Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics
by Horace Campbell
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Presidential literature is an established genre in the
United States, with reams of print devoted to the personal
and political traits of each occupant of the White House.
The bulk of such works tends to focus on the leaders in high
office, their nature, foes, allies and policies, not on them
as symbols of broader trends sweeping American society.
There are few among the presidential authors interested in a
"people's history". But senior peace activist and political
scientist from Syracuse University, Horace Campbell, has
succeeded in linking epic shifts in US society to the rise
and tenure of President
Obama. Far from the run-of-the mill
hagiographies and screeds, Campbell's new book uses the
Obama phenomenon as a peg for a reflective exercise on the
unjust past and hopeful future of the US.
As the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis such as
rising unemployment, hunger, homelessness and despair became
clear, ruptures in American history have deepened. The
hardship has exposed the inadequacy of Eurocentric concepts
of rationality and domination over nature. At this point,
argues Campbell, philosophies that compartmentalize human
beings have lost traction as new modes of organizing economy
and polity emerge on the bedrock of "shared humanity".
The author portrays the grassroots mass movement that
catapulted Obama to power as a manifestation of the present
juncture, where the ethos of "including all" is replacing
hierarchical thought. It is revolutionary in nature since
the neo-liberal ideas propping up the old order were
untenable. The consciousness which legitimated individual
accumulation of wealth at expense of society as a whole is
in disarray. Linear notions of competitive progress and
"unlimited growth" face a dead end in the American psyche.
And the consensus that the US could consume the planet's
resources through endless wars and military bases has waned
as calls grow for reining in the Pentagon's budget and
The American educational system, which had been geared to "dumbing
down" and supplying manpower for finance, insurance and real
estate, is now forced to reckon with democratization of
knowledge on a worldwide scale, while a rising belief that
the Fordist model of production is disastrous for the
environment has crept in.
Despite the above-mentioned portents, Campbell insists that
the revolutionary moment has not yet reached a "climactic
stage" in the US. For the non-violent, bottom-up political
organization glimpsed during Obama's presidential campaign
to mature, it will have to spread across the length and
breadth of the country.
The author places Obama's "Yes We Can" wave in the
participatory democracy traditions of yesteryear black
liberation heroines like the abolitionist Harriet Tubman,
and the civil rights activists Ella Baker and Fannie Lou
Hamer. These trailblazers represented the antithesis of the
age-old "leaderism", "bossism" and machine politics of the
Democratic Party, which had been dominated by Bill and
Hillary Clinton since 1992.
Obama's political training in a multi-racial and
multi-religious household, and later as a community
organizer in Chicago, imbued a determination to break with
the top-down mentality of conventional American
parties. He saw with his own eyes in the
Reagan's neo-liberal assault depoliticized
community-based organizations in the name of individual
self-interest. Awareness of his father's persecution by
post-colonial elites in Kenya also fortified Obama's faith
in the desirability of a non-racial democracy in the US.
One significant leap Campbell ascribes to Obama is that he
presented himself "as a person, a human being - not a black
candidate" (p 61), unlike scores of previous African
American politicians who used to leverage for positions in
the Democratic Party in return for delivering minority
By his own admission, Obama stood on the shoulders of
anti-racist and anti-sexist ancestors who sacrificed their
lives for a more equal American society. Campbell adds that
was taking the rights that had been snatched from millions
after the 1877 compromise" (p 94), a deal that was struck
between the Republicans and the Democrats to resolve the
dispute of the results of the presidential elections of 1876
that former slaves in the South deemed the "Great Betrayal."
It meant Republican efforts to assure civil rights for the
blacks were totally abandoned.
The author highlights several organizational innovations
that Obama's primary campaign employed in 2007-2008 to
counter the vast patronage empire of the
Clintons, which was marshalled by
Democratic spin doctors and "political
consultants" like Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe. In training
volunteers, "teaching and learning were reciprocal relations
and roles were not fixed". (p 97) Campaigners told their own
stories of finding life's purpose "to attract social forces
who wanted change". (p 99)
Even before Obama turned into a frontrunner for the
Democratic nomination, an infectious optimism to expect the
best or at least a favorable outcome pervaded his rank and
file. Thanks to "distributed leadership", volunteers saw
themselves as motivators and change agents in their own
Obama's campaign plan rested on the African fractal precept
of "scaling up", wherein the house-to-house formations in
one community would be replicated by county across a state,
and then iterated state-by-state to reach the national
level. Campbell reminds readers that the much-touted
Internet-based wizardry of the Obama team was not
mechanistic but rooted in people and relationship building.
With over 50% of
contributions drawn from small donors
($200 or less), social networking tools enabled a
democratization of fundraising.
Campbell lauds the youth-driven small donor revolution as a
product of "interplay between structure and spontaneity"
(p142), classical music and jazz. He credits the novelty of
the Obama campaign with converting amateur average Americans
into professionals, while reducing professional political
pundits into amateurs.
Yet, once Obama's route to the presidency eased, big
corporate elements jumped onto his bandwagon to attempt an
eventual demobilization of the radical core, which was
deemed temporarily necessary for electoral victory. Campbell
documents from firsthand observation how conservative
planners and lobbyists blanketed the Denver Democratic
National Convention in August 2008. He notes the contentious
process by which the convention stifled debate on pressing
questions of the financial crisis, US wars abroad and
In the presidential election campaign, a special attribute
of Obama's volunteers was what Campbell depicts as "a high
level of political and cultural literacy". (p 181) Such
meticulous capacity building engendered "a new nested loop
of energized citizens". (p 182) Still, Americans had been
dulled by corporate media for so long that the ongoing
bailout of Wall Street worth trillions of dollars was not
allowed to be the number one issue of the election.
Scare tactics in the camp of the competitor, John McCain,
using the prospect of an impending terrorist attack, only
further obfuscated the "economic terrorism" of over-financialization.
Eventually, the economic meltdown did flatten the Republican
candidate, whose resort to classic American wedge issues did
not wash before Obama's "progressive majority".
After Obama took office as the new president, the mainstream
media turned on the volume of stories lionizing him as a
charismatic "Black Jesus" and savior. Many networks in his
"Vote for Change" movement sank into a trap of "silencing
themselves by looking to answers from Obama". (p 217)
As the grassroots coalition dissipated, the Obama
administration stuck to neo-liberal practices of accepting
the whims of financial barons and "securocrats" of the US
military industrial complex. In the absence of collective
mass action to pressurize the new
regime, says Campbell, "Obama descended
into the abyss of being a messenger for Wall Street". (p
The book's final chapters emphasize that elections do not
bring about revolutionary change. Rather, continuous
organized actions of citizens do. Campbell sketches a
parallel between Abraham Lincoln and Obama to draw the
lesson that only propulsion from independent movements from
below can push American presidents towards social justice.
He uses a memorable formulation to drive home the point: "It
is not up to Obama, it is up to us." (p 274)
Campbell believes that decentralized and autonomous
revolutionary tendencies are not dead in the US, but that
fostering a permanently engaged "politics without
intermediaries" would depend on social alliances which
transcend outmoded ideologies of the "old left". (p 246) The
book concludes by asserting that in an age of prolonged
economic stress, if networks for peace and the environment
keep crystallizing outside the realm of electoral politics,
qualitative change is certain to come.
Campbell's radical tour de force is unique in combining
sharp academic rigor with an agenda of healing the historic
wounds that have grated American society. His book's
uplifting and universally applicable message is to center
politics on people and to realize that the power to change
is within each of us.
Barack Obama and Twenty-First Century Politics. A
Revolutionary Moment in the USA by Horace Campbell.
Pluto Press, London, August 2010. ISBN: 9780745330068. Price
US$29, 344 pages.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world
politics at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat,
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