The Matthew asked Professor Steven Colatrella, chair of John Cabot University's Political and Social Sciences Department, about the significance of last week's election victory by Barack Obama. Here's what he had to say:
When I was 20 years old, about
the age of most JCU students today, I watched the map of the United
States fill up with red as Ronald Reagan won state after state against
President Jimmy Carter. The reaction of my friends and I was grim -
frankly, we knew that our futures had just been hijacked. When I graduated
college, in 1982, the economy was in the midst of its worst recession
since the 1930s. While graduates today will also face a very bleak economy,
the difference is that your generation has reason to hope, where my
generation had reason to either despair or to become cynical.
The political philosophy that government had no responsibility to its citizens to do something to improve conditions, or to provide more opportunity, or to keep making progress in achieving equality, came into power in the 1980 election. The combination of a reactionary administration and an economic recession gutted the industrial manufacturing base of the United States which is partly to blame as a long-term cause of our current troubles, such as buying things from China that we used to make ourselves. Not to mention the breaking of unions begun by Reagan which is responsible for the decline in American incomes which again is a long-term cause of the housing crisis at the root of the economic crisis of today. That political philosophy has now been repudiated by the American people resoundingly.
For the first time since 1963, America has leadership. Not snake oil
salesmen who tell us that our main enemies are one or another segment
of our fellow Americans - Welfare Queens, Gays who want to marry, illegal
immigrants or whomever, but real leadership that can provide us with
a sense of national purpose and a common project. Further, since the
economic crisis is also an opportunity, look to President Obama - that
wonderful phrase that still takes getting used to - to push for massive
investments in modernizing the American economy and society - a green
New Deal that provides work for construction workers, manufacturing
workers, salespeople, university researchers, scientists, engineers,
technicians. Look for an expansion of the Federal government and of
agencies and associations and NGOs that work with government sponsored
projects. It is a good time to go to Washington to look for jobs and
start a career. The opposite was true in 1980.
It is also true, though in the long run not the most important aspect of this election, that Barack Obama's election as, at least in part, the first African-American president has meaning for my generation and those before mine that it may not have for that of my students. On election night, almost as talismans, I had pulled off my bookshelves my copies of books by WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass - I wanted them to witness what was happening. It wouldn't have happened without them. Americans have never fully understood how important the black struggle has been to achieving democracy in the United States, but may be about to begin to. Two books students should read - my old friend Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy, and the magnificent book by W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (for me, the greatest book ever written in the United States. Moby Dick is second). When I saw Jesse Jackson Sr. crying on worldwide TV (I voted for him twice for president) I was weeping just as hard. Perhaps this election means that the for people who felt from the Reagan era on, utterly marginalized and excluded from the American political process - from radical intellectuals like myself, demonized for demanding an end to the arms race, apartheid and the wars in Central America (or threatened for opposing the war with Iraq in 2003), to young African Americans who never saw a reason to believe they could or would be accepted in their own country, the election of President Obama is a game changing event in our lives.
Finally, American history demonstrates that real change and reform come about as a result of a constructive dialogue, a dialectic, between mass movements and reform-minded progressive governments. This was true of the abolitionists and Lincoln, of the Populist Farmers movement and the Progressive presidents like Wilson and T. Roosevelt, it was true of the labor movement and FDR's New Deal, of the Civil Rights movement and the Kennedy and Johnson adminstrations. That dialectic was broken when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968. Two leaders, one of the movement, one of the establishment, were removed from the scene - King was only 39 at the time, and would perhaps still be alive today to see the new administration for instance - leaving movement activists only protest, and increasingly desperate protest, to stop the Vietnam War and to achieve other goals, With the advent of Ronald Reagan in 1980, as I wrote above, we went into full scale opposition as a lifetime project. Today, we face a new phenomenon: there will be a renewal of the dialectic between establishment and movement, but both establishment and movement are already in alliance and already inside the new administration. That is the meaning of the Obama campaign's use of Facebook and text messaging and You Tube to mobilize activists and voters, of the rise of a new establishment among people like Colin Powell and Susan Eisenhower who are Republicans but support a more serious kind of politics than the silly and destructive name-calling that has recently dominated (another negative Reagan legacy), of the amazing symbolism of a President-elect speaking to a quarter million people in Grant Park (where the Democratic party self-destructed over the war and protests against it at the 1968 convention) and perhaps billions worldwide - that this is a movement capable of changing and governing America. The new administration also represents a synthesis between the JFK and the McGovern wings of the Democratic party - two wings that have fought over foreign policy and the use of the US military, but which have both been horrified by the Bush years and its catastrophes. Indications are that Obama realizes what the McGovern wing - long demonized by its opponents - tried to show - that America is safer and more secure the LESS militaristic it is, while also using the wisdom of the Kennedy wing - that American leadership remains possible and often necessary and that the US military is a tool of politics and not the other way around.
The era of identity politics, of postmodern fragmentation and of dominance by the far right through wedge issues, of the lunacy that there is such a thing as "markets" that can better govern the affairs of humans than humans themselves using reason and democracy, has given way to a new era which will see the reconstruction of a new national narrative that can unify and move us in the direction of progressive democratic reform. A new international narrative will sooner or later arise as well to replace "globalization" with its myth that no one is in charge of human affairs and that no one needs to be, that things take care of themselves through buying and selling. A new humanism may arise as the new intellectual fashion, one not based on Western Eurocentrism, but on what the late poet and statesman Aime Cesaire prophecied: "And there is room for all at the rendezvous of victory".