Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Copernican Election

Copernicus changed nothing in the universe. His heliocentric theory merely changed the way we looked at the universe. Sometimes that shift of mind is more radical than actual alterations in the world.

I was born less than a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. My parents needed a police escort to get through the riots in Baltimore to the hospital. Now, a mere forty years later Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee for President of the United States of America.

There is no doubt that racism is alive and well. There are shots ringing out from both of the old trenches. But this is not Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas and this is not Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. Nor is this John Lewis or Andrew Young. This is somebody altogether different.

This is not Dennis Kucinich. Should he become President, Obama will not be a bulldozer ramming through progressive change. But neither is he Joe Lieberman whose ilk hijacked the term "centrism" and redefined it to mean a cobbled together pro-corporate economic stance, hawkish foreign policy positions, and moderately liberal social policies, and then uses the meaningless term "middle" to vilify anyone who disagrees with their views as extremists of the left or right.

This was the approach of the Democratic Leadership Council and their poster child Bill Clinton. It is what led Hillary to support the war in Iraq. For all the talk of Chamberlain a few weeks ago, this was indeed appeasement. Give the Republicans most of what they want and hope they'll play nicer with us. They argue that it is what got Clinton his second term and that anyone who demanded that the Democratic party stand for anything was a member of the loony left and the cause for all our failures. But the real story is that the right, led by bully Newt Gingerich, saw that the jelly-spined left would cower whenever they said boo and took their lunch money for a generation. The Democratic Party lost every position of power.

That is, as a group they lost every position of power, but the individuals most responsible for those losing ways gained much. We have a winner-take-all electoral system and that means we will necessarily have two parties. During fifteen years in the political wilderness, this group learned how to parlay loss after loss into personal gain. These are the folks who form the top of the Clinton campaign.

I feel sorry for them. Harold Ickes was going to be the next Erskine Bowles. He was set. The Democratic Party is not only in politics, but it itself is a political entity. There are those with power and having power means making the rules and it means that those who want power come to those who have it and if they are deemed loyal enough begin to share in it. He had played the game properly. The Clintons had played the game properly. They were the source of power in the Democratic Party for fifteen years. The power was theirs. They had it and determined who would share in it. If CNN or one of the networks needed a Democratic voice, they went to the Clinton machine which controlled the party. If you wanted to go anywhere in Democratic politics, you needed to be a part of the in-crowd and since the early 90s, that was the Clinton clique. Whether the Democrats won or lost, they were still the cool kids.

And this is what make for the most interesting contrast of all. Barack Obama is not Harold Ford, Jr. Both are thin, light-skinned, good-looking, extremely intelligent African American men. But Ford played the old game. He hitched his career to the powerful in order to ride their good graces to the top. Obama, on the other hand, distanced himself from the standard operating procedures of the in-crowd and provided an alternative vision. Ford lost his bid to the Senate, Obama is on the verge of winning the nomination for President of the United States.

FDR changed the course of American politics, a change that was still working its way out through the Nixon administration as we can see in the founding of the EPA and the visit to China. Reagan changed the direction of American politics, changes that were still working themselves in the Clinton administration which were evident in "the era of big government is over," the Defense of Marriage Act, and welfare reform. Obama will not be a progressive savior. He will not radically alter the world we live in. but what he realistically could do is to once again alter the direction of American politics.

We have been slaving under the curse of the venomous attack dog politics of Atwater, Gingerich, Rove, and company where personal destruction from the Republicans and bed-wetting from the Democrats trumped rational discourse. This could begin to end. Diplomacy as it has always been conducted until the last eight years may not be cast as irrational weakness. Race, religion, and class insecurity could be openly discussed with intelligent insight instead of being used in coded and naked ways to enrich and empower those who do not deserve it. The morality of torture may no longer be seen as an open question.

Barack Obama will not change the world or this nation in radical ways. But he could do is to nudge the ship that is so slow to turn off of its current course, a slight deviation that could play itself out for generations in a healthier, saner, more humane way. That is the hope. Now, forty years after Dr King's death, we have someone who may be able change the way we see race, change the way we see politics, change the way we see America, change the way we see the world. This may be seen by historians as a Copernican election.