Tiptoeing Around That Big Hyped Hope

Mother Jones's Obama feature falls flat

The current Mother Jones has a slew of writers, historians and thinkers responding to this question: “Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in US history?”

It’s a disappointing showing: the people MoJo chose to ask are unsurprising, and their answers are predictable. (At PressThink, Jay Rosen questions whether Obama ever made those comparisons in the first place.) According to John Judis, of The New Republic, “Obama has run a brilliant campaign, but not necessarily a ‘great progressive’ one…But that’s not to say his campaign isn’t significant or important.” The other writers sharing space with Judis similarly qualify their responses, taking careful semantic care of the words “progressive” and “movement.” No, they say (almost) in unison, Obamania isn’t a truly progressive movement. In fact, it’s not even really a movement—let me tell you what a movement is. Still, let’s not forget that it’s historic; I definitely didn’t say that it wasn’t historic.

What is the point of congregating thinkers if they ultimately say so little that is new? Take this cautiously supportive statement from Obama supporter and newly minted Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Let me just state the obvious—electing a black president will be historic, and I guess quasi-progressive. But the substance of what his presidency will be for America just isn’t known yet.”

Riiight. We Just Don’t Know. It’s too soon to tell, which is what author Robert Delleck writes, obviously peeved at the question: “I find the question impossible to answer. How can we possibly know at this point what Obama’s campaign means? … I certainly hope he is successful, but I don’t want to predict what his achievements will be.” Or, his importance is incremental, à la Jennifer Baumgardner, writer and self-proclaimed third-wave feminist: “It may not be a movement, but Obama’s campaign is at the very least movement.”

The responses tiptoe and quaver too much in tone to be effective as a series of knowledgeable opinions, and the catchphrases read too soothingly. Patricia Williams, a law professor at Columbia University, calls Obama “not the magician but the page-turner,” an adroit use of image that is nonetheless irritatingly facile. (The title of the entire piece—The Audacity of Hype?—is itself an overused pun.)

Even those that take a more no-nonsense approach can’t seem to escape equivocation. Debra Dickerson, the author of The End of Blackness and a Mother Jones blogger, writes in circles: “His nearness to the presidency is an amazing, wondrous thing, but America won’t be much different afterward, blasphemous as that sounds.” And columnist Michael Kinsley starts off with, “Of course he’s exaggerating. That is not a crime,” and ends with, “In short, whether this is an important historical moment or just another election is up to Barack Obama.”

The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein starts with a valid point about public culpability, but heads south with a cheerleader’s threat: “…the real fault is not Obama’s, but ours. We have forgotten the kind of risk and work it takes to build transformative mass movements, and so settle for iconography instead. That said, he’d better win.”

The most satisfying response is the longest one, from Brown economics professor Glenn Loury, certainly a predictable talking head to include in the group. Even so, Loury manages to write unequivocally (if didactically) about Obama’s rhetoric, saying: “…pronouncements by prominent persons who are received, de facto, as representatives of a group can enter into the public vernacular, [and] become part of our unexamined political vocabulary.”

Pat Buchanan, a minority in a largely Obama-centric crowd, makes a somewhat (if back-handedly) similar point about Obama’s symbolism: “Barack Obama’s election would be about as significant to US history as Jackie Robinson’s appearance at second base was for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” If the material MoJo is getting from Buchanan and Loury isn’t that different, does it suggest consensus—or that the question inviting such drab responses (from such a predictable roster of contributors) was a hackneyed one?

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.