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February 12, 2008

Obama and the civic populist tradition

Harry Boyte recently had an epiphany looking at the map of where Senator Obama has won primaries or caucuses. Many Obama states--a band from Illinois across to Washington--have strong traditions of civic populism dating back to 1890-1939. Others were crucibles of the Civil Rights Movement in 1945-1970--a band from South Carolina to Louisiana. These were distinct movements but they had more connections than is often recognized. My favorite example is the way that Miles Horton went to Chicago to learn from Jane Addams before he started the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the center that helped train Rosa Parks, among many others. Nick Longo recovers this story in his book Why Community Matters.

Harry's analysis is as persuasive as explanations based on demographics or primaries versus caucuses. His epiphany is relevant to the outcome of the current election. In states where there is a civic populist tradition, people hear Obama's rhetoric in a particular way (like a "deep note vibrating in a base drum," Harry writes). Obama says, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to make change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours." People in states like Minnesota and Mississippi understand that it's possible to unleash public energies to address serious public problems. So they presume that Obama is talking about public participation after the election--participation in our schools, parks, and neighborhoods.

In other places, however, Democratic voters do not have this frame of reference. When they hear, "We are the ones we've been waiting for" (a powerful echo of the Civil Rights Movement), they think that they are merely being asked to vote for Obama or to volunteer and give money to his campaign. In their minds, the campaign is the opportunity to participate--and they are not sure they want to join up. The aesthetic of hip-hop artists and starlets singing along to Obama speeches may not appeal to them. Some may share Joe Klein's reaction (from TIME Magazine):

the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause--other than an amorphous desire for change--the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.

I don't actually think that this is fair, but the perception inevitably arises when people don't have experience with civic engagement. The smart strategy for the Obama campaign is to explain how President Obama will unleash the power of the American people after the election--how he will encourage Americans to cross differences and contribute their energies and talents to address social problems. That's a concrete goal and it requires concrete policies and examples.

February 12, 2008 2:59 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


Interesting comments, Peter; thanks for the link to Harry's site, which looks like a good one. It provides more ammunition for the argument, which I am coming around to, that Obama may have real populist/civic republican/communitarian possibilities in him; that he, as I put it, "speaks and acts as though he assumes that there is still real work that voters--as citizens--can do rather than just waste their time worrying about war machines, left or right. This is the point of the change he exhaustively talks about; this is the appeal--to the idea of politics as national and multiracial and still worth participating in--that made the Kennedys (still besotted with the myth of JFK and the brief, too-soon destroyed promise of his brother Robert) so greedily embrace him." Anyway, the many definitely bears watching.

February 12, 2008 4:01 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Russell Arben Fox

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