Dreaming from the Center

The United States Senate candidacy of Illinois Democrat Barack Obama has been welcomed by many progressives as an indication that the "Wellstone Wing" of the Democratic Party is alive and well. This initial enthusiasm was given further life by the Democratic National Committee's choosing Obama as the keynote speaker during this summer's Democratic National Convention. Some used the choice of Obama as the face to sell the party nationally during a hotly contested election as proof that the Democratic Party and its candidate, John Kerry, offered a distinct choice from the incumbent, Republican George W. Bush. Following from this premise, many an optimist insisted that 2004, unlike 2000, was not a choice between "the lesser of two evils," but offered a chance to fundamentally change the direction of the country.

An analysis of Obama's address to the Convention and an examination of the framing of his candidacy suggest that this optimism on the part of some progressives might be misplaced. While portions of Obama's platform, especially his stance regarding education and health care, might give cause for hope, how he presents his politics should make a progressive pause. In particular, Obama's reliance on a "culture of poverty" rhetoric, unquestioning usage of American Dream imagery, and capitulation to Bush's "War on Terror" limits the extent to which he can actually challenge the structural inadequacies of the current American system. These a priori limitations within his critiques perhaps reveal the inability to conclusively address vital issues in American policy through the mainstream political parties.

Obama's Political Perspective

Before examining Obama's words at the Convention, it's important to politically situate him. The preface to the 2004 edition of his memoir, Dreams from My Father, provides a telling paragraph in which Obama outlines his views of political events of the last decade. He comments:

I began writing against a backdrop of Silicon Valley and a booming stock market; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; Mandela-in slow, sturdy steps-emerging from prison to lead a country; the signing of peace accords in Oslo. Domestically, our cultural debates—around guns and abortion and rap lyrics—seemed so fierce because Bill Clinton's Third Way, a scaled-back welfare state without grand ambition but without sharp edges, seemed to describe a broad, underlying consensus on bread-and-butter issues, a consensus to which even George W. Bush's first campaign, with its "compassionate conservatism," would have to give a nod. Internationally, writers announced the end of history, the ascendance of free markets and liberal democracy, the replacements of old hatreds and wars between nations with virtual communities and battles for market share.

Obama doesn't complicate this generous description of the 1990s. It's surprising that a politician whose base is in the South Side of Chicago and is noted for his "progressive" views on education, housing, health care and other issues vital to the poor, would describe Bill Clinton's "ending of welfare as we know it" as being "without sharp edges." Obama doesn't question any aspect of what is quickly becoming the received knowledge of the Clinton Presidency, the view that everything was steadily improving and as long as the system continued along its course, with mild changes applied by apolitical objective technocrats, not passionate ideologues, we'd continue to progress. Those of us with serious misgivings regarding "free trade," the NATO campaign in Kosovo, the growing Prison Industry, the Genocide in Rwanda, and other issues would beg to differ.

The preface comments are important because they come at a time when Obama ceases being a Senator representing the South Side and moves onto the national stage. Beyond seeking to become the Senator from the State of Illinois, by delivering the keynote address at his party's national convention, Obama becomes a national face for the Democratic Party. Outside of his speech and what's being written about him in the press, the curious public has his memoir as the best way to get to know Obama.

Memoirs, generally, by their inclusive nature lend themselves to ambivalent interpretations of the author. By making an open declaration in his new preface that he shares the common sense of those in the "mainstream," Obama betrays his desire to speak from the center of his party, meaning treading the path worn by Clinton and his fellow "New Democrats" of the Democratic Leadership Council. As we live in a visual culture and most Americans would rather watch than read, we should move to Obama's keynote address.

Convention Address

The narrative Obama adopts in his speech follows the traditional "American Dream" of the aspiring of the immigrant. The contents of Obama's "Dream" follow a populist line and shouldn't be readily dismissed. His calls for better opportunity for all are needed in this day and age, but throughout his address Obama fails to suggest how we should go about expanding opportunity. Obama thinks that all that is required is a "slight change in priorities" in order to fully enact the "American Dream." This statement read together with his preface shows Obama's vision to be a return to the halcyon days of the Clinton Administration. According to this story, the SS United States was sailing smoothly, bolstered by the fair winds of the Third Way, towards fulfilling its Enlightenment mission, until attacked by the storm of 11 September, which allowed Bush and his band to hijack the ship.

Now some will suggest that Obama, even if he thinks otherwise, has to play these rhetorical games in order to have influence within the party. In fact, Obama admits, in an interview in The Progressive, that "in an earlier draft of my speech I said this [the goal of opportunity for all] is an ideal, and we have often breached that ideal as a nation." He later took this potentially divisive statement out of his speech, in favor of a text that emphasized unity. It remains to be seen if his concessions to the center will remain at the level of semantics.

While the future is waiting to be written, a deeper examination of his address and subsequent words reveals a reliance on a "culture of poverty" rhetoric. In Dreams from My Father, Obama as interlocutor, takes us to the ghetto:

Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach our kids to learn—they know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

Many reading this are already familiar with the many guises of the argument—which is as old as the Poor Law reforms—that the poor are not poor due to economic exploitation, or structural deficiencies, but because they lack the requisite culture. Admittedly, it's commendable to recommend that we expect more from children, watch less TV and read more, but is this behavior causative? Many who argue for the need to talk about values wouldn't deny the presence of racism and economic inequality, they suggest that it's more "complicated" than structural racism and economics.

It's interesting to note that much of the "culture of poverty" talk increased in volume at a time when the Government having mostly eliminated de jure racism, lacked the political will to confront the structures of de facto racism. The best example of this lowering of expectations is the fact that Affirmative Action was initially conceived as the first step towards tackling structural inequality, but after forty years has become the limits of State action and that too in highly qualified manner. The "culture of poverty" became an explanation of choice in a political climate that refused to acknowledge structure and was moving to locate flaws in the individual as the cause for failure to succeed.

Obama mentions his father's African roots, a narrative that fits well into dominant narrative of America as a fulfillment of the dreams of the world. In his speech, America allows immigrants to escape the corrupt, backward homeland and create a better life. The only mention Obama makes to the ancestors of most African-Americans, those brought to the United States as slaves, is towards the end of his speech when he lists the dreams of Kerry, Edwards, and others. In his address, Obama speaks of "slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs," which abstracts Obama's America away from the real, historical American Nightmare these slaves had to endure in order to create the wealth that produced the American Dream.

Obama presents himself as an African-American, which he certainly is, but his story is not the story of most from Africa. His father came to the United States as a student, not as a slave, therefore didn't have to overcome many of the structural difficulties faced by most African-Americans. Of course this is no fault of Obama's and his father, but the narrative of African as immigrant allows the majority population a convenient amnesia as to the historical condition of most African-Americans. Obama's self-narrativization resembles the myth of the "model minority," who comes to the United States seeking freedom and prosperity and succeeds through hard work, thus proving that those who remain impoverished, remain so due to their own lack of dedication. One can see how the "model minority" narrative combined with a "culture of poverty" rhetoric can have disastrous policy consequences. If one were to infer from this line of reasoning, it would be a waste to expend government resources on those who are deemed to be beyond hope.

While Obama makes sparing reference to race, little or none to actual policy, and no mention of America's horrid racial past, Al Sharpton speech to the same convention later that week did make explicit reference to race and the political and policy outlook needed to promote equality. The contrasting reception by the media makes an interesting study. Obama was universally lauded, but Sharpton, although well received on the floor of the Convention, was adjudged to be "off message" by the media.

What was so controversial about Sharpton? Primarily, offense was taken to Sharpton's assertion that if the current Supreme Court had decided Brown, the decision would've gone the other way. There is substantial evidence from past statements and decisions to support this claim, but the media wouldn't even entertain Sharpton's argument, since his invocation of the "race card" was enough to make him a pariah.

Foreign Policy

Regarding Iraq, though Obama laments in The Progressive that the United States was "going in there in the first place," he doesn't suggest an immediate withdrawal because "the tragedy would be significant." Obama echoes Kerry's platform when he suggests that the United States "needs a multilateral strategy that helps to put Iraq back on its feet militarily and economically." This work includes creating "a set of legal and human rights doctrines" for Iraq. This is a plan for nation-building (the cynics would cry, "imperialism") with a benign, liberal face.

Staying in West Asia, Obama again relies on rhetoric over substance when he observes that "[b]oth Palestinians and Israelis have to do some serious soul searching." He doesn't elaborate how "soul searching" translates into policy. He adds that the United States, despite being the biggest donor and supporter of Israel, isn't one of "the key players" in helping find a solution. If Obama is unable to concretely discuss Palestine with a publication like The Progressive, isn't it a fool's dream to think he'd do so as a United States Senator?

With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the impending election of Barack Obama to the United States Senate, as progressives it's important to take a step back and look beneath the veneer and ask what is so progressive about Obama. After examination, the fact that Obama can be viewed as a progressive hope is a comment on how far to the right the center has moved in American politics. To further illustrate this one need only look at who the Republicans, following Jack Ryan's surprise exit, presented as their candidate: Alan Keyes.

So, as South Asian progressives how do we best influence electoral politics? To gain a place at the table an organization needs to either deliver bucks and/or bodies. Obama has already sought the approval of those with the money when he spoke to a meeting of South Asian physicians and business leaders. Progressives may lack the financial resources of other organizations, so it has been imperative that we're able to turn out people to vote and in a manner that a politician, no matter what affiliation, can't take our vote for granted. Towards this end the South Asian Progressive Action Collective (SAPAC) of Chicago made a concerted voter registration effort among new citizens and those living in urban areas. This registration process has also allowed activists, who may lack organic connections to these communities, to engage in a conversation with those living in predominantly South Asian areas like Devon Avenue in Chicago. Hopefully, this will enable the formulation of a diverse progressive agenda in South Asian politics for years to come.

While Obama is still a politician in formation it is vital for activists to continue to put pressure on him and other members of Congress to promote a progressive agenda. This philosophy should be followed no matter who wins in Novembers to come.


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