Obama Speaks: Party Politician or Community Organizer?

I greatly admire and appreciate moving, memorable speeches, and former President Barack Obama has given many. Some of his most powerful have been when he stepped outside of his role as a politician.

I cannot help but think of the timeless eulogy, more than a speech, that he gave at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, in which Obama remembered and memorialized the pastor and the eight parishioners killed by a white supremacist gunman at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sang the opening refrain of Amazing Grace. As Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote, this eulogy has found its place in history.

Another memorable Obama speech is the one he gave in July of this year in South Africa honoring the birth and life of Nelson Mandela. Obama recounted how after 30 years in prison Mandela emerged and:

“..we all witnessed the grace and the generosity with which he (Mandela) embraced former enemies,   – we understood it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”     

Last week, Obama gave a speech at the University of Illinois, a speech more in his role as a politician, given to the kick off of a campaign he hopes will help Democrats take control of Congress in the November elections. I read and watched a video of the speech and felt that the end was the most impactful moment, when he spoke directly to the young people in the audience:

“You can be the generation that, at a critical moment, stood up and reminded us just how precious this experiment in democracy really is, just how powerful it can be when we fight for it, when we believe in it. I believe in you.”

The Fight for Democracy

Many of the young people there were undoubtedly independents, and they are in many ways engaged in a fight for democracy in the United States today. More young people are registering to vote, and more of them are registering as independents than as Democrats or Republicans.

You can be the generation that, at a critical moment, stood up and reminded us just how precious this experiment in democracy really is...
Barack Obama

The life of democracy, as Obama frequently asserts, demands ongoing engagement. The American experiment in democracy began with a revolution, one that was deeply flawed by the acceptance of slavery. After the Revolution the United States “would soon come to hold the largest slave population in the history of the world and yet,” in the words of Harvard professor of history Vincent Brown, “the Revolution continued to inspire.” And the African American community became the essential galvanizing leadership to expand democracy in the United States. .

Early in the speech Obama refers to George Washington’s retirement after serving as General of the American Revolutionary Army and two terms as president:

“And the point Washington made, the point that is essential to American democracy, is that in a government of and by and for the people, there should be no permanent ruling class…And as a fellow citizen, I am here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.”

Today, the two major political parties that determine the process, that control who can vote, who can appear on the ballot, who can participate in the debates, and that limit the political dialogue, have themselves become “the permanent ruling class.”

And yes, I very much agree that our democracy does depend on the participation of the American people. But what is killing democracy is the suppression of the right to vote and the exclusion of voters exercised by the two political parties. The two parties exclude independent and unaffiliated voters — now 44 % of the electorate — from voting in primaries.

In the 2016 presidential election, 26.3 million unaffiliated voters were excluded from the primaries and had no voice in the selection of the major party nominees for president. Many of the young voters, a growing majority of whom are independents, who were supporting Senator Bernie Sanders and campaigning for him were not permitted to vote in the primary and thus not allowed to vote for him. No registered voter should be required to join a political party in order to vote.

Voter disenfranchisement takes many forms. One of the legacies of Jim Crow policies of the past is the mass incarceration of people of color. Over six million Americans cannot vote because they have a felony and 40% of them are black.

No registered voter should be required to join a political party in order to vote.
Dr. Jessie Fields, IVN Editorial Voice

Voter ID laws discriminate against the poor and people of color and make it harder for people to vote.

As independents, we must speak out against all forms of voter suppression, unlike politicians who only speak out against voter suppression when it hurts their party.

Will The Community Organizer Re-Emerge?

The issue that Obama, as a Democratic Party politician, seems to not get about political independence and voting rights is the issue of power. Democracy is based on power from the bottom up, not well-intentioned elites telling people how they should vote.

Independents are committed to opening up the political process and upending the corruption of politics that benefits the parties against the interests of the majority of Americans. The political parties have built a wall of distance between the government and ordinary people that endangers our democracy.

Our communities are still affected by the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racial division and political disenfranchisement. This history is still with us and it hurts the entire country. To move forward, we have to be able to bring people from many different backgrounds together. Human growth and social development are essential for democracy to thrive and for poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment to be overcome. We all must grow.

Obama says it well toward the end of his speech in South Africa when he speaks about what he learned from his days as a community organizer:

“…it’s time for us to start focusing more on the grassroots, because that’s where democratic legitimacy comes from. Not from the top down, not from abstract theories, not just from experts, but from the bottom up. Knowing the lives of those who are struggling. As a community organizer, I learned as much from a laid-off steel worker in Chicago or a single mom in a poor neighborhood that I visited as I learned from the finest economists in the Oval Office. Democracy means being in touch and in tune with life as it’s lived in our communities, and that’s what we should expect from our leaders..”

Perhaps over time his having left the Oval Office will allow Barack Obama the community organizer to more fully emerge, to grow and to see the power of political independence. We can only hope so.

Photo Credit: Evan El-Amin / shutterstock.com