Four years ago we gathered at The Nation to watch the election returns.Around midnight we began to weep. But we had to put out an issue thenext day. So, through the grim night and bleak day after, as theElection 2004 verdict became clear, we held our emotions in check andworked to make sense of the disaster that had befallen the country. Thecover of our issue that week was of a black sky, dark clouds obscuring aslim and crestfallen moon, with a simple headline: “Four More Years.”
Four years later, our offices are filled with editors, writers,interns, and colleagues–some crying, this time with joy–all jubilantabout the new era of possibility opened up by Barack Obama’s victory. Weknow there is work ahead to build a politics of sanity and justice andpeace. But tonight we simply celebrate.
Obama’s election marks a remarkable moment in our country’shistory–a milestone in America’s scarred racial landscape and avictory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. As oureditorial board member Roger Wilkins reminded us on the eve of theelection, Obama’s win “doesn’t turn a switch that eradicates our wholenational history and culture.” But “win or lose, Obama has already madethis a better country, made your children’s future better.”
This long and winding campaign has been marked by highs and lows,necessary and unnecessary divisions, indelible characters and highdrama. For the first time in decades, electoral politics became avehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope–bringing inmillions of new voters. The Obama team’s respect for the core decency,dignity and intelligence of the American people was reflected in thecampaign’s organizing mantra –“Respect-Empower-Include.” In contrast,the McCain campaign chose to denigrate voters’ intelligence, spread thesmears and mock the dignity of work with its cynical celebration of aplumber who wasn’t really a plumber.
Grassroots engagement and record-shattering turnout contributed mightilyto Obama’s decisive victory. Moving forward, this small-d democraticmovement –broad-based and energized–will be critical in overcoming thetimid incrementalists, the forces of money and establishment power, thatare obstacles to meaningful change. And it will be needed to forge thefate and fortune of a bold progressive agenda.
Already we hear calls that the new Democratic majority must not”overreach.” That is code for “do not use your mandate.” Ignore thosecalls— this election was a referendum on conservatism that has guidedAmerican politics since 1980. Indeed, future historians may well viewBarack Obama’s victory as the end of the age of Reagan and the beginningof something substantially new. And progressives can justifiably claimthat the election outcome was a clear repudiation of conservativeeconomic ideas and absurd claims that a more egalitarian approach togrowth constitutes “socialism.” This ideological rejection, the sharpfailures of the Bush Administration and, perhaps most important, theshifts in public views on the economy and the war have led to thiswatershed moment–a historic opportunity for a progressive governingagenda and a mandate for bold action.
The great challenge for The Nation and other independent and progressiveforces is whether we can harness the energy and idealism unleashed byObama’s candidacy–and the collapse of conservatism–to expand thelimits of the current debate. The Nation, unmortgaged to any economicinterest or political power, will continue to challenge our downsizedpolitics of excluded alternatives, propose bold ideas, ferret out thetruth, expose corruption and abuse of power, and hold our politiciansaccountable. We will work with grounded realism and determined idealismto broadly reimagine the future.
For the first time in close to a decade, there will be sympatheticallies on the inside of the Executive Branch, and we will need to pepperthem with smart and strategic ideas and offer clear alternatives. Andworking with allies–activists, thinkers, scholars, progressive membersof Congress, the netroots, engaged citizens–The Nation will drivenot-yet-ready-for-prime time ideas into the political arena and resetthe valence of our politics.
We know the Democratic Party is not the only vehicle for change.Historically, the party’s finest moments have come when it was pushedinto action from the outside by popular social movements. That samepressure is needed now. Retreat and timidity are losing strategies foraddressing economic crisis, a shredded social compact, two wars whichmust be ended, and a damaged reputation abroad–especially with strongermajorities in Congress and a new president who has raised expectationsand promised real change.
After years of playing defense, it is time to unshackle ourimaginations, build coalitions and craft creative strategies that willmove, persuade and push President Obama and a new Congress to seize themandate they have been offered. We are not naive. We know there areformidable obstacles ahead. Without organizing and grassroots pressure,the corporate power over both parties will continue to suffocatepossibilities. And despite the metastasizing financial crisis, theconservative assault on government still cripples our sense of what isfully possible.
With the country at an ideological watershed Obama has a historicopportunity to reshape the ruling paradigm of American politics. The oldorder that has ruled for nearly thirty years has imploded. Building anew order will require continued mobilization and strategic creativity.It will be vital to sustain a reform politics and movement independentof the administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress.
Progressives in the Senate and the House, many grouped around theProgressive Caucus, can provide both leadership and a public forum fornew ideas. Cutting-edge and independent organizations like the ApolloAlliance, the Campaign for America’s Future, the Institute for PolicyStudies and the Economic Policy Institute can help us think outside theestablishment box. Independent media, new and old–and, as in the caseof The Nation, new/old–can track the limits of the debate and givenew ideas greater visibility. Reform leaders at the state and locallevels can champion legislation that will be a model for the nationalagenda. And the emerging grassroots movements, supported by theidealism, energy and civic spirit of the young, will be crucial to tapand channel into post-electoral organizing work.
History tells us how Franklin Delano Roosevelt was compelled to abandoncaution because of the great traumas of his day. The Great Depressiongave him little choice but to be bold. But it was popular socialmovements working outside the administration and empowered unions ofthat time that put strong pressure on FDR to carry out bolderreforms. That outside force was disciplined, strategic and focused, andit made the FDR years much better than if people had just sat back andlet the President fend for himself against special interests. There’s apowerful lesson in there for the movements of our times.
Likewise, our hard times may push Obama to become a more boldlyreformist President than he had envisioned–one who really doesrearrange power on behalf of the people. But as we know from history andthese last years—as progressives have driven the agenda on war, agreen economy, trade and energy independence–Obama will need to hearfrom (and listen to) the millions of grassroots activists he hasinspired if he is to overcome establishment power and well-fundedlobbies.
I believe the fate of Obama’s presidency will be determined by how boldhe chooses to be. We may not agree with everything he will do, but hehas a historic opportunity to be a truly transformative president andlead the country in a new direction. He has run a brilliant campaign inwhich he has spoken eloquently of the power and promise of “change frombelow.” Will that understanding lead him to re-envision a government thattruly reorders America’s priorities and values, and reconnects with theneeds of people? After all, isn’t it long past time to confrontneglected social needs, tackle the deep corruption in our financialsystem and corporations, restore our civil liberties and respect forhuman rights, enact universal health care, protect a worker’s right toorganize, invest in renewable energy and a green economy, end theendless wars, and regain America’s standing in the world?
Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow we begin our work–with passion,conviction, hope, and determination.