Obama’s Victory: A Sociological Prayer

I’m a sociology teacher, a member of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, an almost-pacifist, and a libertarian socialist. My intellectual heroes are people like Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and Noam Chomsky. I believe democracy is much more in the streets than in the halls, and that Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the great icons of successful modern leadership. I consider my life’s calling to be to raise my son well and to do as much as I can to help expose and publicize the dangers of corporate capitalism and market totalitarianism.

For all these reasons, and because my mama and granny didn’t raise a complete fool, I voted for Cynthia McKinney, not Barack Obama. Think about it: Obama is threatening new and expanded wars; spurns single-payer national health insurance; voted for FISA renewal and the mother of all give-aways to Wall Street; wants to include Republicans when he doesn’t have to; thumbed his nose at public campaign financing; almost certainly won’t get tough on the rogue state of Israel; and has been utterly weaselly about his quasi-promise to withdraw from Iraq. To compound all that, he also selected as his running-mate the Botoxed super-creep, Joe Biden, the figure who revealed his stunning secret disdain for democracy to a group of big-wig fundraisers in Seattle two weeks before the election.


Last night, as Obama strode to the podium for his victory speech, why did I find myself welling up with tears and choking out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on. ..

It isn’t that I’ve lost my deep skepticism about what’s on Obama’s agenda. Sure, his speech was wonderful, what with its reference to the New Deal, its borrowing of a major line and an exact cadence from the last public speech of Dr. King, its sublime mention of a 106-year-old woman as a way to think about the future, and its promise of a new puppy.

But that’s not it. Though all these things do raise my hopes a bit, that’s not why I felt, watching Jesse Jackson sob, that a new door has opened. No, it’s something much bigger than Obama himself.  It is something my sociology work has convinced me of.

Permit me to explain:

Part of it is something explained by fellow sociologist John Markoff, in his book Waves of Democracy.

While we are trained by vested interests to believe that democracy is a smooth-functioning, stable-state reality that has already been fully achieved and operates mainly by voting and parliamentary procedure, the actual reality is quite different.  Democracy, Markoff points out, is an unending, self-expending process.  Moreover, it is as much about organizing and movements as it is about rules and procedures and ballots.

Indeed, think of all the things we rightly perceive to be the fruits and blessing of democracy: votes for women, votes for victims of racist apartheid, votes for everybody of a mature age, the 8-hour work day, the right to organize unions and other political societies, environmental standards, the ending of egregious imperial wars, etc.  All these things were only ever put on the public agenda and forced into the fabric of democracy by social movements.  Left undisturbed by mass mobilizations and principled trouble-making, even the kindliest overseers and the fairest of mundane elections would likely have let all the overcome evils run on indefinitely.  Hell, even democracy itself only won its day via fighting in the streets — think back on the American and French Revolutions!  Not exactly tea parties, Boston Harbor notwithstanding.

So, as Markoff argues, the reality is that democracy moves in waves.  It ebbs and flows.  It surges and retreats.  While Constitutions, Bills of Rights, and universal suffrage and fair elections are all necessary, they are neither sufficient nor the whole story of what democracy is and how it works.  In full sociological view,

we will find movements, often involving transnational components, demanding democratization; we will also find important anti-democratic movements. We will find elites advocating democratic reforms, often in response to initiatives by other states; we will find anti-democratic actions by elites a well. And we will see movements and elites interact: movements pushing elites and elites opening up opportunities for movements. When the processes come together in a great multinational convergence, the result is a wave of democratization (or antidemocracy).

This brings me to the other part of my newfound optimism.  This second part comes from Harvard Sitkoff, the excellent historian of the Civil Rights Movement.

In his book, The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1992, Sitkoff observes that social movements crystallize only at the rare times when two things come into rough balance — anger and hope.

Nourished by anger, revolutions are born of hope. They are the offspring of belief and bitterness, of faith in the attainment of one’s goals and indignation at the limited rate and extent of change. Rarely in history are the two stirrings confluent in a sufficient force to generate an effective, radical social movement.

As Sitkoff also points out, it is hope that tends to be lacking, as the forces of brutality (the ones that have dared call themselves “Civilization”) tend to hunt out and crush down good, hope-inspiring examples. Only when some tireless strugglers manage to push a daisy up through the pavement does lightning strike and a movement rise. Anger is always there. Given the power of the powerful, hope is usually the rain in the desert, the desperately-needed thing that goes lacking.

Yet, history is never over.  Every once in a while, we get a Brown v. Board of Education. As Sitkoff explains, without Brown, there would probably have been no Civil Rights Movement as we knew it, and as we have so greatly (if only incompletely) benefited from:

Brown heightened the aspirations and expectations of African-Americans [and their sympathizers] as nothing before had. It proved that the Southern segregation system could be challenged and defeated. It proved that change was possible. Nearly a century after their professed freedom had been stalled, compromised, and stolen, blacks confidently anticipated being free and equal at last.

This, then, is what I think and pray Obama’s breakthrough victory might ultimately mean — it might very well stand, whatever it ugly sort-run details may be, as the next Brown v. Board of Education, the next long-awaited spark, the next rain that brought a new and bigger and smarter wave of democracy that not only made the desert flower once again, but allowed us to claim still more territory for human decency, sustainability, and love.  Like Brown did before (although our schools are still deeply segregated aren’t they?), Obama’s win might yield a storm of new hope sufficient to unleash the ordinary people once again.  It might finally allow us to use, rather than just discuss and nurse, our anger.


Let us take President Obama’s victory and his invitation and make them ours, on our own terms:  Let us seize this victory and move once again into the streets. Let us do lay our hands on the arc of history, and use these next thirty years to bend it so as to undo and transcend the vast evils wrought over the last thirty years, by the benighted forces of privilege and reaction. Let us use this landslide and this wave of new youthful energy to put huge pressures on President Obama and those who attend and follow him in Washington. And let us turn this new wave into a wave of not just domestic, but global democratization. Let us continue to fight and win in our culture war (and, yes, we are winning).  Let us seize victory from the jaws of defeat and fashion a humane, still-progressive world for our 106-year-old children!

13 Replies to “Obama’s Victory: A Sociological Prayer”

  1. MD
    If the people would not get out in the streets abd put pressure on the most criminal gang to ever take over the U.S. govt., why would they make the attempt when the one in power is looked on as a savior?

  2. Jim: Easy. Because “saviors” inspire people more than criminals.

    An excellent piece highlighting my own long-held conviction that it is only from the streets that those “blesings” of democracy are made real.

  3. Good speech, MD. It does read like a speech. But I’m not real hopeful about Americans taking to the streets, either. Like Jim, I think they’re far too enraptured with Obama, seeing him as almost a Messiah figure, and will be content to let him do whatever he wants, in the belief that he knows best. We’ve been a passive population for so long that I doubt that’s going to change soon. I don’t expect the Dems will be any more welcoming of outsiders’ input than they’ve been for several decades, so unless we mobilize that anger you speak to, and rely a lot less on airy “hope”, we’ll be witnessing another Clintonoid administration, and we know how disappointing that was. The Obama worship needs to end quickly, or we’ll never rise to the occasion this turning point demands.

  4. What troubles me is how the self identified liberal and progressive Democrats are giving him a pass as he ignores or goes against all they believe in.
    When we start to hear how the Democrats war is a good war (Afghanistan) we better start looking elsewhere for salvation

  5. Well, it’s curious and illogical, but the studies do suggest that Sitkoff is correct. People only rebel when they have some hope to accompany their anger.

    Remember that the Seattle anti-capitalist eruption happened under Clinton, and hasn’t been heard from under Monkeyman.

    And what I’m saying isn’t hope for something from above. I’m saying let’s return to organizing, and kick this cracked door open!

    Thanks for the feedback!

  6. I don’t know.. seems like people fall asleep under Democratic presidents but at least they march against Republican ones. I’m afraid I don’t exclude myself. I marched in Eugene against Bush I, and people all over the world (even here in Luxembourg) marched against Bush II, but I never marched against Bill Clinton, and I don’t remember that anyone else did either, even when his policies like bombing Yugoslavia could have called for it. Was the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999 the only time anyone erupted under Clinton in his whole 8 years?

    When anger is mixed with hope, the only examples of street heat I can think of are like St. Petersburg in 1905, when the people marched to petition the czar to please ease up on the oppression just a tad (like Oliver Twist holding up his empty gruel bowl and saying “Please sir, may I have more?”), which didn’t turn out all that well for them (though Bloody Sunday did at least inspire people for the rest of that year and for 12 years later who no longer shared that naïve hope).

    So I can only add that I hope the people don’t now fall asleep under President Obama but stay awake and angry and take less than 12 years to be disappointed of their naïve hope!

  7. RJ: Why leave the country with examples? There were regular riots during the Johnson administration and protests everywhere. In fact, in 1968 the Kerner Commission concluded that the country was heading toward “two societies, one black, one white.”

    And don´t forget that under FDR there were huge strikes and agitation. The Wagner Act which “gave us the right to strike” was passed under a Dem admin–FDR. (Because the Congress needed to control how out of control the workers were then by limiting the strikes. That´s right. “Legalizing” strikes put the stamp of enforcement on it by government.)

    Same for Dem Truman who actually rolled back many of the gains made by workinig people under FDR.

    (He called in the military against workers and pushed Taft-Hartley.) Thus the greatest protests and “hit the streets” mentality in the past century has basically occured under Dem governments.

    The chance of change, for the promotion of real democracy occurs when the people know what is isn´t working 8anger) and can see or are inspired to envision what might (hope) Thus the Obama administration is a perfect place to begin the work needed.

  8. (It looks like Merkley won after all. (Close Senate race in Oregon.) Whew, that was close! 🙂 )

    Speaking of hope, here’s a cheery thought: What’s to stop at least one (probably dozens or hundreds) Dick-Cheney-type saying defiantly, as the victory of humanity (which the Dick-Cheney-type would certainly equate with, as incidentally do I, the victory of the revolution) seems imminent, “I’d rather destroy the world than let the commies win” and launching the nukes or the virus or whatever? This would put a full stop to humanity with the same utter finality with which a period puts a full stop to a sentence. All the words written by Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. (none of whom even imagined that scenario, of course) are answered irrefutably by that possibility, which, when I think about it, seems almost a certainty in exactly the same way that flipping 50,000 coins will almost certainly result in at least one “head”, with only wishful thinking justifying any hope at all that all 50,000 of them will without exception come up “tails”. Socialism is not just a good idea, it

  9. it’s our only hope; but having even just one world-destroyer say “I’d rather destroy the world than let the commies win” is like the ultimate abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here. It would just take one (and again, there’d probably be dozens or hundreds) and it’s Game Over, dude. The Internationale or “Imagine” or whatever songs or music you like would suddenly come to a screeching halt with a noise like the phonograph needle being scratchily removed from the record.

    And that’s IF the victory of humanity (the revolution) ever seems imminent. I suspect it won’t even get that far — assuming it isn’t already too late. (And if it don’t happen soon, it ain’t never gonna happen.)

  10. RJ, OK, so it doesn´t happen. Is the only alternative that world-destroying Moloch? Or is it (as it always has been throughout history) something less BIG and more hum-drum? My guess is the latter.

    Look, victories are won daily. Cochabamba is a small example. Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, and others are trying to think out of the box. The world is much more connected than when I was a kid and thus so is labor. I don´t believe in either-or anymore.

    I believe change occurs slowly and incrementally and if I can help in one small way in one small battle then that is fine by me. “Don´t make the perfect the enemy of the good” I heard once or twice. And while the world I seek is better than the one I´ll get, people´s lives matter and if we can score a small victory towards a more compassionate world then let´s go.

  11. The dance begins:

    “Mr. Obama’s advisers said they were startled, if gratified, by the jubilation that greeted the news of Mr. Obama’s victory in much of the United States and abroad.” [NYT today]

    A genie is out of the bottle here, friends. The Democratic Party peckerwoods are going to try to ignore it and hope it flies back into confinement.

    Given the nature of emerging realities and the blast of new hope, it seems possible it won’t oblige so easily this time…

  12. MD, You sound like a Taoist. Welcome to the club. Is the glass half full or half empty is the wrong question. Is the water in the glass filling or receding is better. Life is movement and America has just changed course. Let’s see where it goes.

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