era, not just of racial politics but of progressive politics in search of a new majority.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.