A people’s surge is heaving its way across the country with unexpected force. And in doing so, it is confounding pundits, challenging conventional wisdom and reconfiguring our nation’s politics. Only one thing is for certain: it could well prefigure a triumphant victory for peace, economic security and equality in November.
This surge has no counterpart that I can recall. Its breadth and depth are remarkable. Its politics are progressive. It is driving the nation’s political conversation. It rejects the old racist and sexist stereotypes that have stained our history, divided our people and compromised our moral sensibilities. It is a mass rebellion against the policies of the Bush administration and the whole era of right-wing domination and division. And it is seeking a political leader — one who gives priority to “lunch pail” issues, appeals to our better angels and envisions a country that is decent, just, united and at peace with the rest of the world — a country that measures up to the full meaning of its creed, to borrow a phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
This upheaval is unfolding in, of all places, the Democratic presidential primaries — that is, inside the framework of the electoral arena. So far, the turnout has been far beyond anybody’s expectations: records are being broken. The enthusiasm and energy are palpable. The most pressing concerns of the American people, ranging from Iraq to jobs to immigration to health care to home foreclosures, are structuring the “give and take” of candidates as well as voters. The primaries, in short, have turned into the main arena in which tens of millions (no exaggeration) are leaving their imprint on our nation’s political conversation and direction.
This upheaval constitutes nothing short of a collective decision by millions to utilize the Democratic primaries, and later this year, the general elections as a political lever to set the country on a new course. No matter which candidate (Obama or Clinton) voters support, its political intent is clear: people want change and change in a particular direction — a direction that puts people’s needs before war-making, division and corporate profits.
Thanks to this surge, a woman or an African American is on track to become the presidential nominee and lead the Democratic Party ticket in the November elections. Moreover, this isn’t a fluke of politics. Rather, it reflects the growing political maturity of the American people. It should be celebrated as a great democratic achievement.
While the working class and every other section of the people’s movement are engaged in this upheaval, it reaches well beyond the organized structures and constituencies of this movement. It is as much unorganized as it is organized. This actually is not startling, as we have seen throughout our history that any upheaval of this magnitude spontaneously brings into action people who were passive in earlier periods.
In fact, one of the most encouraging aspects of this people’s surge is the entry of young people who either were not of voting age in the last election or were old enough to vote but chose not to do so. In injecting themselves en masse into the Democratic primary process, today’s younger generation is becoming an agent of change.
Independents are also a part of this upheaval. For them the Democratic presidential primaries are where the action and fresh ideas are. The politics of yesteryear no longer resonate for them; they are looking for answers to stubborn problems, for example, the impossible costs of health care, the crushing student loan burden, and the toxic effects of racism and sexism, that weigh heavily on the quality of their lives.
This surge inside the electoral arena might seem surprising, especially to some on the left who see little, if any, progressive potential in electoral politics or the Democratic Party. But on second thought, isn’t it altogether predictable if we recall that, just two years ago, millions of voters turned the midterm elections into a referendum on the Bush administration, particularly the Iraq war? Shouldn’t we have anticipated that the political insurgency that was gathering momentum then would crest in this year’s election, where so much more is at stake?
The clearest expression of this movement pivots around the candidacy of Barack Obama, whose inspirational message and politics have captured the imagination of new as well as older voters and constituencies. So much so that many commentators and politicians use the word “transformational” to describe his candidacy — that is, a candidacy that so far seems capable of assembling a broad people’s majority to reconfigure the terms and terrain of politics in this country in a democratic direction.
But the Obama campaign is not the only manifestation of this upheaval. It also has found enthusiastic expression in the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and, until they dropped out, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich. What a contrast between any of them and the probable Republican nominee, the anti-democratic, anti-labor war hawk John McCain.
By Labor Day, it is easy to imagine the formation of an electoral movement that in its scope and depth had no equal in the 20th century.
Whether or not that will happen isn’t a foregone conclusion. In the end, it will depend on the readiness of the various strands of this movement — particularly the working class and its organized sector, the nationally and racially oppressed, women and young people — who are now gravitating around the candidacies of Obama or Clinton to unite around the eventual nominee.
No one should underestimate the dangers of disunity, to be sure. The shameful role of former President Bill Clinton in New Hampshire and South Carolina, for example, reminds us of that. Nor should anyone think that McCain will be an easy pushover. Nevertheless, politics is trending, unmistakably, in the direction of a united struggle of tens of millions to defeat the right in a landslide in November and, in doing so, to once again resume our collective journey to make our country live up to its loftiest ideals.
Sam Webb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chairperson of the Communist Party USA.