Some Things Even Obama Can't Transcend

I admit it. For a moment I believed. Walking down Sumter Street during Charleston's Martin Luther King Day parade, the overwhelmingly white coterie of Barack Obama volunteers chanted: "Obama '08! We're ready. Why wait?" Among them was a young man who was "so depressed" after Obama's New Hampshire defeat that he had dropped everything he'd been doing in Guatemala and flown back to help out. There was also an elderly woman from Florida who had read his book Dreams From My Father two weeks earlier and was so inspired she felt she needed to do something.

Local African-Americans lined the sidewalks, cheering encouragement. Obama's victory in Iowa had proved that a black candidacy was not a pipe dream. Now a significant number of white people had come to the parade calling for them to make common cause. And every now and then the volunteers went to the sidewalk, shook hands, handed out leaflets and even hugged the locals.

The Mississippi Freedom Summer it wasn't. But it was something. A moment. A political moment that produced hopeful human engagement. Within half an hour it had evaporated. The parade was over. The white volunteers would not talk to the media without approval, even to explain their excitement. When authorization came through for them to speak their minds, the guy from Guatemala gushed about the coming of a postracial America. Meanwhile, the black people went back to their homes in the poorest parts of town and waited for change.

It is easy to be cynical. But it is the potency and potential of these moments--as fleeting and fatuous as they may seem--that form the basis for much of Obama's appeal. He points out the ways America is riven and then calls on his audience to take the country to a higher level. Every time his multigenerational, multiracial crowds get together, it seems like they are creating a new reality from whole cloth. "In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities," he told the jubilant crowds in Iowa, "you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say that we are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come."

A few days later, at a conference on bipartisanship at the University of Oklahoma attended by Michael Bloomberg, Obama's victory dampened discussion of the New York mayor launching an independent presidential bid. "I believe [Obama] is demonstrating, in the support he is getting, that the American people share this concern about excessive partisanship," said Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, who attended.

In and of itself, bipartisanship is a goal that is both inarguable and insubstantial. It is treated as a matter of orthodoxy that Americans crave a more bipartisan approach to national politics. But polls show that on issues they care about, just about half want politicians to seek solutions through compromise. Their ambivalence is not surprising. As a means to an end, bipartisanship makes sense. But as an end in itself, it is a hollow notion unless you define who you want to join forces with and why.

Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see why it has caught on as a campaign slogan in both parties. For the past seven years this country has been run on the basis of crude majoritarianism by a President brazen enough to treat 48 percent of the popular vote as an endorsement and 51 percent as an overwhelming mandate. George Bush did not create this partisan split; he inherited it, just as Al Gore would have if he had won the Supreme Court case in 2000. But while the split was broad, it was Bush who made it deep and rancorous by ramming through his neoconservative agenda and war.

The failure of this agenda, and the attendant collapse of America's self-confidence, made the case both for a more consensual political culture and against the current political class. The economy is tanking, the war is dragging, the country's international reputation is in tatters and the inability of Congress or the White House to do anything about it has given rise to despondency. But the partisanship in Washington that has disillusioned people is in fact "partysanship"--the support not of one idea or program over another but of one party over another. Democrats backed the war and have refused to stop its funding, impeach Bush or protect civil liberties because they believe that to do otherwise would be bad for the party, regardless of the country's interests.

While the Democratic Party's interests may at times coincide with that of the American people, they are clearly not synonymous. The party's raison d'AfAatre is to win elections, not to change America. Depending on the time, place and candidate, it may well stand for office but little else. The right understands these limits of electoral politics only too well. Its victories have ended in Washington, but they didn't start there and were not sustained there. The terrible truth about the past seven years is not that the country has been divided but that the wrong side has been winning. The right has fought for its agenda and has never been in doubt about who its enemy is.

It's high time the left did the same. Arguing for policies that eradicate poverty, confront racism and homophobia, tackle economic and gender inequality and corporate excess, normalize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants and address the ballooning prison-industrial complex is about being progressive, not divisive. It does, however, mean recognizing that divisions exist and that to resolve them we have to take sides and fight for our beliefs. Unity is not forged by fiat but by struggle. Candidates can talk about "transcending" race, gender, region and party all they like. But before we can talk sensibly about transcending difference, we must first transform the conditions that give these differences meaning. To get beyond race, for example, we must first get rid of racism. Then every day can be like Martin Luther King Day, and black people won't have to watch from the sidelines.

Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the Guardian and the author of No Place Like Home: A Black Briton's Journey Through the Deep South (Mississippi) and Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States (New Press).

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

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