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The Philadelphia Moment: Obama, Clinton, and the Substance of Symbols

President Obama joins Hillary Clinton on stage during a rally Monday at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (Photo: Associated Press)

On the day of yet another historic presidential election with what looks to deliver yet another unprecedented result, I, like many others, find myself thinking about the symbolic value of events in Philadelphia last night. Simply, what will it mean that the first black president passed the proverbial torch to the first women nominee from a major party on what's likely to prove the night before her victory?

I'm not asking what will it mean electorally. Republicans, treading a course toward white reaction since at least 1964, learned entirely the wrong lessons from 2008 and 2012, and now find themselves on a seemingly irreversible demographic path. The inheritors of Goldwater, Reagan, Bush, and the Moral Majority—and make no mistake, the policy appeal of Trump, despite his stylistic vulgarity, is a direct and predictable outgrowth of Movement Conservatism—have further alienated the young, women, immigrants, urban and educated professional classes, and people of color. They have entrenched the majority—in some cases the vast majority—of those voting groups within the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future. The GOP could hardly be more male, pale, and stale (and it Trump's case, downright venomous), and that combination is a political loser at the national level. Meanwhile, at a purely tactical level, those claiming that the Democratic Party's emphasis on cultural issues has alienated white working class men must now acknowledge the fact that the party's longest White House tenure since the days of the New Deal will likely be headed by a black man and a white woman. In other words, the Democratic coalition is working, even if it's not working for people of all colors who are, well, working. Much ink has been dedicated to this.

"It now seems the President Obama-President Clinton years, coming as they will back-to- back, might serve as a memory "pairing" like no other in American political history. This one-two punch seems to me a culturally momentous shift, the reverberations of which in myth and memory and power are yet to be seen."

I'm not asking what will it mean politically either, as I and other leftists remain utterly unconvinced by the capacity of the liberal-neoliberal spectrum (no matter how culturally open or multiracial), with its endless wars and faith in markets and domination by the comfortable classes, to meaningfully address much less solve our most pressing societal ills. Indeed, my sense is that Hillary Clinton, like Obama (who has been, for what it’s worth, the superlative president of the New Democratic era), will represent a largely symbolic rather than a largely substantive paradigm shift. No, Clinton is not akin to Bhutto or Thatcher, just as Obama was not akin to Powell or Condi Rice. Rather, representation at the very tip top does not necessarily (or perhaps does not even typically) lead to greater power for the now represented at the middle and the bottom. I understand, of course, that political hurdles (practicality) exist among Democrats, but internal ideological ones (will) exist too. Much ink has been dedicated to this as well.

What I'm asking is, thinking as a memory historian, and at the risk of estranging my materialist comrades, what will it mean in terms of meta culture and, heck, even historical legacy/mythos that the party of the first black president will also (in all likelihood) be the party of the first woman president? So much was written after 2008 on the meaning of political symbolism, but all of those assumptions are now on the verge of officially taking on a radically new context. To be sure, scholars since Obama’s first campaign have written much concerning Hillary Clinton's relative "symbolic weakening," given the general (but ultimately temporary) shift in the African American electorate away from the Clintons (or more accurately toward Obama), as well as charges of race-baiting. But it now seems the President Obama-President Clinton years, coming as they will back-to- back, might serve as a memory "pairing" like no other in American political history. This one-two punch seems to me a culturally momentous shift, the reverberations of which in myth and memory and power are yet to be seen.

Symbols are different from ideology and policy and ability and statecraft—what we might term political "substance"—but they are decidedly substantial. And we are surely in the midst of one symbolic moment that will have centuries-long cultural ramifications, and perhaps some material ones as well. In other words, even for (and perhaps especially for) progressives, socialists, leftists, and various other anti-Trump Clinton skeptics—and for me personally, as someone who writes on the reciprocity between symbols, collective memory, and social power—it is absolutely critical to acknowledge, discuss, and fully validate the immediate symbolic implications of a Clinton victory (especially succeeding Obama), even if one views her politics as inherently rooted in highly narrow—read: classist and nationalist—understandings of freedom and inclusion and opportunity and merit and diversity.

Matthew Stanley

Matthew E. Stanley is an assistant professor of history at Albany State University in Albany, Georgia.  His forthcoming book, The Loyal West: War and Reunion in Middle America, examines race, regionalism, and sectional reunion in the Civil War-era Midwest.

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