Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Victory in Defeat: Obama's Enduring Legacy of Hope

Though Obama was victorious in the North Carolina primaries last night and lost by a slim margin in Indiana (May 6th, 2008), the political pundits cite troubling exit polls that suggest that supporters of Hilary Clinton are far more likely to vote for the Republican nominee John McCain if Barack Obama were to be the democratic nominee, than supporters of Barack Obama are to vote for Hilary Clinton. According to exit polls in Indiana, 50% of Clinton's supporters claimed that they would NOT back Obama in a general election; even in North Carolina where Obama was successful last night, 55% of Clinton's supporters say that they would deny him support in a general election despite the fact that Clinton and Obama concur on issues of policy far more than they do with their Republican rival McCain. Though Clinton commanded 60% of the white vote in North Carolina, Obama held a mere 39%. However, Obama was victorious because of the overwhelming support of a sizeable black community in North Carolina (nearly 91% of African Americans in North Carolina voted for him).

Unfortunately, these statistics suggest that the democratic primaries have increasingly become about the politics of identity rather than about the political vision of the respective candidates, with African Americans overwhelmingly supporting Obama, and white women overwhelmingly supporting Clinton. People are invested in this election like never before, certainly because of two brilliant and inspiring candidates, but also equally because the elections have forced people across the U.S. to examine themselves in the mirror, to ask that question that has always fascinated humankind: Who are we? Yet Obama has tried to reframe this debate by suggesting that it is less about who we are individually as people, and rather about our shared values and aspirations for the future. The real question according to Obama is: Where are we going? He has become a spokesman of what I like to think of as the 'politics of humanity', a grassroots-driven politics that seeks to transcend divisions by being grounded in commonly held values. In this understanding of politics, perhaps, lies Obama's genius, for in his attempt to define a vision for tomorrow based on the commonly held human values of peace, equality, justice, and freedom, he is ultimately addressing the question of 'Who we are'. For how can the question of the fate of a nation (i.e. where they are going) be severed from the identity of its people (i.e. who they are)?

Yet, as we know, the politics of identity can also be used to divisive ends, and it is probable, given the toxic political climate of the past month, that Hilary Clinton is likely to use the numbers above to suggest that she would be the best candidate to ironically 'unite' the democratic party and defeat McCain in the general election. Perhaps there is some truth to the fact that America is not yet ready for a black president as some suggest, and perhaps Obama will not get the nomination this August. Yet I believe that the legacy of Obama's campaign of hope will endure, that there is victory even in potential defeat, and it is as George Edward Woodberry once remarked,'defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure."

For during the course of this primary contest alone, Obama has transformed politics into a grassroots-based peoples movement, one that has engaged thousands of disenfranchised people otherwise at the margins of the political spectrum, and ignited the burning ideals of the youth who dare to dream of a better future. He has spoken with humility and endearing eloquence about the core values that unite us as human beings, about how politics is about 'people' rather than the politician or the state, that 'we' are in fact the true agents of social change. And perhaps it is a testament as much to the greatness of humanity as much as to Obama, that people -- the young and old, black, white, brown, Muslim, Catholic, Jew, the poor and the rich can stand as one and with their ardent voices raised to the heavens cry -- "Yes we Can!"

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