Monday, January 12, 2009

Be a Patriot: Challenge Obama

Kai Wright at The Root explains why Obama can't be the new Lincoln until dissenters force his hand.

We all know by now that Barack Obama fancies himself a modern Abe Lincoln. Few people begrudge the national pride Lincoln's memory evokes, so Obama can be forgiven for his repetition of the comparison—the grand Springfield, Ill. campaign launch; the team of rivals; the Lincoln inaugural Bible.

But as we prepare to swear in our 44th president, at least one memory of the Lincoln era has been entirely unwelcome: the vocal, progressive dissent that drove the Great Emancipator to earn his name.

Lincoln's political stance was as neutral on slavery as it was steadfast on restoring the national union. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave," he wrote in 1862, "I would do it." As other commentators have pointed out, that uncomfortable historical reality should remind us that the political pragmatism in which Obama is now draped has its limits; moderation is too easily confused with acceptance of deep injustices.

There is, however, an additional lesson to be learned from Lincoln's reluctance to end slavery: that meaningful dissent is essential for democratic change, no matter who is president.

From the Civil War's start, abolitionist rabble-rousers clamored for more lasting goals than mere preservation of the Union. Frederick Douglass incessantly cajoled Lincoln, whom he called "a brave man trying against great odds to do right." He demanded Lincoln to declare that emancipation was an explicit aim of war. He saw no conflict between the abolitionists' clear alliance with the president and their need to demand more of Lincoln.

Sadly, there's little appreciation for Douglass' brand of political tough love today.

Disappointed with Barack's inaugural invitation to freakazoid homophobe Rick Warren? Pissed that Obama's being nice to Congressional repugs? Furious the president-elect's "stimulus" plan has tax cuts instead of a minimum wage hike?

Then stop yelling at your significant other and kicking your dog; make your voice heard where it can join with other progressive voices to push Obama left.

At you can send Obama your own ideas or vote for other people's ideas. Thousands of people vote every day to move issues and suggestions up on the priority list.

But whether Obama and political pundits want to hear from progressives is beside the point. History proves that those of us who want to see the purported mainstream broadened cannot afford to sit out the Obama revolution.


It could be that Obama gets this, too. Perhaps he believes the clamor for progressive government must come from outside of the White House; maybe he's cloaking himself in centrist robes to create cover for bold reforms. After all, many of the stimulus-plan details he's floated so far are nothing short of precedent shattering. I certainly hope that's the case.

But Hillary Clinton had this much right during her primary bid: Hope's not enough to beat back decades of right-wing entrenchment. We're all going to need to think less about Lincoln and more about Douglass, who put it this way, when rejecting Lincoln's insistence that unity trumps justice, even as a practical matter: "We have pursued that middle path. It is compromise, and by it we have reached the Civil War with all its horrid consequences. The question is shall we start anew with the same old path?"

Speak now, or forever hold your peace.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic.