A new politics of the people

We entered Grant Park at dusk imbued with a spirit of disbelief born of entirely different causes—one of us a Zimbabwean witnessing his first United States presidential election and the other an American who’d been waiting for four decades for a dramatic, even transformative, turn in his country’s politics.

For Chengetayi Chando: The exhilaration seemed oddly familiar, the air electric with so much expectation and hope. It reminded me of the feeling I had in 1980 when I joined the celebration of Robert Mugabe’s election as prime minister of Zimbabwe.
I was only 11 at the time, and stayed at home that evening in the Highfield township of Harare. The handover of power took place at midnight and I remember watching on TV as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and Prince Charles handed executive power to Mugabe.

There were wild celebrations all over the country until dawn. It was a moment people had waged such a long and bitter struggle to achieve. Strange as it may seem, the crowd around me in Chicago behaved as though they were a colonised people yearning for their liberation after a particularly oppressive period. In Zimbabwe, of course, it turned out that too much unrealistic hope and too much unchecked power had swirled around the chief liberator.

No sooner was he installed in office than he launched a campaign to eliminate his opponents—first in the genocidal assault on the Ndebeles, known as Gukurahundi and then in the persecution of rivals and the muzzling of the press. Who could have predicted that such high hopes would be flattened by a liberator turned murderous despot? Since then I’ve expected so little of elective politics that I didn’t consider it likely that the American people would choose Obama to lead them.

He seemed too cool, too smart, too wise to play demagogically to the crowd. The campaign run by Obama’s opponents had been vicious and I expected Americans to respond to cheap claims—that he was a radical socialist or a Muslim extremist—by shunning him. I’ve seen the results of this kind of politics before.

For Douglas Foster: The last time I’d believed that something transformative could happen through presidential politics in my country was in 1968 when as a teenager, I’d trudged door to door on behalf of the campaign of Robert F Kennedy Jnr. On the eve of the California primary, I’d seen my hero up close at a rally in downtown San Diego.

The Kennedy campaign was part of a broad-based movement against the Vietnam War and for a war on poverty that felt so similar to Obama’s campaign this year as it moved from unlikely upstart to unlikely victory. The night after I’d seen Kennedy, and shaken his hand, he was killed by an assassin in Los Angeles after claiming victory in the primary that almost certainly would have yielded the nomination and the presidency. It was the decade of assassinated heroes—Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jnr, and then a second Kennedy brother.

The violence entrenched a kind of apocalyptic thinking in an entire generation of activists like me. Much of the 2008 campaign played out as a battle between new hope and timeworn fears. Even as results came in from Pennsylvania and Ohio, it was difficult to shake the feeling that some last-minute hitch, failure of will or trick would suddenly reverse the tide.

We’d come to Grant Park to see Obama and his family. But we also wanted to see the crowd that supported him. In this park 40 years ago demonstrators were beaten and tear-gassed for opposing an unpopular war, the Vietnam conflict, and supporting an earlier era’s anti-war candidate (who lost the nomination).

In front of us at Grant Park stood two elderly white men, one in a cowboy hat and the other with a cap emblazoned with the Caterpillar Tractor logo. Behind, a clutch of African-American women in their 30s gathered to diss Oprah’s outfit one moment and then knowledgeably slice and dice the results as they came in. One of the tragedies of American life is that it remains so segregated socially, but in the middle of the throng, one felt an inkling of the capacity of people from radically different backgrounds to begin to speak to one another.

Children strained to see the stage and parents hoisted the youngest kids up on their shoulders. Then, there it was, flashing on the gigantic television screen: OBAMA IS PRESIDENT ELECT.

When the new leader appeared onstage, he looked solemn, perhaps partly because of the death of his grandmother but also undoubtedly because of his grasp of the state of the nation. He struck not a single triumphalist note. He told us what everybody in the crowd already knew—that he will take office amid the country’s most serious crisis in half a century. He urged us not to expect too much of him and called upon us not to see the electoral victory as the culmination of the campaign but rather the beginning of an effort to reclaim the country.

His decision to keep his grassroots organisation intact, and to maintain the internet networks that were so pivotal in drawing young people to the campaign, shows that he understands how difficult it will be to transform the country. There was no clean sweep for progressive politics in the 2008 balloting. There was, rather, a collapse on the right and a yanking of American politics back towards the centre. After all, the same electorate that supported Obama’s election also imposed new restrictions, in several states, on the right of lesbian and gay Americans to marry. Endorsing this right was a step the president elect failed to take. There’s also this risk: although US forces will surely begin to withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan is another matter. Obama has promised to increase troop strength there. 

For all the talk of Obama as a “post-racial” candidate and his election as a sign that the US has put race behind it, there was plenty of evidence right before our eyes, even as the celebrating crowd broke up, that this is but a hope and not yet close to reality. As we left the park most of the black residents headed towards the subway tracks to the south, while most whites stood on the landings heading north. Chicago, the proud home of the president elect, remains one of the country’s most segregated cities. Obama was an exception, not the rule—the only black among 100 US senators—and his election leaves our upper house bereft of African-Americans. In so many small and large ways the country remains deeply wounded by the persistence of racism.

Still, the sort of diverse crowds Obama drew over a 21-month campaign in rallies all across the nation provided a glimpse of what it might mean if Americans shed their apocalyptic thinking, gave up their fears and responded to their new president’s invitation to change the US “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand”. They might learn a profoundly democratic lesson—how to place a reasonable measure of hope in their remarkable new leader while delegating to themselves the responsibility for learning how to sustain a broad, dynamic, authentic mass movement of the kind their country has not seen before.

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