by Don Button
Myths and Movements
can help Obama get elected—and then start working on real
Obama, it is true, is a transformational leader. But he needs
a transformational movement to become a transformational president.
is transformational not only by his charisma and brilliance,
but by embodying the possibility of an African-American being
chosen president in the generation following the civil-rights
movement. Whether he wins or loses, the vast movement inspired
by Obama will become the next generation of American social
For many Americans, the possibility of Obama is a deeply personal
one. I mean here the mythic Obama who exists in our imaginations,
not the literal Obama whose centrist positions will disappoint
My wife and I have an adopted 8-year old “biracial” boy whose
roots are African-American. My adult son is married to an
African-American woman with roots in Jamaica and Costa Rica.
Our family is part of the globalized generation Obama represents.
What is at stake for our kids’ future is real, palpable, not
only political. Their future will very much be shaped by the
outcome of this election. Millions of people in this country—and
around the world—feel similarly affected.
Myths are all-important, as Obama writes in his Dreams
From My Father. Fifty years ago, the mythic Obama existed
only as an aspiration, an ideal, in a country where interracial
love was taboo and interracial marriage was largely banned.
In 1960, in my liberal community of Ann Arbor, Mich., our
student newspaper exposed the University of Michigan’s dean
of women for secretly spying on white coeds seen having coffee
with black men in the campus union and notifying their parents.
In those days, too, the vision of an African-American as president
was preserved only in a dream state. As Obama himself declared
on the night of the Iowa primary, “Some said this night would
The early civil-rights movement, the jazz musicians and the
Beat poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before the literal
Obama could materialize. His African father and white countercultural
mother dared to dream and love him into existence, incarnate
him, at the creative moment of the historic march on Washington.
Only the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation then opened space
for the dream to rise politically. This collapse was not an
engineering feat, like a bridge falling, but the consequence
of suffering and martyrdom along with countless invisible
feats of organization in the American South.
If this sounds unscientific or, as some would say, cultish,
think about it. None of the supposedly expert people in the
political, media or intellectual establishments saw this day
coming. I didn’t expect it myself; the news was carried to
me by a new generation, including my own grown-up children.
It was dreamed up and built “beyond the radar” or “outside
the box” by experienced dreamers with long histories in community
organizing, social movements and not a few lost causes. They
were sustained by the stones the builders left out, the movement,
“calloused hand by calloused hand,” that Obama refers to.
In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summons the spirit
of social movements that were built from the bottom up, from
the Revolutionary War to the abolitionist crusade to the women’s
suffrage cause to the eight-hour day and the rights of labor,
ending with the time of his birth when the walls came down
in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., and Delano, Calif. As he repeats
this mantra of movements thousands of times to millions of
Americans, a new cultural understanding becomes possible.
This is the foundation of a new American story that is badly
needed, one that attributes whatever is great about this country
to the ghosts of those who came before, in social movements
from the margins. Though Howard Zinn may not agree, Obama
to a large degree has appropriated Zinn’s “people’s history”
model of America as against the conservative narrative that
glorifies wars against alien savages as necessary to forge
a new democracy in the wilderness, the unbroken story of American
exceptionalism, from the colonial forests to the Iraqi deserts,
from Custer to McCain. Obama’s emerging narrative also includes
but supercedes the other major explanation of American specialness,
the narrative of the “melting pot,” by noting that whatever
“melting” did occur was always in the face of massive and
entrenched opposition from the privileged.
I have met John McCain, and I happen to like him as an earthy
sort of guy. But I am constantly aware that he bombed Vietnam
at least 25 times before being shot down in a war that never
should have been fought, in a defeat that still cannot say
its name. He wants to continue the unwinnable Iraq war, costing
10 billion dollars per month, until every suspect Iraqi is
dead, wounded or detained, even though our military tactics
keep causing more young Iraqis to hate us than ever before.
As if fighting the war on terrorism until the end of terrorism
isn’t enough for him, McCain wants to reignite the Cold War
until the Russians are forever broken and humiliated. The
vanguard for the anti-Russian offensive has been Georgia,
a stronghold of the neoconservative lobby and, incidentally,
a cash cow for McCain’s own foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann,
who made hundreds of thousands of dollars working as a lobbyist
for the country before joining McCain’s campaign team.
By supporting Georgia’s impractical attempts to seize the
breakaway areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, McCain has
abetted another unnecessary war he cannot win.
This inability to limit the adventurist appetite for war is
the most dangerous element of the McCain and Republican worldview.
It is paralleled, of course, by their inability to limit the
corporate appetite for an unregulated market economy. In combination,
the brew is an economy directed to the needs of the country-club
rich, the oil companies and military contractors. A form of
crony capitalism slouches forward in place of either competitive
markets or state regulation. The McCain future will be one
of circling the wagons around the 5 percent who own 40 percent
of the planet’s resources against the 95 percent who live
vulnerable lives under our web of empire. To nail down this
future, McCain has pledged to nominate Supreme Court candidates
approved by the far right.
And yet McCain has a good chance, the best chance among Republicans,
of winning in November. He has Gen. Eisenhower’s war-hero
persona. It is a dangerous world out there. He appeals to
those whose idea of the future is more of the past, buying
time against the inevitable. And McCain is running against
Barack Obama, who threatens our institutions and culture simply
by representing the unexpected and unauthorized future.
My prediction: If he continues on course, Obama will win the
popular vote by a few percentage points in November, but is
at serious risk in the Electoral College. The institution
rooted in the original slavery compromise may be a barrier
too great to overcome.
The priority for Obama supporters has to be the mobilization
of new, undecided and independent voters in up-for-grabs states
like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, while expanding the
Electoral College delegates in places like New Mexico, Colorado,
Nevada and possibly Virginia. Unlike the nadir of 2000, when
Al Gore and the institutional Democrats seemed unable to mount
a resistance, another Electoral College loss should trigger
an unrelenting and forceful democracy movement against the
Electoral College and other institutional chains on the right
to know, vote and participate.
There are many outside the Obama movement who assert that
the candidate is “not progressive enough,” that Obama will
be co-opted as a new face for American interventionism, that
in any event real change cannot be achieved from the top down.
These criticisms are correct. But in the end, they miss the
The network www.progressivesfor obama.blogspot.com is the
site to visit for those who want to share and explore these
concerns in depth, while still wanting to help the Obama movement
Most of us want President Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq
more rapidly than in 16 months. But it is important that Obama’s
position is shared by Iraq’s prime minister and the vast majority
of both our people. The Iraqi regime, pressured by its own
people, has rejected the White House’s and McCain’s refusal
to adopt a timetable.
The real problem with Obama’s position on Iraq is his adherence
to the outmoded Baker-Hamilton proposal to leave thousands
of American troops behind for training, advising and ill-defined
“counterterrorism” operations. Obama should be pressured to
reconsider this recipe for a low-visibility counterinsurgency
On Iran, Obama has usefully emphasized diplomacy as the only
path to manage the bilateral crisis and assure the possibility
of orderly withdrawal from Iraq. He should be pressed to resist
On Afghanistan, Obama has proposed transferring 10,000 American
combat troops from Iraq, which means out of the frying pan,
into the fire. A July 28 Time magazine cover story
by Rory Stewart rejects such thinking: “A troop increase is
likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more
anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence
in the insurgency areas is declining.” Obama should accept
Pakistan, and the possibility of a ground invasion by Afghan
and U.S. troops, could be Obama’s Bay of Pigs, a debacle.
On Israel-Palestine, he will pursue diplomacy more aggressively,
but little more. Altogether, the counterinsurgencies in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Pakistan are likely to become a spreading
global quagmire and a human-rights nightmare, nullifying the
funding prospects for health-care reform or other domestic
In Latin America, Obama supports the Colombian military, riddled
with druglords, against the Columbia guerrillas, with ties
of their own to narco trafficking. Beyond that, he has been
out of step and out of touch with the winds of democratic
change sweeping Latin America. His commitment to fulfilling
the United Nations anti-poverty goals, or to eradicating sweatshops
through a global living wage, is underwhelming and—given his
anti-terrorism wars—will be underfinanced.
And so on. The man will disappoint as well as inspire.
Once again, then, why support him by knocking on doors, sending
money, monitoring polling places, getting our hopes up? There
are three reasons that stand out in my mind. First, American
progressives, radicals and populists need to be part of the
vast Obama coalition, not perceived as negative do-nothings
in the minds of the young people and African-Americans at
the center of the organized campaign. It is not a “lesser
evil” for anyone of my generation’s background to send an
African-American Democrat to the White House. Pressure from
supporters of Obama is more effective than pressure from critics
who don’t care much if he wins and won’t lift a finger to
help him. Second, his court appointments will keep us from
a right-wing lock on social, economic and civil-liberties
issues during our lifetime. Third, we all can chew gum and
walk at the same time; that is, it should be no problem to
vote for Obama and picket his White House when justified.
Obama himself says he has solid progressive roots but that
he intends to campaign and govern from the center. (He has
said he is neither a “Scoop” Jackson Democrat nor a Tom Hayden
Democrat.) That is a challenge to rise up, organize and reshape
the center, and building a climate of public opinion so intense
that it becomes necessary to redeploy from military quagmires,
take on the unregulated corporations and uncontrolled global
warming and devote resources to domestic priorities like health
care, the green economy and inner-city jobs for youth.
What is missing in the current equation is not a capable and
enlightened centrist but a progressive social movement on
a scale like those of the past.
The refrain is familiar. Without the militant abolitionists,
including the Underground Railroad and John Brown, there would
have been no pressure on President Lincoln and no black troops
for the South. Without the radicals of the 1930s, there would
have been no pressure on President Franklin Roosevelt, no
New Deal, no Wagner Act, no Social Security. Without the civil-rights
and peace movements pressuring President John Kennedy, there
would have been no march on Washington and no proposal to
reverse the nuclear-arms race.
It is true that these radical reforms were limited and gradually
weakened, but there is no evidence to suggest that if radicals
had abstained from mainstream electoral politics that deeper
reforms or revolution would have resulted.
The creative tension between large social movements and enlightened
Machiavellian leaders is the historical model that has produced
the most important reforms in the course of American history.
Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left of
their own base. There are no shortcuts to radical change without
a powerful and effective constituency organized from the bottom
up. The next chapter in Obama’s new American story remains
to be written, perhaps by the most visionary of his own supporters.
His own movement will have to pull him towards full withdrawal
from Iraq, or the regulation of the great financial power
centers, instead of waiting for him to lead. Already among
his elite caste of fund- raisers, there is more interest in
his position on the capital-gains tax than holding Halliburton
accountable. And his “cast of 300” national security advisers,
according to The New York Times, “fall well within
centrist Democratic foreign policy thinking.”
Progressives need to unite for Barack Obama but also unite—organically
at least, not in a top-down way—on issues like peace, the
environment, the economy, media reform, campaign finance and
equality like never before. The growing conflict today is
between democracy and empire, and the battlefronts are many
and often confusing. Even the Bush years have failed to unite
American progressives as effectively as occurred during Vietnam.
There is no reason to expect a President McCain to unify anything
more than our manic depression.
But there is the improbable hope that the movement set ablaze
by the Obama campaign will be enough to elect Obama and a
more progressive Congress in November, creating an explosion
of rising expectations for social movements—here and around
the world—that President Obama will be compelled to meet in
That is a moment to live and fight for.
Hayden is a lifelong peace and human-rights activist, former
California legislator, professor and author of more than 15
books. His latest are Voices of the Chicago Eight (City
Lights), Writings for a Democratic Society: the Tom Hayden
Reader (City Lights) and Ending the War in Iraq