The Obama Movement: Historical Turning Point?

Whatever is written about the Democratic presidential nomination before the concession of one candidate or another is likely to be premature at best. Still, for those historically-minded, a great deal of significance has already happened.

When Hillary Clinton, a few days ago, accused Barack Obama of leading "a movement" and not "a campaign," she inadvertently identified the most important phenomenon in mainstream American politics, and not only liberal politics, in a generation. She could be accused of partial inaccuracy because the movement, arguably, has pushed Obama from campaign to something more, notwithstanding the capabilities of his electoral machine.

We can rightly go back to 1936 for one precedent, because the organizations of the Left, fresh from participation in city general strikes, hardly to mention housing struggles and unemployed marches, made a ninety degree turn. Not only Communists, of course, but prominent socialist labor leaders and others who grasped that FDR was reaching out and offering organizing space as well as a global tilt against fascism (initially welcomed by the New York Times and others). The influences were felt within the rising industrial union movement and elsewhere. But the real effects would be within the next few years, when the Left, as individuals and organized groups large or small, played an enormous role in culture, labor and politics. The US that entered the Second World War was a different place than the US in 1935.

We can rightly go back to the middle 1960s for another precedent. The leadership of society emphatically including the organized labor movement based in the warfare-welfare economy successfully resisted, in the end, anything like a decisive shift in power.  And yet: the hopes and expectations of the Kennedy years, alongside the rising civil rights movement and the emerging student movements, propelled the sense of "movement" beyond anything that the professionals of the Democratic party anticipated or wanted. Coming out of the 1960s, the progressive and multiracial coalitions successfully taking local elections during the 1970s, senate and congressional progressives, few as these may have been, etc., all owe to the Movement model.

We drop further into the negative with the successful centralization of power by the DLC, with its sources in Democrats for Nixon, the Moynihan defeat of Bella Abzug, the rise of the Clintons and above all the counterattacks against the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988. Here we find the story of the Superdelegates and their capacity for mischief. And, in the months to come, those hawkish Democrats far more eager to keep a potential peacenik out of power than to defeat Republicans. Count on it.

Better that we rest our case, for the moment, on the positives. When thousands of aging and aged African Americans in Chicago gather their energies for Obama, when they are mirrored by thousands of mostly white undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin, when prestigious endorsements (useful though they are) seem pale compared to crowds roaring for social change, then we have the basis of a Movement, the phenomenon that, as Tom Hayden has said, individuals do not create but history can create.

What can we do, as progressives of varying age and political backgrounds, to bring a wider, more sustained social movement right for our time into existence? I can’t think of a more important question.

Paul Buhle, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, was editor of the SDS magazine RADICAL AMERICA, and is author or editor of many books on the Left and popular culture.