Do Not Despair, Progress is Possible
“I love being a millennial, because my framed Obama poster becomes ironic at will.”
I wrote this joke for a show in 2014 that I knew would have an older crowd, and people laughed. It wasn’t only a joke. I actually do have a framed Shepard Fairey ‘Progress’ poster framed and hung on the wall of my office, staring hopefully over my shoulder as I write this. Its meaning to me has drastically changed since 2008, because I have changed, and the country has mostly stayed the same.
I was a college anarchist under Bush. I read Noam Chomsky’s Rogue States and knew that Clinton was as bad of an imperialist as Reagan, or worse. Intellectually, I understood that the two capitalist parties of the United States were different only in how they handled certain social issues which, in 2000-2004, didn’t even include gay marriage. They both wanted to privatize public education and slash spending on poverty mitigation, but at least the Democrats didn’t want to eliminate Social Security. Neither would ever legalize marijuana. There was no real alternative to Third Wayism in mainstream politics then. And any one my age who really cared about presidential politics was usually a try-hard poli-sci major (future Republican).
But despite my deeply unearned cynicism, I still voted.
Bush was such a cartoon villain (first as comedy, then after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, as tragedy) that defeating him was still important to me.
I voted for Gore in New Hampshire in 2000, trading votes with a Naderite in California. I voted for Kerry in 2004, even canvasing a little bit in New Hampshire. I waited in the rain with his other supporters in Copley Square the night he conceded the election from his Beacon Hill brownstone, never coming out to say ‘thank you.’
By 2008 I was in Los Angeles, chasing a job in Hollywood and settling into the reality that my generation was ascendant in commercial and political power. I had friends who had lead the blogger revolution of 2004 and were in the driver’s seat of political messaging in the 2008 primary. I even had friends on staff in Congress, and in the PR and technology offices of the candidates. Instead of feeling hopeless on the side of the road, my peers and I were in the passenger seat, and soon it would be our turn to drive.
It’s crazy to me that at one time I actually struggled with the idea that maybe Hillary should get the nod in 2008 because America just may not buy the idealism and identity of Barack Hussein Obama.
When I finally made my decision to vote for Obama, I wrote a long blog post on my MySpace account declaring that “I don’t care if he might lose. I want to believe.”
I had completely internalized the idea that American may have been too racist and stupid to even consider voting for ‘a black guy with a funny name’ and bought hook, line, and sinker that his candidacy might be a shot in the arm for liberalism and maybe even a turn toward democratic socialism. When Hillary finally bowed out, and the focus turned toward McCain and Palin, it seemed like we had made the right choice. And when the economy collapsed out from underneath me, leaving me unemployed and living off my girlfriend, it seemed like the perfect time for change.
He won. And for a brief moment, it seemed like America had really stepped forward. We saw incredible concessions from the right wing media, like the unforgettable Newsweek cover saying “We Are All Socialists Now.” It was critical of the bailouts, sure, but it signaled a potential new Rooseveltian paradigm where a massive majority supported an activist president with a crisis big enough to permit wholesale change. He passed a stimulus and reserved unprecedented control over how it was spent. He had a chance to re-regulate finance, make enormous spending on jobs, and slash military spending to deal with rising deficits.
Plenty has been written about how and why this lofty potential was not achieved in full, or even in part.
Republicans organized a lockstep opposition to his agenda and put the kibosh on almost everything. The ACA was a compromise from the start, but it achieved some important regulatory progress which, unfortunately, is likely to be reversed. He failed to achieve nearly all of his foreign policy goals, managing to end the Iraq War only after years of further killing and without a suitable peace to take its place. We are still at war in Afghanistan. The War on Terror continues unchecked. There are still torture victims in Guantanamo Bay.
Even more has been written on how the promise, rhetoric, and image of Obama provided the perfect cover for the expansion of domestic spying, drone warfare, deportation, and the ongoing incarceration and murder of the poor and disenfranchised. His close association with the power base of the Democratic Party – Wall Street, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and the deep state – allowed American empire to expand unchecked while the rest of us laughed at Fox News and the Tea Party. Obama paved the way for President Trump to read all of our emails and murder innocents over seas by remote control. That’s on him, and that’s on us.
But it was also a time when gay people achieved something closer to equal rights, an ‘issue’ that had largely won the election for George W. Bush in 2004. Feminism, transgender rights, and the real struggles of black people became mainstream topics, even if they were co-opted by the very people who opposed them for decades. And most importantly, the country had a black president to look up to, not just as a symbol of power, but a man of eloquence and apparent wisdom. And we got to see how racists would react to such a symbol, and they exposed themselves for what they really were.
Obama was an imperialist, he failed to accomplish much of what seemed possible at the start. And he was easily the greatest president of my lifetime. I agree with others that we will likely never see another one like him. We’ll have more black presidents, we’ll have more Democrats and liberals, but we’ll never have a man so suited to the job, so full of promise, so iconic and so real at the same time.
Maybe that’s for the best.
I don’t know what to do with my irony, and I’m still afraid to be sincere.
A comedian I respect wrote this week that ‘the time to be cool is over, that it’s time to care about something again.’ This same guy has joined tens of thousands in the quickly growing Democratic Socialists of America, a party devoted to radical change through the ballot box. Many people my age and younger are leaving the Democratic Party behind. We’re leaving it for socialist parties, for apathy, and many are leaving it for Trumpism. It seems that Nazi is punk again. Irony and cynicism and the tribal relativism of online propaganda has eroded the very idea that anything, even the most basic facts about power and ideology, is knowable. The moral bankruptcy of Republicans and the strategic collapse of the Democrats has left another generation in the dark, feeling hopeless that change is possible. Finance has consumed the world, and capitalism has marched ceaselessly toward its endgame.
But some ideas which were anathema to the mainstream have become normalized. Feminist is a badge of honor that even some anti-abortion white ladies scramble to claim. Socialist is no longer an entirely dirty word. Critical race theory has creeped into the opinion papers where once was published The Bell Curve and apologia from former Klansmen. Universal basic income is seeing experimental trials in Europe, and is whispered as a potential band-aid for the labor market after the app-ification of the economy. I suppose that things have changed, at least in fits and starts, and new avenues have been cleared for radical progress. But we need to walk down those streets. And we need to face the armies of angry fools who seek to stop progress in its tracks.
I will leave my poster of candidate Obama up for my daughter to see when she gets a little older. It’s a masterful piece of propaganda, and a relic of its time. It’s not in protest of Trump, whom I despise. I guess it’s mostly nostalgia, in the sense that the past is a place where we can reinvent our former selves to explain the problems we have now. I can look at it and remember when the Constitution seemed to work in our favor, instead of standing in our way.
Maybe it’s a reminder that not too long ago, I believed that true and lasting Progress was possible. It will remind me to never give my support, my money, my vote, to any candidate, any party, any movement, or any system that promises anything less than that.