Obama-ism Without Obama

Whether he becomes president this year, sometime in the future, or never, Barack Obama will surely stand as a distinctive and surprising figure in our political history. Yet as the lens pulls back, individuals who at first seem uniquely transformative almost always come to be seen, more modestly, as reflections of their times, as products of trends and choices not of their own making. When Ronald Reagan was turning American politics on its head in 1980 and 1981, we saw Reagan, the man; today it is hardly revisionism to see Reagan as part of a long process of conservative reinvention and renewal, dating at least to Barry Goldwater's 1964 defeat, which created a role Reagan could step into.

Tomorrow's revisionist historians may see Obama's role this year in a similar light, as the culmination of a series of evolving ideas and conflicts over the last decade or two of progressive thought and action. Many of the threads that have become visible this year in Obama's campaign did not seem to amount to much at the time.

One trend is the emergence of a real democracy-minded reform movement -- not just focused on limiting the role of money in politics but on expanding participation, broadening the scope of democracy, and connecting issues of process to substantive outcomes of public policy. Obama's conflict with John McCain over campaign finance reform is in some ways a subtle confrontation between this new movement and the older, upscale, good-government tradition, with its narrow, scolding tone. Obama's campaign highlights just how much was achieved in previous years through efforts to increase voter turnout, encourage small donors, and put issues such as media reform and public financing of elections on the agenda.

While Obama has been loosely associated with this reform tradition, he was more closely involved with a second development: reconnecting community organizing with electoral politics and real power. The Chicago community-organizing tradition in which Obama worked was -- much like the good-government reform tradition -- apolitical, viewing elected officials with contempt and power with ambivalence. Electoral politics was divorced from the collective energy of community organizing. Obama was trying to bridge these gaps as early as his first campaign for state Senate in 1995, at one point asking, "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate?" and noting that the right had been more successful than the left at connecting grassroots mobilization to electoral power.

It's received little attention, but in recent years, enormous energy and money has gone into restructuring older community organizing groups to work together around a clear goal of electoral and legislative power. In Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Connecticut, venerable organizations with new leadership have found ways to work together, and it's probably no coincidence that these were states Obama won.

The third trend is one that Obama not only didn't have much to do with but one that he might seem to contradict. That is the emerging sense of a meaningful Democratic Party as a broad coalition with a coherent vision, not just an alliance of interest groups. The older model of the party was defined by checking off the boxes of what Sen. Joseph Lieberman called the "internal constituencies" -- labor, environmental, civil-rights, and women's groups. Getting 100 percent on those groups' vote scorecards, Lieberman argued, should have been enough to validate any candidate.

The new model party, by contrast, champions an ambitious, transformational, coherent agenda, on issues such as health care, the economy, and foreign policy. With his language of cross-partisan pragmatism, Obama might seem far removed from this growing sense of party identification and ideological coherence. But in fact, Obama has succeeded without the overwhelming support of any of the traditional internal constituencies, something that would not have been possible in earlier years, while Hillary Clinton remains very much the "checklist liberal."

This renewal of the Democratic Party as a coherent force would not have been possible without the transformative experience of six years of Republican rule, which broke down the ability of interest-group liberalism to function as it had. So the ultimate trend that created a role for Barack Obama as the bearer of the new Democratic purpose and ideology was, simply, the presidency of George W. Bush.

It may be that none of these trends are mature enough yet to bring about a transformation equivalent to 1980, but if we look away from the personality of Obama for a minute, we can see the near future of American politics in which Obama -- or someone like him -- may be the central figure.

You may also like