(CNN) – The “Yes We Can!” (Yes we can) that seemed to be stuck in every passing car. The chant “fired up, ready to go!” (lit and ready to go) that once made stadiums shake.
And of course those iconic photos of blacks, whites and brunettes shedding tears of joy at the victory celebration in Chicago’s Grant Park that afternoon in November 2008.
These are flashes of “unmanipulated political joy” that millions of Americans felt 13 years ago when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States. They also feel like picturesque snapshots of what now looks like another country.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for those moments because Obama made headlines again. A new documentary series, “Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union”, premieres this month on HBO. Obama recently celebrated his 60th birthday at his vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Tributes to the former president have rained down by experts who argue why Obama is still “matter”.
But in all these accolades, an uncomfortable question remains unanswered that has become even more urgent after a tumultuous year marked by persistent racial divisions, an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, and a partisan split over wearing face masks during a pandemic that has killed at least 618,000 Americans:
Will we ever believe a political leader who speaks of hope and change?
The fragility of a new America
It is an uncomfortable question, because it is much easier to celebrate Obama’s legacy than to consider that many of us abandoned the vision of America that he embodied.
The country’s first black president was living proof that the nation could transcend its original sin of racism, that its citizens could find common ground.
It was Obama who said in what is possibly his best speech that “America is not a fragile thing” that cannot tolerate citizens demanding change.
“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not finished yet, that we are strong enough to be self-critical?” asked Obama in his 2015 speech in Selma, Alabama, on the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights campaign.
But what happens when a large segment of white America stops pretending to care about democracy? What happens when these Americans refuse to accept the results of a presidential election, praise foreign dictators and pass a new wave of voting restriction laws?
These are the haunting questions lurking at the bottom of all the recent nostalgia surrounding Obama.
It is common for experts who invoke Obama’s “torn idealism” to say that the former president has changed since 2008. But American voters may have changed as well.
Obama may be the political version of the Last of the Mohicans: a charismatic leader whose rhetoric about overcoming our differences now seems as old-fashioned as a Blockbuster video store.
The multiracial euphoria we saw in Grant Park may be the last time in many of our lives that we witness such a unified joy.
Our politics will get even nastier
It’s a brutal thought to ponder. But let’s consider some of the events of this past year, even this past month.
The country has yet to overcome a violent insurrection that saw a member of a mob brandish a Confederate flag during an attack on the Capitol while others hung a noose and a scaffold outside the enclosure.
A major political party is passing a wave of laws across the country that can restrict the vote of racial minorities and other groups that don’t typically vote for them.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, a hero to the right, traveled to Hungary the same week as Obama’s 60th birthday for a flattering interview with the country’s leader, Viktor Orban, who he said once: “We must defend Hungary as it is now. We must affirm that we do not want to be diverse and we do not want to be mixed. We do not want our color, our traditions and our national culture to mix with those of others.”
And the new census data raises new questions about the future of our democracy. For the first time in the country’s history, the number of whites in the US is declining, a figure that comes eight years earlier than expected.
The news should shock anyone who knows the history of this country. It is well documented that a segment of white Americans will abandon any commitment to democracy if it ceases to consider itself the dominant group.
One can imagine a future in which white politicians and partisan judges double down on voting restriction laws and appeal to racism in a desperate attempt to maintain power.
As a result, one commentator warned that demographic changes in the United States are on the verge of “set our politics on fire”.
“If recent history tells us anything, it is that the census news will create a new wave of anger from the right, and that much of it will be directed against minority populations in the United States,” Joel Mathis wrote in a statement. recent column in The Week. “Our nasty policy will probably get nastier.”
In such a future, there may be no leaders talking about seeking common ground. There will be no poignant oratory about how America does not have red or blue states. It will be a war of attrition in which both sides will only seek to attract their bases for the elections.
I predict this future as a clear possibility. Leaders will continue to speak to people’s fears rather than their hopes. There will be no poetry in politics, but trench warfare.
Even Obama, who embodies the idea that America is a work in progress toward a more perfect union, launched a note of skepticism in his recent memoirs, To Promised Land.
“Except now I was wondering if those impulses (violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to counter our own uncertainty and mortality, and our sense of insignificance by subordinating others) they were too strong for any democracy to contain permanently, “he wrote.
“Because they seemed to lurk everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stagnated or demographics changed or a charismatic leader decided to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments.”
A different kind of hope and change
Some say that there will always be an audience in America for idealistic leaders who offer visions of hope and change.
“This is a cycle the United States always goes through,” he says. Melanye Price, a political scientist who specializes in contemporary black politics and political rhetoric.
“If I didn’t believe it, I could also quit my job, live off the grid somewhere, and prepare for the next race war.”
Price says the United States has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to “correct course.” The Obama era was a sample of a country whose arc, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., leans toward justice.
“I draw a lot,” he says, “on the Winston Churchill quote: ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing … after they’ve tried everything else.’
Eric LiuAn author and activist, he is one of the most eloquent spokespersons for what makes America so resilient. In one of my favorite books, Become America, Liu writes:
“The history of the United States is a record of small groups of people who keep remaking this country over and over again, revealing to all of us that perpetual remaking is the greatest declaration of fidelity to our creed and our national purpose, not to it is to be like Russia, white and stagnant and oligarchic, or like China, mono-ethnic and authoritarian and centralized, but rather to be more like the United States, hybrid and dynamic and democratic and free to remake itself. “
Liu says it may be a good thing that Americans don’t go out of their way for a leader the way they once did under Obama (and for those on the right, former President Trump). He adds that change comes from the bottom up. It is part of the message that he preaches across the country to promote civic awareness and engagement.
“My emphasis is on trying to fortify people so they don’t need a saving leader to come and put all their hopes up,” he tells me. “I always quote the great activist Ella Baker, which said, ‘Strong people don’t need strong leaders.’
Determining America’s Future
The mass protests that followed the assassination of George Floyd seemed to vindicate Liu’s emphasis on citizen power, not charismatic leadership. It was driven by ordinary people who took to the streets.
But if a large segment of white Americans abandon any pretense If we believe in democracy, I’m not sure we’ll ever see another leader like Obama gain such wide appeal.
Ours will be a future that Obama warned about in his memoirs, when the impulses for violence, racism and intolerance are too strong for any democracy to contain.
If that becomes our future, some may look back and find the images of blacks, whites and brunettes sharing tears of joy in Chicago’s Grant Park quaint and naive.
And when another charismatic politician says, “There are no red states, no blue states, just America,” people won’t applaud or run to vote.
Most will not even listen to that lofty rhetoric anymore.
Is this our future? Or will there be enough people who continue to believe that “America is not finished yet” and commit to becoming the forward-thinking and vibrant multiracial democracy that Obama embodied?
It is a question that Obama cannot answer. He has done his part.
Only we can answer.
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