Shortly after Obama was elected in 2008, the former editor of Texas Observer emailed asking if I would write a column addressing whether it would now be easier to be prophetic under Obama than it was under Bush. Obama had barely begun his term, but he had already adopted some of Bush’s most egregious policies.
Maybe the editor didn’t like the writing, or maybe the answer was supposed to be “Yes, of course, it will be easier to be prophetic under Obama” because my article never even received a rejection letter. I remembered the article last week when Obama was re-elected and pulled it back out to see what I would change now. As we enter Obama’s second term, I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, Obama’s first term just produced examples of each of the article’s points.
The Observer usually does great work and is actually under new leadership. A link to their site is included below.
Why our leaders always disappoint us
Like most of the civilized world, I breathed a sigh of relief when George Bush’s helicopter headed off into the sunset. Like many progressives, I prepared for the grueling work of reconnecting the scattered bones of the republic. I just hoped we could remember where such obscure organs as habeas corpus once fit in the body politic.
As the weary pendulum of power swung back to the liberal side, we began to hear the same Siren song that drove many Republicans to betray not only our nation, but their own conservative principles as well.
Principles are funny things. They are destroyed more often by victory than defeat. I admit it was deeply moving to watch a black president taking the oath of office using Lincoln’s Bible. One could almost see the brave and bloody footprints of civil rights workers leading to that moment. But then, the invocation was given by a man who would deny the right of marriage to gay and lesbian citizens. Would progressives go numb just so we could hold onto our heroic image of Obama? In an instant, we were all converted into guilty bystanders. Would this be the first of many times we would have to go into denial to hold onto the image?
Remember how many of us took to the streets to protest the undeclared war in Iraq? “Why didn’t Bush try harder to negotiate before he attacked?” That’s what we said before Obama’s victory. Now, as the new president transfers troops from the undeclared war in Iraq to an undeclared war in Afghanistan, and bombs that nation without even trying to negotiate anew, most liberals watch silently numb.
I want to be clear that I voted for Obama. But I also need be clear that George Bush has set the bar so low that anyone who doesn’t believe in torture now seems like Mother Teresa. Sometimes, the smarter leaders are, the more they mask the problems of a bad system. So, it may actually be harder to find our ethical polestar under the comfortably dim light of Obama than the stark midnight of Bush.
And, Let’s be honest. The price of admission into the halls of power has always been one’s highest principles. In spite of Obama’s soaring rhetoric, he did not run for the office of prophet but for the office of president. His job description will be to give us the pride and privilege of living in an empire without seeing the horrific violence any such an empire requires. His job description will be to restore our standard of living without revealing the sweatshops and gun boat diplomacy that are the very sinews of capitalism.
A prophet would call us to be world citizens, a president must put America first whether we are right or wrong. A prophet would call us to be voices for the voiceless, a president must betray unpopular minorities in the name of consensus. A prophet would call us to choose human rights over property rights, a president puts the fate of the wretched of the earth into the invisible and pitiless hand of the market.
Somehow, we the American people must recognize our own part in the unending cycle of post-election betrayal. Before Election Day, we will not vote for anyone who does not inspire us to our highest ideals. Afterward, we will not support any who do not pander to our basest appetites. The sad history of post-election disappointments has not been carved by some external hand of providence. It crawls like a reptile out of the discrepancy between who Americans say we are and what we’ve actually become.
But here is the good news: Democracy is not founded on personalities, it is founded on principles. We save the republic not by changing captains but by changing course. In the end, it does not matter who sits in the captain’s chair if the ship has lost its rudder. Leaders in a corrupt system cannot be prophetic, but we the people can. The key for progressive activism in the next four years will be, when Obama turns out to be just another mortal, whether it drives us to despair, or to a good hard look in the mirror, and then out into the streets.