After France won the 1998 World Cup, the French commentariat went into overdrive. Unlike the country’s political class, the team contained a broad racial and ethnic cross section of French society. The image of the soccer team’s star player, Zinédine Zidane, who is of Algerian descent, was projected on the Arc de Triomphe. "What better example of our unity and our diversity than this magnificent team?" asked Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Before the first whistle had been blown for the next World Cup, in 2002, the French electorate were clearly having second thoughts about unity and diversity. In presidential elections that year Jospin was beaten into third place by French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who won 17 percent of the vote.
There are symbols, and there is substance–the way things look, and the way things are. But in between there is the way things might be: a sense of possibility that image might precede content or even provide space for it to emerge. A leap of faith. Some wishful thinking. Such is the tension in the American left’s response to Obama’s candidacy. There are some–let’s call them dreamers–who believe his nomination marks a paradigm shift in progressive politics in this country. And there are others–let’s call them materialists–who dismiss the excitement surrounding his nomination as little more than an emotional distraction from what really matters: war, foreclosures, civil liberties, the Middle East, global warming.
On these issues, point out the materialists, Obama is little more than a mainstream Democrat offering sops that are better than the Republicans’ but inadequate to the needs of working-class Americans and the world at large. If you look at what he does rather than how he looks, they continue, then there is no more reason to be excited about him than about John Kerry.
To evoke the historic significance of an Obama victory is to provoke the materialists’ scorn. They ask for one scrap of evidence that the election of a black President will improve the lives of black people in this country. The dreamer mutters something vague about role models for young black men.
The materialists have a point. In a country whose self-image is underpinned by notions of social fluidity and eternal progress, it is possible to overemphasize the ramifications of Obama’s nomination. Those who claim that having a black President will present a positive image of America to the rest of the world must remember that for the past eight years that face has been Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice–and that has not worked out so well for the rest of the world. Moreover, electoral progress does not necessarily translate into social progress. The late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the first elected woman leader of a Muslim state. But her prime ministership did very little for the women of Pakistan.
Indeed, Obama’s candidacy is not consistent with the social rise of African-Americans but aberrant from it. According to a November report by the Pew Research Center, black Americans are more dissatisfied with their progress than at any time in the past twenty-five years. Another Pew survey released at the same time shows that almost half (45 percent) of African-Americans born to middle-income parents in the post-civil rights era have descended into poverty or near poverty as adults.
The very arguments advanced by the dreamers can be turned back on them by their ideological opponents. Right-wing anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly says he choked up at Obama’s nomination speech. "The entire argument for race preferences is that society is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field," Connerly told the New York Times. "The historic success of Senator Obama, as well as Senator Clinton, dismantles that argument."
So the materialist arguments have their merits, as far as they go. The trouble is, they don’t go that far because they are crippled by a lack of imagination.
Materialists do not deny the energy and expectations Obama’s candidacy has unleashed. They simply refuse to engage with either the reasons underlying it or the potential it might hold. In a country where 80 percent of the people feel things are heading in the wrong direction, a huge number feel they have found a liberal change agent. Materialists have the option of insisting that all these people are deluded or of finding out why they believe what they do.
Obama’s race is no insignificant matter. True, he did not run on an antiracist platform. But after considerable reflection, black people flocked to him anyway. As racially charged attacks on him intensified, so did their support for him solidify. He may not have pursued identity politics, but that black Americans identified with him racially made a difference. Those who claimed that the Democratic Party’s problem was that its emphasis on gender and race had alienated white working-class men must now explain why it took a white woman and a black man to give them the best shot at the White House in more than a decade.
Between them, the young and the black increased their share of the Democratic primary electorate by roughly 25 percent compared with 2004–two constituencies that can now assert their place in the Democratic coalition as never before. If the materialists have an alternative project that could engage this number of people in progressive politics, they are keeping it very quiet. In the meantime, you do not have to binge-drink the Obama Kool-Aid to see the possibilities here.
We can try to engage and direct this energy toward a more progressive agenda or abandon it in favor of a more reactionary one. We can pressure his campaign to meet expectations or abandon them to disappointment and cynicism.
While symbols should never be mistaken for substance, they are not insubstantial either.