It was a historical moment not to be forgotten.
So many things about the Grant Park, Chicago, crowd of nearly two hundred thousand on election night, will remain in global memory for a long time. The young people, every skin-color, wildly enthusiastic, overwhelmingly hopeful offered television viewers breath-taking moments, alongside aging African Americans who had been part of the civil rights movement and remembered Chicago as one of the most brutally segregated cities in the US. These older people remembered most vividly the 1983 victory of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor, a victory organized by leftwingers of various ages but notably the old, former organizers of labor and radical movements of the 1930s-40s, still on the job, mobilizing local support among white working class people for a progressive black candidate and against racism one last time.
Another political memory of Grant Park is quite different: police rioting against peace demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic convention, just forty years and some months before this year’s post-election events. Now, in 2008, the Chicago police were orderly (some of their former officers are under investigation or indictment for torture). Now, the young people and others were in support of a president coming to power, no longer successfully shut out by the hawks in the Democratic or Republican parties.
Beyond all this, the historic role of the Left nationally is crucial to explain and explore here. The New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt corresponded, after 1934, with the Popular Front, some of whose local participants had already begun working in alliance with the Roosevelt administration before the global Communist declaration of a new, anti-fascist direction. The re-election of Roosevelt in 1936 was powered by the rise of the Left-led Congress of Industrial Organizations, that is, industrial unions and their voting power; while the cultural wing of the New Deal, its “public face” in the popular arts, was very largely a leftwing operation. Franklin Roosevelt quietly depended upon leftists, and Eleanor Roosevelt (more personally sympathetic) invited them to the White House.
Notwithstanding the “Pact Period” and Communist opposition to Roosevelt in 1940, the momentum of New Deal politics was owed greatly to the rank-and-file activists, the keen political strategists, the Hollywood Left, and all those who articulated and fought for a more egalitarian, inclusive American democracy.
The unlikely revival of peace sentiments during the 1960s, driven by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the associated draft, also by youth cultural rebellion, drew upon a new generation but also upon the children and political networks of the veteran leftwing activists driven underground but not quite out of existence. Communists, Trotskyists and others from the “Old Left” continued to have an influence, especially in mobilizing demonstrations, if little actual following. The Democratic party absorbed sections of young idealists uneasily, unwilling to accept peaceniks and quietly determined to preserve its leaders’ own close ties to the military and intelligence agencies.
The collapse of the organized New Left after 1970 found a generation of activists practically stranded, successful in dozens local campaigns or brief and vivid political moments, but forever stymied in any larger visionary agenda. The Clinton years introduced empire-building, civilian population bombings and invasions in a new vein, and exuded confidence in the wake of the East Bloc collapse. Even the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, one of the most vivid of the anti-war, Left-connected moments in recent history, ended in a practical demobilization. Momentum, as so often, could not be maintained, even as revelations of horrors increased. Minus the draft, minus major US defeats, the wars slipped to the back pages.
Until, that is, the opening of the nomination process in the Winter of 2007-08. Peace activists and others, now linked closely once more with civil rights enthusiasts and prominent African American personalities, seized onto the unlikely campaign for Barak Obama, pouring into it an amazing amount of energy, just as it seemed prepared to take off…or die. Close observers joked that the coalition could be called the “Harry Belafonte Left,” devotees of the aged Caribbean-born actor who had been hugely popular as a singer in the 1950s (many said, the first Black sex symbol in American life), but so committed to militant protest and leftwing activities that he was denied a Hollywood career. Now aged but joined by younger supporters (Danny Glover in the lead) eager to jump into the familiar campaigns against US invasions and for popular mobilizations, Belafonte symbolized all that was vibrant in American radical traditions.
During the process of the election campaign, especially after a hawkish Hillary Clinton had been defeated, Obama eased toward the center on foreign policy as in other issues. And yet, neither conservatives nor liberals could forget his past allies and political friends (the “red flag” for conservatives was William Ayers, former Weatherman, then respectable professor). More important, the more that conservatives appealed to a hard-right following of Sarah Palin, deeply racist and nativist, the more Obama seemed to represent something starkly different.
Newscasters, commentators, bloggers and ordinary people, not only in the US but world-wide, have for some months referred to the 2008 presidential campaign as the “election of a lifetime” or “election of a century.” As the voting approached, forty percent of each body of supporters in the US registered “fear” of the consequences if the other party’s candidate were elected. A degree of cynicism in all this is inevitable. The passions of the election season are highly orchestrated, and many billions of dollars will be rewarded to the winning party by lobbying and “friends” in one way or another. Popular sentiment, however, is unquestionably at its peak since the early 1970s, more widespread than even during the two Reagan election years, 1980 and 1984, when global and domestic policies were correctly seen to be facing drastic conservative changes.
The first is doubtless the turnout of crowds, and the demography of crowds, for Obama rallies. While John McCain was forced to bring school children by bus from neighboring towns to bring an Ohio crowd to 20,000, Obama occasions ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 (in St. Louis, historically one of the most racially divided, heavily blue collar cities), with audiences of white, Latino, black and Asian in mixed numbers, age leaving heavily but by no means entirely toward youth. A single shared sentiment: that the direction of the country was, or might be, about to change dramatically, far more dramatically than the cautious candidate himself was likely to seek.
The second is the crowds for Sarah Palin, much smaller in number but no less intense, signaling something very different. In what Palin refers to as ”pro-American” regions of the country, a phenomenon nearly approaching an American fascism could be seen and heard. Among the crowd in Phoenix, at John McCain’s concession speech (as has been widely reported, Palin sought unsuccessfully to inject herself as speaker before McCain), scarcely a nonwhite face could be found, and the white faces were hard. Denied victory, they would be looking for revenge.