Obama’s Victory: A Sociological Prayer

I’m a sociology teacher, a member of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon, an almost-pacifist, and a libertarian socialist. My intellectual heroes are people like Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, and Noam Chomsky. I believe democracy is much more in the streets than in the halls, and that Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the great icons of successful modern leadership. I consider my life’s calling to be to raise my son well and to do as much as I can to help expose and publicize the dangers of corporate capitalism and market totalitarianism.

For all these reasons, and because my mama and granny didn’t raise a complete fool, I voted for Cynthia McKinney, not Barack Obama. Think about it: Obama is threatening new and expanded wars; spurns single-payer national health insurance; voted for FISA renewal and the mother of all give-aways to Wall Street; wants to include Republicans when he doesn’t have to; thumbed his nose at public campaign financing; almost certainly won’t get tough on the rogue state of Israel; and has been utterly weaselly about his quasi-promise to withdraw from Iraq. To compound all that, he also selected as his running-mate the Botoxed super-creep, Joe Biden, the figure who revealed his stunning secret disdain for democracy to a group of big-wig fundraisers in Seattle two weeks before the election.


Last night, as Obama strode to the podium for his victory speech, why did I find myself welling up with tears and choking out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on. ..

It isn’t that I’ve lost my deep skepticism about what’s on Obama’s agenda. Sure, his speech was wonderful, what with its reference to the New Deal, its borrowing of a major line and an exact cadence from the last public speech of Dr. King, its sublime mention of a 106-year-old woman as a way to think about the future, and its promise of a new puppy.

But that’s not it. Though all these things do raise my hopes a bit, that’s not why I felt, watching Jesse Jackson sob, that a new door has opened. No, it’s something much bigger than Obama himself. It is something my sociology work has convinced me of.

Permit me to explain:

Part of it is something explained by fellow sociologist John Markoff, in his book Waves of Democracy.

While we are trained by vested interests to believe that democracy is a smooth-functioning, stable-state reality that has already been fully achieved and operates mainly by voting and parliamentary procedure, the actual reality is quite different. Democracy, Markoff points out, is an unending, self-expending process. Moreover, it is as much about organizing and movements as it is about rules and procedures and ballots.

Indeed, think of all the things we rightly perceive to be the fruits and blessing of democracy: votes for women, votes for victims of racist apartheid, votes for everybody of a mature age, the 8-hour work day, the right to organize unions and other political societies, environmental standards, the ending of egregious imperial wars, etc. All these things were only ever put on the public agenda and forced into the fabric of democracy by social movements. Left undisturbed by mass mobilizations and principled trouble-making, even the kindliest overseers and the fairest of mundane elections would likely have let all the overcome evils run on indefinitely. Hell, even democracy itself only won its day via fighting in the streets — think back on the American and French Revolutions! Not exactly tea parties, Boston Harbor notwithstanding.

So, as Markoff argues, the reality is that democracy moves in waves. It ebbs and flows. It surges and retreats. While Constitutions, Bills of Rights, and universal suffrage and fair elections are all necessary, they are neither sufficient nor the whole story of what democracy is and how it works. In full sociological view:

[W]e will find movements, often involving transnational components, demanding democratization; we will also find important anti-democratic movements. We will find elites advocating democratic reforms, often in response to initiatives by other states; we will find anti-democratic actions by elites a well. And we will see movements and elites interact: movements pushing elites and elites opening up opportunities for movements. When the processes come together in a great multinational convergence, the result is a wave of democratization (or antidemocracy).

This brings me to the other part of my newfound optimism. This second part comes from Harvard Sitkoff, the excellent historian of the Civil Rights Movement.

In his book, The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1992, Sitkoff observes that social movements crystallize only at the rare times when two things come into rough balance — anger and hope.

Nourished by anger, revolutions are born of hope. They are the offspring of belief and bitterness, of faith in the attainment of one’s goals and indignation at the limited rate and extent of change. Rarely in history are the two stirrings confluent in a sufficient force to generate an effective, radical social movement.

As Sitkoff also points out, it is hope that tends to be lacking, as the forces of brutality (the ones that have dared call themselves “Civilization”) tend to hunt out and crush down good, hope-inspiring examples. Only when some tireless strugglers manage to push a daisy up through the pavement does lightning strike and a movement rise. Anger is always there. Given the power of the powerful, hope is usually the rain in the desert, the desperately-needed thing that goes lacking.

Yet, history is never over. Every once in a while, we get a Brown v, Board of Education. As Sitkoff explains, without Brown, there would probably have been no Civil Rights Movement as we knew it, and as we have so greatly (if only incompletely) benefited from:

Brown heightened the aspirations and expectations of African-Americans [and their sympathizers] as nothing before had. It proved that the Southern segregation system could be challenged and defeated. It proved that change was possible. Nearly a century after their professed freedom had been stalled, compromised, and stolen, blacks confidently anticipated being free and equal at last.

This, then, is what I think and pray Obama’s breakthrough victory might ultimately mean — it might very well stand, whatever it ugly sort-run details may be, as the next Brown v. Board of Education, the next long-awaited spark, the next rain that brought a new and bigger and smarter wave of democracy that not only made the desert flower once again, but allowed us to claim still more territory for human decency, sustainability, and love. Like Brown before did before (and our schools are still deeply segregated aren’t they?), Obama’s win might yield a storm of new hope sufficient to unleash the ordinary people once again. It might finally allow us to use, rather than just discuss and nurse, our anger.


Let us take President Obama’s victory and his invitation and make them ours, on our own terms: Let us seize this victory and move once again into the streets. Let us do lay our hands on the arc of history, and use these next thirty years to bend it so as to undo and transcend the vast evils wrought over the last thirty years, by the benighted forces of privilege and reaction. Let us use this landslide and this wave of new youthful energy to put huge pressures on President Obama and those who attend and follow him in Washington. And let us turn this new wave into a wave of not just domestic, but global democratization. Let us continue to fight and win in our culture war (and, yes, we are winning). Let us seize victory from the jaws of defeat and fashion a humane, still-progressive world for our 106-year-old children!

Michael Dawson is author of The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (2004). He is the publisher of the blog The Consumer Trap, which aims to expose capitalism, marketing and market totalitarianism. Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. John Hatch said on November 5th, 2008 at 1:50pm #

    I wish Obama well, but I fear that the PNAC snakes who have been at their deadly work since the awful Reagan era will not allow an Obama Presidency to stand.

    Bush & Cheney were/are indeed awful, but it’s the powers behind them that are truly to be feared. And they’re not just going to go away.

  2. Max Shields said on November 5th, 2008 at 2:20pm #


    Very nicely written piece…but some thoughts

    I don’t think what you’re attributing to democracy (at least as a human concept) is really the fundamental principle at work. In the biological science it is referred to as organized complexity co-created through the dynamics of self-organizing. Perhaps you could call living democracy at its best an example of this principle; but democracy as we refer to it is generally taken to be a formal means of governance.

    So when you say “democracy” moves in ebbs in flows, you are really describing the underlying principle, not a form of governance per se. I think it is very important to understand fundamental principles. All else is a “layering”. The layers, such as democracy, readily crumble when the fundamental priniciple (I’m talking about something so basic to the very nature of an living being plant or animal that it can either create or destroy when we align with it or against it).

    Constitutions and the like are trappings which are important insofar as they reflect the underlying principles. If not they can be worthless at best or pathological.

    As a Green you probably know this, perhaps through your research or intuitively – it is what draws you to the Green party – at least in part. Socialism, at least as the basis of economics and social relationships certainly follows the path of this natural principle. But like all “man” made systems, they can readily go awry – be weary of ideologues.

    As far as the emotion you showed – good for you – but give yourself some time before thinking this Obama phenom is more than the jubilation after a Jack Johnson bout.

    I have two words for you: Rahm Emanuel. Expected Obama chief of staff (Israel firster)…and there’s much more to follow…

  3. Michael Dawson said on November 5th, 2008 at 2:38pm #

    I have no doubt that Obama’s going to name a horrendous cabinet, as I said, Max. My level of optimism about him has leapt, but only from 1 percent to 10. I still think as likely to make things worse as he is to make this better, and that treading water and talking nice (Clintonism) is by far the most likely thing.

    But the sheer category of what just happened, plus the large scale on which it happened, makes me at least entertain new possibilities. Millions of new voters and old burnouts are now getting up off the mat. If they don’t get what they thought they were asking for, they might start thinking for themselves.

    As to democracy, all I’m saying is that social movements cause the advancements. The form, as you say, either advances or recedes according to popular pressure or its absence.

    As to the reactionary elite, John, I would never take my eye off them, as you say. But they are in some pretty serious trouble now, nevertheless. They’re losing some of their capacity to trick the Bubbas.

  4. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 5th, 2008 at 3:13pm #

    john hatch,
    as u say, people behind obama r the people who really rule the serfs. and the winner was once again some 210mn richest amers who rule america.
    let’s remember bush and nixon. nixon had to go once the ruling class decided that he had to go. and for trivial reasons in comparison to what clinton and bushes did since ‘8b.
    and that W was president, w. his limited knowledge shows or ev en proves that a prez is just a tiny cog.
    and i forgot about johnson. did he decide not to run again or was he told not to run again? thnx.
    what prez had voluntarily abandoned quest for second term if he was not under any pressure to run again. or even strongly urged to run?

  5. Deadbeat said on November 5th, 2008 at 4:26pm #

    John Hatch says…

    I wish Obama well, but I fear that the PNAC snakes who have been at their deadly work since the awful Reagan era will not allow an Obama Presidency to stand.

    Max Shields says…

    I have two words for you: Rahm Emanuel. Expected Obama chief of staff (Israel firster)…and there’s much more to follow…

    Both John and surprisingly Max identifies the main area of weakness with Obama and clearly could lead to his downfall — Zionism. And as Michael Dawson states the elites are losing some of their capacity to trick “Bubba”.

    Can the Left really confront Zionism? There were unable to do so 4 years ago. However going forward if the Left can position itself as a real voice of opposition and confrontation to Zionism it will put the Obama Administration is a very awkward position and highlight a sharp contrast with the Left.

  6. JN said on November 5th, 2008 at 4:54pm #

    Zionism is only part of the network of inter-connected interests & ideologies that rule the US behind the facade of ‘democracy.’ It should not be ignored but neither should its importance be exagerated to the exclusion of all else.

    The centre of the problem is the symbiosis between capital & the state.

  7. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 5th, 2008 at 5:28pm #

    no, Left in canada cannot deter zionism/zionists. how ab confront?
    it wld depend how the user of the word “confront” uses this word.
    most obvious meaning of the word “to confront” wld be to face s’mone.
    and then give that person a piece of one’s mind.
    it cld also mean to stop that person or bar him from going s’mwhere.
    it seems to me that in US, vast numbers of amers r prozionistic. so, whatever “confront” may mean, the tiny minority cannot do anything to zionists; other than be red in face; foam in anger, shout, etc.
    i have never accosted a known zionist. and if i wld ever come facetoface to even a suspected zionist, i wld not talk to him/her.
    i wonder if those people who fear zionist undulyinfluence in US, canada, and other christian lands, r still for twostate ‘sol’n’?
    and if so, that person who fears israel’s influence on US politics, is self a minizionist; at least in my eyes. thnx

  8. Deadbeat said on November 5th, 2008 at 5:43pm #

    JN writes…

    Zionism is only part of the network of inter-connected interests & ideologies that rule the US behind the facade of ‘democracy.’ It should not be ignored but neither should its importance be exagerated to the exclusion of all else. The centre of the problem is the symbiosis between capital & the state.

    Your warning is absolutely correct. Unfortunately the Left tore itself apart over Zionism. The issue as you state is not to exaggerate Zionism to the exclusion of all else is plain common sense. The problem is NOT to ignore how Zionism works as a force to divide the Left. It played a huge role in the diffusion of the anti-war movement which was the most recent opportunity for the Left to coalesce into a movement. Unfortunately that energy was tapped by the Obama campaign because the Left left a huge void when it diffused the anti-war movement.

  9. Ramsefall said on November 5th, 2008 at 6:27pm #


    an enjoyable piece, especially the integration of relevant sources, smooth. But most importantly, you voted your conscience, that’s yours, and the message your share with us is ours, thanks.

    Best to you.

  10. Ramsefall said on November 5th, 2008 at 6:31pm #


    it’s definitely spooky the administration being assembled for/by Obama, but even more so it’s indicative of the future course…minimal change, at best.

    And best to you.

  11. corylus said on November 5th, 2008 at 8:53pm #

    Michael, Thank you for some thought provocation. But I’m shocked that you could at once claim your intellectual heroes include the likes of Marx, Veblen, and Mills, then somehow finagle the word “democracy” to fit the “waves” (some would say spritzes of mist) of social change in this country over the past 230 or so years. Social movements in this nation may arise from democratic grass roots, but those roots are quickly trimmed and harvested by the authoritarian oligarchy for the advancement of its agenda. Time and again, social change has been co-opted by power to serve its political purposes, leaving the masses wildly celebrating crumbs of progress. Capitalism and democracy are antithethical, and capitalism still calls the shots in this country, and always has. Until people choose to grasp democracy, it will remain a toothless lion awakened only for parade by the corporations and its proxies in government and the military to delude the world that democracy is alive, well fed, and healthy. It’s a grand illusion. I predict that Obama will not jostle the status quo in the least, and the lion that could be will remain asleep, wearing down its toothless gums on empty dreams.

  12. reza said on November 5th, 2008 at 11:24pm #

    Amen! Let’s not leave the streets!

    The point being made (pretty well too) is that democracy is FORCED on the establishment. It’s not about procedures that can be rendered meaningless by removing (as you say correctly) the roots. Parenti makes a similar point: all the achievements won by the American working classes were won by democratic pushing (and forcing things on the rulers; things like 8-hour day, no child labor, etc.); in other words, by organizing mass movements that came from the working classes/’regular’ people; and all of those demands won democratically (i.e., in the streets, not by merely casting ballots) were fought against by the ruling class (and still are being fought, as the last 30 years shows). Of course, those who rule have more powerful means of oppressing. That’s natural. So, for our part, we too need to organize ourselves into a bigger, more powerful force.

    So, the point is: step one) Stop them from sticking it to you; and step two) stick it to them in organized fashion!

  13. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 6th, 2008 at 7:53am #

    i agree w. corylus,
    ruling class harvests fruits of movements, technology, sciense, military might, spy agencies, etc.
    thus emerges ever stronger, more militant/greedy, etc.
    working people also benefit from science/technology but not to the degree that the ruling class does or its adjacent substrata.
    however, working people suffer enorm regress: obesity, pedophilia, stress, cancer, pollution, divorce, robberies, other crime, etc.
    working class also serve as mercenary in far away lands. etc thnx

  14. Jonathan said on November 6th, 2008 at 10:44am #

    Deadbeat, I would be really interested to know how you envision the “left” confronting zionism? What strategy do you suggest?

  15. Michael Dawson said on November 6th, 2008 at 12:52pm #

    First of all, we won’t get anywhere if we continue to prattle on about Zionism. What we need to do is confront _Israel_ and force it to comply with UN 242 and international law. We need a new _Israel_ policy.

    With Rahm Emanuel on board, that ain’t happening soon.

    Meanwhile, my argument was not and is not that Obama will deliver good things. My point is that the election of a black president in a huge landslide may end up inspiring people to get them out of cynical despair and into a social movement. Time will tell, but it’s a possibility.

    The scare is already there, per today’s NYT:

    “Mr. Obama’s advisers said they were startled…by the jubilation that greeted the news of Mr. Obama’s victory in much of the United States and abroad.”

  16. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 6th, 2008 at 3:00pm #

    michael dawson,
    hope does run eternally for overwhelming number of people. so does trust; one of our greatest attributes.
    which obama and others didn’t know? and didn’t know how to use for own advatage?
    but so do wars. for ca 7k yrs. US self had waged some 180 wars/incursions in just 2 cents.
    and is it still just begining? and just 1% amers get excited ab them?
    so, 99% of amers, now that a demigod is a prez, wld over a few months/yrs awaken to the suffering of the darkies all over the orb?
    not the amers i know.
    football, baseball, golf, money, family problems, drugs, murders, robberies, taxes, etc., amers do care about.
    and that’s average panhuman behavior to follow sports and mind own biz .

  17. UNK said on November 9th, 2008 at 5:51pm #

    If I hear “democracy” one more time…..Our country is a Republic, always has been. The word “democracy” was never used to describe our nation until well into the 20th century. The founding fathers considered democracy to be the most evil form of governance. Even the greeks abandoned it….Plato saw clearly that as soon as the poor realized they could vote money from the coffers and into their pockets, it was over. Sounds like many of Barrack’s promises, doesn’t it?

    A libertarian socialist? I had to look that one up. Anarchist just doesn’t get the respect it once did, eh? I don’t understand how after the fall of so many failed communist states, and europe’s declining population/wealth, people can still support socialism.

  18. UNK said on November 10th, 2008 at 3:42pm #

    I see the moderators have removed my previous comment. And they claim to be the voice of dissidence? Those who have read my previous posts know I do not insult or use profanity, and only make arguments that I have vetted through my own experience or research. Its sad that even “radical” news mediums can’t tolerate good, logical debate. Everywhere is more of the same.

  19. Michael Dawson said on November 14th, 2008 at 5:40pm #

    What post was taken off, UNK?

    Meanwhile, you’ve scored a technical almost-point there with your republic comment. Do/should republics have any democracy in them? And is what the Founding Fathers intended the last word on what we should do? Why? Do you like slavery?

    As to socialism, people still believe in it because it’s only been tried for 100 years, and because capitalism is an unsustainable death-march.