In the October issue of Mother Jones, a number of writers, thinkers, and historians are asked to weigh in on the question: “Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?”
Following are some of their responses.
Harold Evans, author of The American Century
The great progressive movements all had specific programs to deal with definable evils and restrictions – to make America more of a functioning democracy, truer to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence, rather than the rule of the elites envisaged by the founding fathers. Obama’s statements are gratifying, even glorious, but they are not well-enough defined to constitute anything comparable to the great progressive movements that gave us our present.
Patricia Williams, Columbia University
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Barack Obama’s campaign is rooted in and furthers the progressive American story. From the Puritan jeremiads to the Gettysburg Address, from Harriet Tubman to FDR’s fireside chats, from Abigail Adams to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” our most interesting social transformations have been given life by our most intelligent rhetoricians. Barack Obama could be our Nelson Mandela – not a magician, but the page-turner to a more encompassing future.
Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin and What the Gospels Meant
It is true that Obama is facing a task of historic scale and difficulty, but he has not sufficiently identified it. The task is to restore a Constitution shredded by secrecy, illegal detention, and torture. The real question is whether he can convince the American people that these atrocities must be wiped out – and he has not began to do that.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
The campaign’s most radical demand is the idea of electing Obama himself. It is Obama – and not his plans for the presidency – that is the ultimate expression of the “movement.” If the process ends there, the Obama campaign will become more like the “lifestyle” brands – the Nikes and Starbucks that captured the transcendent quality of past liberation movements, and our desire for meaning in our lives, to build their own brands.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle
If Obama really reorients the country away from anti-intellectualism, fake patriotism, and craven power-mongering toward a path of honest debate, muscular patriotism, and simple common sense, then he will be right in claiming the best of the progressive tradition. If not, then it’ll just be rhetoric. It’s up to him.
Michael Kinsley, columnist
Of course he’s exaggerating. That is not a crime; it’s almost required in a presidential candidate. But as a “world man” who has inspired people around the globe without actually doing anything yet, Obama has the potential to prepare for the “change” they think they want – much of which they won’t like when they see it close-up. The test of a leader is whether he or she can lead people somewhere they don’t want to go. Whether Obama can do that, or wants to, remains unclear.
Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta
Any viable candidate for president isn’t waging a revolution for peace, truth, and justice when he runs. He is calibrating complicated positions about even more complex issues and balancing messages of change that aren’t, in fact, too changey. I don’t find this realpolitik disturbing, but I find the message of “hope” Obama conveys empty, especially as he proves in the general election to have exactly Hillary Clinton’s positions.
Clarence Page, columnist
Obama has not spelled out a platform that compares to the earth-moving ideologies of great progressive movements. Nevertheless, he already has changed our national mindset about racial possibilities, revitalized the image and energy of liberal politics, and improved our nation’s image around the world. That’s not small potatoes.
Recommended Off-site Links:
Obama’s Three Challenges - James Carroll (The Boston Globe, September 29, 2008).
Catholic Digest interview with Barack Obama
Roman Catholics for Obama/Biden ’08
Catholics for Obama
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Progressives and Obama (Part 1)
Progressives and Obama (Part 2)
Progressives and Obama (Part 3)
Progressives and Obama (Part 4)
Obama, Ayers, the “S” Word, and the “Most Politically Backward Layers in America”
Historic (and Wild!)
One of Those Moments
An American Prayer
Image: Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) during the presidential debate with Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008. (Jim Bourg/Reuters