So far in Week 1, Obama has announced plans to close Gitmo, declared he will dismantle the system of American secret prisons abroad, and has rolled back the global gag rule. Had I been able to pen Obama’s first-week To Do list myself, these three things would have been pretty close to the top of the list.
As I watched the decisions unfold this week, I realized that my life on the Left has made me virtually unprepared for this sort of success. I supported Bill Clinton, and he gave us Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Welfare-to-Work programme. I supported Hillary and watched her get more and more hawkish as she tried to prove she was a tough as the boys. My whole adult life, I’ve been told by the mainstream radical Left (if I can be forgiven the seeming contradiction in terms) that the American political process was fundamentally bankrupt and that there was no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans. I never believed it so much that I voted for Nader, but I believed it enough to cast my votes for Gore et al wearily and warily.
Now it seems that the American democratic process has actually produced something very like…a difference. People seemed to want to take a new direction, and they seemed to see that new direction in Barack Obama–both because of his policies and because by electing a black man America offered itself, and the world, a dramatic symbol of America’s ability to transform and progress. And then, in his first week in office, Obama actually went and did different things from what your average Democrat, much less your average Republican, would have done. Things, moreover, that he had promised to do.
As I’ve watched myself struggle to take in this unprecedented series of events, I’ve realized that it’s not just the pessimism build from years of Democratic betrayal that has made it so difficult to take this on board. It’s also a certain Left-academic habit of mind which reacts to every seeming victory by looking for the underlying defeat. Don’t get me wrong: this kind of critical thinking is an indispensable political tool. We do need to remember how quickly conservative forces recoup movements to the Left for their own purposes–as when the 1960s radical rhetoric of empowerment was transformed into a means of arguing that welfare only increased ‘dependency’ among the poor. But when that is our only approach to events, we find ourselves baffled by an actual, straightforward victory. Of course Obama is going to make mistakes and make political decisions that genuine progressives, of which he is still not one, find reprehensible. But apparently he is also going to make some decisions that we can endorse wholeheartedly–provided we can figure out how.