The transfer from protest to power is not an easy one, particularly for the left. We live in a state of dissidence, which makes the notion that we might one day take over the state apparatus--or indeed any apparatus--all the more difficult. That does not necessarily make us oppositional by nature--though some are--but we are antagonistic by temperament. Our work is never done. If it were, we would no longer need a left. Unaccustomed as we are to office and power, we are more likely to sign [a petition] than to receive [one].
So it is that even as Obama settles in to the Oval Office, with the full might of the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world at his disposal, many of his supporters still consider him the underdog. Having made this unlikely journey happen, they want to keep traveling in the style to which they have become accustomed even after they have reached the terminus. They wear buttons and display posters that demand that we "Hope" and "Believe," even as what they hoped for has happened and what once seemed incredible is now real.
But it's time to let that new reality sink in. The transition is over. We have moved from aspiration to destination. Obama has arrived. Tempting though it may be to savor the lingering aftertaste of a sweet, sweet victory, progressives need to take the posters down and the buttons off. These are no longer the emblems of resistance but of power.
A movement that does not champion the cause of the powerless has no right to call itself progressive. And a movement that attaches itself unequivocally to power does not have the credibility or wherewithal to call itself progressive. That distinction is of course much easier in times when those in power attack us and our values with impunity. But it is no less necessary when they don't.
I think Younge has some excellent points to make, but I think he also mistakes his audience, to some degree. "Progressive" is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of political philosophies and methodologies, especially right now. The progressives Younge is addressing are the somewhat rare Americans who embrace "progressive values" as a guiding ideology; the progressives who make up a huge percentage of the Obama electorate are Americans who took that label on as an emblem of one-time change, temporarily slipping into a little black dress that probably only sort of fits because they've been on a starvation diet for eight years. Readers of The Nation would like to consider themselves members of the former group; perhaps that's why Younge so casually assumes that Obama progressives are lifelong leftists. I don't think those folks (us folks) are the ones who need convincing, however. It's the dreaded liberals who are threatening the new leftist label who need to be quashed.
To some, bearing the sign marks a form of premature nostalgia for the days when all they dared do was hope. There is a place for that. But as Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Obama goes up in the National Portrait Gallery, that place is rightfully in a museum. Along with the buttons calling to Free Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela, posters for the Poor People's March or placards to defend the Rosenbergs, they are important pieces of the nation's liberal history because they illustrate an important moment. But that moment has passed.
Move on, lefties, says Gary Younge. Most of us have, Gary. The ones who haven't? They still have those Mandela buttons and Rosenberg placards. That somehow reactionary radical nostalgia is an entirely different problem.