When I was a union organizer in my workplace in London a colleague came up to my desk with a petition and said something about getting things moving. Reflexively, I signed it (I knew him to be a smart, progressive guy, and if this thing was of concern to him, then I wanted to lend my support), only to look up and see that he had walked off without waiting to collect it. Before chasing him down the corridor, I took the trouble to read what I had put my name to. It was a demand that the union stop dragging its feet on a particular issue and mount an effective challenge to management. In other words, it was not for me to sign but to receive. I had in effect signed a petition against myself.
The transfer from protest to power is not an easy one, particularly for the left. We live in a state of dissidence, which makes the notion that we might one day take over the state apparatus–or indeed any apparatus–all the more difficult. That does not necessarily make us oppositional by nature–though some are–but we are antagonistic by temperament. Our work is never done. If it were, we would no longer need a left. Unaccustomed as we are to office and power, we are more likely to sign than to receive.
So it is that even as Obama settles in to the Oval Office, with the full might of the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world at his disposal, many of his supporters still consider him the underdog. Having made this unlikely journey happen, they want to keep traveling in the style to which they have become accustomed even after they have reached the terminus. They wear buttons and display posters that demand that we “Hope” and “Believe,” even as what they hoped for has happened and what once seemed incredible is now real.
But it’s time to let that new reality sink in. The transition is over. We have moved from aspiration to destination. Obama has arrived. Tempting though it may be to savor the lingering aftertaste of a sweet, sweet victory, progressives need to take the posters down and the buttons off. These are no longer the emblems of resistance but of power.
A movement that does not champion the cause of the powerless has no right to call itself progressive. And a movement that attaches itself unequivocally to power does not have the credibility or wherewithal to call itself progressive. That distinction is of course much easier in times when those in power attack us and our values with impunity. But it is no less necessary when they don’t.
Our support for Obama has always been (or should always have been) contingent, as opposed to unconditional. That does not necessarily mean an antagonistic relationship but at the very least an independent one. So to remove his likeness from our walls, hats, chests and homes signals not a souring of the relationship between progressives and Obama but a maturing of it. For many this will be difficult. Obamaphilia has always been a wild beast in desperate need of taming. He already has a school named after him in New York as well as a couple of streets in Florida and Missouri. Most presidents have to be dead–or at least no longer serving–before they get that kind of treatment. All of this happened before Obama had even taken the oath.
The Obama signs, in all their various forms, came to represent a badge of belonging–particularly outside Democratic strongholds. In the small town of Roanoke in conservative southwest Virginia, where I spent much of the campaign, an Obama poster on a popcorn machine in an ice cream and soda store was the sign for some patrons that they could talk freely about their support for him without being harangued. It signaled that, regardless of Fox News talking points your family members, fellow parishioners or colleagues might have been spouting, there was a world out there in which you were not entirely crazy and your values had some value.
To some, bearing the sign marks a form of premature nostalgia for the days when all they dared do was hope. There is a place for that. But as Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster of Obama goes up in the National Portrait Gallery, that place is rightfully in a museum. Along with the buttons calling to Free Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela, posters for the Poor People’s March or placards to defend the Rosenbergs, they are important pieces of the nation’s liberal history because they illustrate an important moment. But that moment has passed.
The T-shirts and buttons served as a shorthand for a makeshift progressive community that gathered around a candidate. That community–or at least that desire for community–still exists. But the moment it gathers around a president, it ceases to be progressive.
Needless to say, Obama is eager to keep this relationship going as long as he can. Since the election, the administration has attempted to reinvigorate the campaign it erected and mobilize it into a fighting force. It seems like every other day I get an e-mail from David Plouffe asking me to take to the streets to back the new regime. Since the left has not managed to harness the energy unleashed by the campaign, we can hardly blame Obama for this. But when the government is organizing a movement to back the government in the name of progressive politics, something is seriously awry.
If these arguments fail, just pause a second and contemplate how it looks. If you’re going to wander around bearing the image of your president, you might as well be a North Korean on your way to interview for a government job. What would you have called someone with a George Bush hat or button in February 2005? I rest my case. The bottom line is, it’s not cool. With his slender frame, stoic manner and understated suits, Obama has redefined cool. So on a sartorial basis alone you owe it to him to dial back. If you can’t do it in the name of progressive politics, at least do it for the president.