Barack and the Bottom-Up

Brian Cook

While listening to Obama's speech earlier tonight, I thought the loudest cheers erupted when he noted (twice) that "change doesn't come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up," and that, ultimately, his success will rely on the efforts/organization/mobilization of the people attending his rally. It struck me that I couldn't recall any other politician (besides, of course, the late, great Paul Wellstone) employing this basic, Alinsky-type rhetoric, and it made me wonder just how much of Obama's rhetorical power stems from the almost mundane fact that he simply recognizes the autonomy and agency of the people in his crowds and acknowledges that the success of many (if not most) of his programs and proposals will ultimately depend on them. It's pretty disheartening that very few candidates address this elementary desire in people to engage in their own self-governance, particularly when today's world offers so few avenues for people to pursue that desire. (The damage done to us by the lack of such avenues is the great, plaintive theme of Tom Geoghegan's glorious The Secret Lives of Citizens.) That Obama addresses it is what make his speeches fundamentally different from Gore's "People Vs. the Powerful" rhetoric or Edwards' populist speeches, in that those basically state, "I will fight for your interests," whereas Obama pleads that "I need you to help me fight for your interests." It seems to me that Obama's recognition of this desire has considerable explanatory power as to why he elicits such fervid passion from his supporters, particularly when no one else is doing it. I asked a listserve I'm on if this has always been the case, and got some great replies from some historians who essentially said, "No, it used to be quite different." Here, for example, is what LBJ said in 1964: As a boy "I first learned that the government is not an enemy of the people. It is the people." In 1968, Eugene McCarthy apparently used to always close his speeches with these beautiful lines: "Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come! Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you must justify me." And in 1972, George McGovern would end by saying: "Think where man's glory most begins and ends, My glory, was that I had such friends." Also relevant was this wonderful new Nation article by Peter Dreier, which examines "The History of Hope," which is a history of the engagement and mobilization of the rank-and-file citizenry. What's most hopeful about Barack Obama is that he's a presidential candidate who seems to recognize (at least on some level) the truth of John Dewey's insight that voting (for president, or anyone else) is one of the least important duties of a citizen.

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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