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Peace Studies at Manchester University | Plowshares | Indianapolis Peace Institute | Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace
  Volume 36   October 2009  


Barack Obama's Election of 2008:

Democratic Nonviolence and the Power of Ruling Elites

by Richard Johnson

On November 4, 2008, minutes after it was clear that Barack Obama had won, John Lewis called the election “a nonviolent revolution.”  Because it was John Lewis, one of the truly great nonviolent activists of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and now a leader of the Black Caucus in Congress, I began to ask myself, and to research, whether or not there was anything essentially nonviolent about Obama’s campaign for the presidency.  If it were, could that nonviolence also be seen as a revolution?  A further question came to mind: In the only global imperial nation in the world, with strongly entrenched political, economic, military and ideological elites, how could the election of a president of this imperial power constitute a “nonviolent revolution”?  Nonviolence—with its emphasis on egalitarian social change, social justice, the power of the people, and the reduction and ultimately the elimination of violence—is the antithesis of rule by a small number of individuals who belong to these interlocking elites.


Naomi Klein captured the dichotomy between widespread small donor contributions to Obama’s campaign and the enormous support he received from corporate donors: “The Obama machine is a very weird mix between the most elite Wall Street funding, and the most grassroots, small scale, community organizing models. These two forces brought Obama to power.”1   As he addresses the economic crisis facing the United States and the world, Obama speaks about the importance of providing billions to Wall Street because—without this bailout of those who caused the crisis in the first place—citizens on Main Street will suffer even more deeply than they are suffering now.  But there are differences between the interests of Wall Street and Main Street, and it is difficult to foresee who will profit most from his policies in the months and years to come.  And what, if anything, does a massive bailout for Wall Street have to do with nonviolence?


I argue here that Barack Obama’s election does advance one essential form of nonviolence, democratic nonviolence, but simultaneously he strongly supports capitalism and the state in which ruling elites commonly seek to maintain their power by circumventing the power of the people.  According to Robert Witto in Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women’s Suffrage, there are three forms of principled nonviolence, “anarchist, revolutionary, or democratic.”2   Anarchist nonviolence perceives violence primarily in the state, revolutionary nonviolence in capitalism, and democratic nonviolence in tyrannical governments that deny the people the power to exercise their will through the elective franchise.  Democratic nonviolence seeks to use the vote to expand the belief in and power of democratic principles, to remove from office those elected officials who subvert these principles, and to achieve “significant social change.”

As we look at Obama’s election in 2008 and contrast it to George W. Bush’s elections of 2000 and 2004, we can see in 2008 much greater electoral involvement of the young, African Americans, and other minorities in coalition with progressive whites.  There was historic grassroots involvement in Obama’s campaign, with unprecedented number of volunteers and small donor contributions.  It became clear to growing numbers of voters that the Bush administration was involved in an illegitimate war in Iraq, torture of detainees and denial of their rights to habeas corpus, illegal electronic surveillance, reduction of health care to children of low income families, more aggressive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich, and other policies that subvert democracy.

There was a groundswell of support for Obama because large numbers of citizens came to believe that he was the candidate who would bring about the most thoroughgoing program of social justice: ending torture, reinstituting habeas corpus, ending the war in Iraq, rolling back illegal electronic surveillance, widening health care coverage to children and adults, greater educational opportunity, greener energy policies, and a modest but important redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor and the middle class.  Both the way Obama campaigned and the policies he supported were aimed at strengthening democracy in the United States.3  


It is equally true, however, that Obama is a member of U.S. ruling elites and that he supports state and corporate power.  He is no anarchist.  He writes and speaks out for a strong role of the state in a wide range of issues, and he is consistent in his belief in capitalism.  He has spoken for a large defense budget, and although he plans a phased withdrawal of combat troops in Iraq, he favors the deployment of thousands more troops in Afghanistan. 


In the United States and in all democracies, the propertied classes have always sought to structure the government around their interests.  The Founding Fathers limited democracy to white men with property.  However, women, blacks, and the un-propertied have used nonviolent social action to win the vote and to do their best to transform democracy into a more egalitarian form of governance.  During George W. Bush’s administration, corporate and governmental ruling elites increased their power more than during any other administration in many decades. 


It appears to me that Obama’s election reversed the increase in this power in many ways because of an upsurge of progressive forces across the nation, but to what extent the power of ruling elites will be held in check by his election remains to be seen.  It is possible that these elites will be able to maintain or even strengthen their power during an Obama administration; it is also possible that the power of progressive movements may be able to alter how ruling elites operate.  Since I favor the expansion of democracy, I will explore how the power of the people can prevail in the struggle for power that will take place in this new administration.  It will take a monumental effort on the part of progressives in the U.S. and other countries to reduce the power of ruling elites of this imperial nation. 


Democratic Nonviolence


In my experience of elections since the 1950s and in my research on earlier elections, I know of none with such a high degree of citizen involvement.  Although there are no firm numbers that I can find, I have read that three to four million people worked in the Obama campaign and five to six million made financial contributions.  The polls indicated as well that those who supported Obama had a much higher degree of enthusiasm for their candidate than those who favored John McCain.    


Democracy, according to R.J. Rummel in Protest, Power, and Change, involves the acceptance of certain rights, “particularly the right to vote, the right to have one’s vote counted equally, the right to run for the highest office, and the right to organize political groups or parties.”4  These rights institutionalize “a means of nonviolent conflict resolution—the willingness to negotiate, to compromise, and debate, rather than fight.  Moreover, the ballot rather than the bullet is the very democratic ideal of voting to resolve differences and choose leaders.  It is what we mean by democracy. . . .  The more democracy the less likely violent rebellion, revolution, civil war, bloody riots, antigovernment terrorism, and such.”         

As we look at Rummel’s four democratic rights of the electoral franchise, at least three are relevant to the election of 2008.  We know that in the “elections” of 2000 and 2004, there was widespread denial of citizens’, especially African Americans’, right to vote, prominently in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004. Although it was a formal right of African Americans to run for the presidency, with Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition candidacy in 1984 and 1988 as the most prominent example, it is true that for minorities, the right to run for office, and to have a real chance of winning, is limited by racism.  The more citizens who discount a person because of his/her race, the less real the right to vote actually is for these minorities.  Obama’s election proved that U.S. democracy reached a critical point of true democracy in which race alone did not disqualify him from running and winning.  And it seems to me that his grassroots campaign strategy demonstrated a degree of authenticity in the electoral process not seen before in earlier elections.  


Taking the Civil Rights Movement as an example, Taylor Branch recently argued that nonviolence is at the core of true democracy: “I think the civil rights movement offered us a way to advance democracy in the world. . . .  Nonviolence is at the heart of what democracy is. Every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence. Democracy is institutionalized nonviolence.”5


Activists in the Civil Rights Movement understood that African Americans had to have to vote to become full citizens of the United States, just as proponents of Jim Crow laws understood that preventing blacks from voting reinforced white power.  In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first Lincoln Memorial speech of May 17, 1957, "Give Us the Ballot - We'll Transform the South," he stated, “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and it is democracy turned upside down.  So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind; it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact; I can only submit to the edict of others.  So our most urgent request to the President of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.”6


In reference to this speech, David J. Garrow writes, “Voting rights would remain at the very top of the civil-rights agenda for the following eight years, until passage of the remarkably forceful Voting Rights Act of 1965.”7   He continues, “The Voting Rights Bill opened the door to the full inclusion of African-Americans as truly equal participants in U.S. politics.  At first slowly, and then in a rush, its provisions led to an explosion in the number of black elected officials in the South.”  John Lewis, who was nearly killed on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in the Selma protest that led to the passage of that bill, would not have become a congressman in Georgia had it not been signed into law; L. Douglas Wilder would not have become the first African American governor in Virginia in 1990: and Barack Obama would not have become the president of the United States of America in 2008. 


Unfortunately, however, the Civil Rights Movement began to disintegrate after the Voting Rights Bill passed in 1965.  Fewer young blacks believed that further progress could be made by nonviolent means.  Perhaps even more important, after the primary legal impediments to black advancement were removed, the next great hurdle was social and economic equality; but there was not enough black unity and certainly not enough white support for the more radical “Poor People’s March” on Washington in 1968.  Even if Dr. King had not been assassinated in Memphis that spring, there is no evidence that a significant portion of the nation was ready for a thoroughgoing assault on class privilege, especially given the deep divisions in the country over the War in Vietnam. 


In national politics over the next 40 years, the Civil Rights Movement was marginalized for the most part by Republican racist rhetoric and policies.  The Democrats lost significantly in the South to the Republicans, as President Lyndon Johnson anticipated as soon as he signed the Voting Rights Bill.  The Republicans occupied the Oval Office 28 of those 40 years.  The first Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, lost after one term to the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980, one of the most blatantly inaccurate uses of the word revolution in recent history.  Reagan increased significantly the power of corporate elites.  The second Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was able to serve two terms from 1992 to 2000, but his fiscal policies often served the same corporate interests.  In fact, his administration continued the process of financial deregulation by abolishing the Glass-Seagull Act which “had separated commercial banks from financial institutions that incur high risks,” as Noam Chomsky explains.8       


As we look at the Civil Rights Movement, which is more broadly and more aptly seen as a stage in the much longer Black Freedom Movement, its successes can be charted in two major phases in the Twentieth Century: the beginning of the century to the late 60s, when major legal victories were achieved, and 1965 to 2008, when broader political gains were often denied until the victory of 2008.  The NAACP was formed in 1909 to combat racial discrimination and was especially successful by mid-century in chipping away some of the most egregious Jim Crow laws.  From the 20s, a growing number of African Americans found what they considered a major solution to their second-class citizenship in Gandhian nonviolence, as Sudarshan Kapur has demonstrated in Raising Up a Prophet.9   His central thesis is that Dr. King’s rise to a leadership role of nonviolent direct action in Montgomery in 1955 was prepared by over thirty years of thought and action by African Americans.  Dr. King did not create the Civil Rights Movement; the black freedom movement raised him up and made possible the gains that he and other leaders worked to bring about.  A movement depends upon thousands of men, women, and children to create the conditions necessary for significant social change.


It seems to me that a movement of progressives—black, young, women, Latinos, and professionals—raised up Barack Obama to lead them to end the policies of the Bush administration and to work toward a wide range of progressive policies.  The “election of 2000,” which Chomsky aptly called a pseudo-election, left millions of progressives angry and concerned about the future of the country.  Bush’s response to 9/11, his “war on terrorism,” became increasingly a war on democratic institutions domestically and a “good vs. evil” war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  By the electoral campaign of 2004, as progressives pressed for a Democratic victory over Republicans, many were inspired by Illinois state senator Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention that summer.  Obama spoke eloquently for progressive change, and millions saw in him a champion of a movement to end the abuses of the Bush administration.  After President Bush won another “pseudo-election” in 2004, the Democrats finally won a small majority in the House and Senate in 2006. 


Obama decided that year to run for the presidency even though he had only served in the U.S. Senate since 2004, his first national office.  Many politicians, including prominent African Americans, did not think it possible that he would win the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, who led in the early polls by a sizable majority.  But Obama ran a smart campaign, and most importantly, as a former community organizer, he ran a grassroots campaign.  He understood that he could only win if millions of progressives rallied around him.  Progressives—realizing as a result of the Bush victories of 2000 and 2004 and his anti-democratic policies as president that they had to become directly involved in the political process—were willing to provide a level of sweat labor and financial support that very few others anticipated in 2006.     


Just as Dr. King could not have led the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s without a broad-based African American freedom movement behind him stretching back generations, Obama could not have won in 2008 without a broad-based progressive coalition of blacks, whites, Latinos and especially the young.  As Obama stated in The Audacity of Hope, Democrats had ridden the wave of urbanization in Illinois in the decade before his victory in the Senate in 2004.10   He and his advisers understood in 2008 that this wave was growing in crucial states across the nation and that progressives could win in 2008. 


From 1968 to 2004, the Republicans generally put together winning coalitions of fiscal and social conservatives by playing on fears of whites, especially rural, small-town and evangelical males, who opposed Civil Rights, feminism, gay rights, and abortion.  But slowly their power base was being eroded by urbanization. 


Progressives were ready, willing, and able to work in unprecedented numbers at the grassroots in 2008, and they had the demographics they needed to prevail.  According to the final pre-election Gallup polling,  “Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election with practically total support from black Americans, and heavy backing from those with postgraduate educations, young adults (male and female alike), and non-churchgoers.”11   The percentages of these groups are striking: 99% of Blacks, 64% of postgraduates, and 61% of both young people from 18 to 29 years of age and of those who seldom or never go to church.  Although blacks generally support Democrats at the 90% or higher level, 99% is extraordinary, even for an African American candidate.  And not only did Obama receive nearly 100% of their vote, African Americans increased their percentage of the total vote from 8% in 2004 to 13% in 2008, an amazing increase from one election to the next.      


The support of the young is striking as well.  On average, voters over 60 have been more easily influenced by Republican opposition to progressive movements of the 1960s.  After the culture wars had been fought out for years by their elders, a sizable majority of voters under 40, who did not experience the 60s directly, rose up and said, “Enough.  It’s time to move ahead.”  Obama, at 47, struck a chord with the young beyond the expectation of most analysts.  According to Ruy Teixeira, among those who were born between 1978 and 2000, Obama was preferred by “a stunning 66 percent-to-32 percent margin in 2008.”12  Teixeira continues, this Millennial Generation “is adding 4.5 million adults to the voting pool every year.” 


Not only were those with little or no religious affiliation strongly supportive of Obama in 2008, that demographic is growing rapidly as well.  According to Teixeira,By the election of 2016, it is likely that the United States will no longer be a majority white Christian nation.” 


While voter identification with progressives is on the rise, the number of those who identify themselves as Republicans declined considerably from 2004 to 2008.  According to Gallup in the poll cited above, Republicans declined from 39% of voters in 2004 to 29% in 2008.


I do think there is strong evidence that Obama’s campaign and election strengthened democracy in the United States and that this process furthers democratic nonviolence.  Of the three forms of principled nonviolence discussed by Wittko in Protest, Power, and Change—democratic, anarchist, and revolutionary—the democratic form is by far the most widely accepted and acted upon.  Nonviolent action depends upon the consciousness of the people, and relatively few people believe in anarchy or revolution.  Democracy exists in form in many countries, but it is generally so severely limited by the power of ruling elites that much needs to be done to further it as a form of nonviolent social change.  I disagree with John Lewis that Obama’s election constitutes a “nonviolent revolution” because democratic nonviolence is a slow, evolutionary process and because revolutionary nonviolence, according to Wittko, involves principled opposition to capitalism.  With Obama’s belief in capitalism, his election cannot properly be termed a nonviolent revolution.


The Power of Ruling Elites

Given the strong support Obama had 2008 from several key and generally growing segments of the populations and the likelihood that they will grow stronger in the future, it would appear that he has a real chance of a victory in 2012 and that other progressive candidates will have even greater opportunities after that.  But Noam Chomsky has argued that Obama’s grassroots support is not truly democratic and that his actual policies are not likely to be progressive, given the financial and foreign policy advisers he has chosen to serve with him.  Chomsky is arguing that Obama has been successful in getting votes, but he will not follow a genuinely democratic agenda domestically or internationally.  From this perspective, Obama is not furthering democratic nonviolence, he is subverting the democratic process and will continue to reinforce the power of ruling elites, all in the name of democracy, hope, and change.  Campaign rhetoric is one thing, ruling quite another. 


In “What Next? The Elections, the Economy, and the World,” Chomsky describes Obama’s successful campaign as “brand Obama. . . .  His army was mobilized to bring him to office.  They regard that as a good thing, accepting the Lippman conception of democracy, the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders are supposed to do what they’re told and then go home. . . .  This tremendous grassroots army that has been developed, which is now waiting for instructions. What should they do next to press forward Obama’s agenda? Whatever it is, the army’s supposed to be out there taking instructions, and press for it. . . .  What they don’t seem to realize is that what they’re describing, the ideal that they’re describing, is dictatorship, not democracy. . . .  The goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.”13  


In his analysis of the Obama’s staff and advisers, Chomsky provides strong evidence that Obama’s administration will reinforce the power of ruling elites.  Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, leading figures in Obama’s economic team, were major players during the Clinton administration in abolishing the Glass-Seagull Act, mentioned above, which contributed to the current financial crisis.  “Summers . . . presided over legislation barring federal regulation of derivatives, the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (Warren Buffett) that helped plunge financial markets to disaster. He ranks as ‘one of the main villains in the current economic crisis,’ according to Dean Baker, one of the few economists to have warned accurately of the impending crisis. Placing financial policy in the hands of Rubin and Summers is ‘a bit like turning to Osama Bin Laden for aid in the war on terrorism,’ Baker adds. Another achievement of Rubin and Summers (together with Alan Greenspan) was to prevent Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, from regulating credit default swaps in 1998—more WMD. ‘The best example of politics thwarting effective regulation,’ Baker writes.”14   


Chomsky argues that Obama’s foreign policy agenda is likely to reinforce the power of ruling elites as well.  For example, Obama’s silence and statements about Israel/Palestine.  Chomsky states that Obama’s reaction to the vicious Israeli assault on Gaza was “particularly disturbing . . . opening with Israel's violation of a ceasefire on November 4, as voters were going to the polls to elect Obama, then breaking out in full fury on December 27. To these crimes Obama's response has been silence—unlike, say, the terrorist attack in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hid behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July: ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when U.S. jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparably worse suffering to Palestinian children.”


The Challenge of Democratic Nonviolence to

the Power of Ruling Elites

It seems to me that there was real progress in democratic nonviolence in Obama’s election campaign. Grassroots democratic forces were brought to bear on the election of the first African American president of the United States. Collectively, millions of citizens gave an enormous amount of money to Obama. Simultaneously, “the most elite Wall Street” funders gave because they too want a piece of the action. It is not clear to me who will predominate in the Obama administration.

Obama’s appointees include many of the ruling elite from the Clinton administration. I am deeply concerned about the men and women who are supposedly going to craft ways to come out the financial crisis that they helped to produce.

Moreover, Obama’s foreign policy advisers are not as progressive as many of his supporters concerning the most pressing foreign policy issues: a two-state solution to the crisis in Israel/Palestine as well as a non-military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Obama proposes greater military involvement in Afghanistan, although he also suggests the possibility of negotiating with moderate Taliban; he talks about greater support for democracy in Pakistan while he continues drone attacks which undermine the legitimacy of democracy there; and he speaks of negotiations with Iran but states that all options remain on the table in reference to ending the Iranian nuclear program.

But I do not agree with Chomsky that the workers in Obama’s “army” are “uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.” There were several articles on fivethirtyeight.com and other web-based sources that demonstrate highly informed progressive views and perfectly rational choices in this “army’s” grassroots efforts to reverse many of the policies of the Bush administration. I personally know many who have been thinking about how to improve this country and who threw themselves into this election with a clear and compelling progressive agenda. Chomsky is absolutely correct that the Obama campaign used modern advertising methods, sadly a necessity in today’s U.S. election campaigns. However, I believe that advertising can co-exist alongside compassionate and intelligent volunteers who understand what they are doing and why.

We do not know what Obama will do as president, but it seems to me that in his first 60 days in office, he has proposed major initiatives in health care reform, the environment, and education. In these areas, which he included prominently in his campaign proposals, he is broadly in agreement with progressive thinking. I would argue here that he is riding the wave of progressive change, not manufacturing consent for his presidency. As Teixeira writes, “The public holds distinctly progressive views in each of these areas, backing health care for all, a transition to clean energy and building a 21st-century education system, including a major infusion of resources to improve kindergarten-through-12th grade education and college access.” 15 I do not see how Obama is controlling progressive groups in these proposals since they forwarded them before he came on the national scene. Progressives looked for and found in Obama a candidate who has promised to work for their interests. This seems democratic, rational, and informed to me and offers the possibility of real social change in the nation.

I agree with Stephen Zunes that “while many of Obama's policies will disappoint, frustrate and anger many of us in the progressive movement, we should not fail to recognize that there will be some fundamental differences in the policies of the federal government on many levels; that, given the power of the American presidency, even minor differences in policies can have a positive impact on millions of lives and that while there are certain institutional imperatives that will inevitably limit the degree to which even the most enlightened administration can bring about a shift in priorities, this does not obscure the fact that, in terms of public policy, we are witnessing the most dramatic change in American leadership since Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Herbert Hoover in 1933.” 16

As a former community organizer, Obama realizes that to make significant social change, people will have to organize to bring about what they want and feel is needed for the country. Zunes quotes a fascinating story that Amy Goodman recalled “from a small fundraising event in New Jersey for Obama about a year ago, at which a supporter expressed her concern with the longstanding U.S. support for Israel's occupation policies, an issue in which even the majority of liberal Democrats have tended to align themselves with the Republican right. Given the unwillingness of successive administrations of either party to push for a viable peace settlement, the activist asked if she could expect anything better under an Obama administration. Obama responded with a story about A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights activist and union organizer who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. At a meeting with Roosevelt, early in his administration, about the possibility of adopting a policy that would grant the largely African American porters rights under federal law, the president replied that he had been convinced by Randolph of the legitimacy of pushing for such legislation, but that he needed a constituency that would make him do it. A constituency was indeed mobilized, and the Railway Labor Act came into law in 1934.

“This is the challenge Obama is putting before us. From Palestine to the environment to almost every other issue, we must not simply wait and hope for Obama to do the right thing and then complain bitterly if he does not, but organize massively and effectively enough to give him no other choice but to adopt a progressive agenda. History has shown us that, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic leaders will rarely actually lead, but they are far more willing than Republicans to respond to grassroots demand for change. No one recognizes this more than Barack Obama, now the president of the United States.”

The organizing needed to further this progressive agenda will involve challenging the power of ruling elites to a degree not seen in the United States for several decades. But given the shift toward a more progressive, a more truly democratic and therefore more nonviolent electorate, we may muster sufficient power of the people to limit the power of these ruling elites. We have a precedent. Toward the end of World War II, with strong international pressure for a more just economic world order, the Bretton Woods conference was held to develop ways to manage the global finance system. At Bretton Woods, a balance was reached in which markets were regulated and in many advanced economies, poverty was reduced and the middle class enjoyed sustained economic advances. That system collapsed in 1971, and since then, while the rich have become the superrich, most of us have barely held on financially and many of us have lost whatever tenuous economic foothold we had reached before the collapse. Those locked in poverty are enduring almost unimaginable privation.

Now, with the collapse of current financial structures, a direct result of deregulation that has accelerated since 1971, there is the possibility that ruling elites will have to become more responsive to the growing demands of majorities in many of the advanced economies. For that to happen, progressives will have to work with wider segments of people in all countries to make real the Obama mantra, “Yes, we can!,” at times working with him and at times in opposition to his administration.

As I look back at the election of 2008 in March, 2009, I am struck by the elation that millions of progressives felt when the California election projection was announced for Barack Obama. I was sitting with my wife in the living room of two dear friends whose grandchildren were up late watching the results roll in. My friend John Beams, a long-term activist and co-founder of the Center for Nonviolence in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, had been out that day working for Obama with his grandchildren. He is one of many progressives who chose to contributed time and money to Obama but who also realize that this new president will be buffeted by forces from many directions. John knows that only concerted, long-haul progressive activism will transform this nation from its imperial hubris to a force for the Common Good.

And yet, we do have reason to celebrate the transition from one of the most reactionary presidents in recent history to one of the more progressive. George W. Bush presided over a war in Iraq that was illegitimate, ill-conceived and poorly executed; the war in Afghanistan is similar in that the early “victories” have proven to be pyrrhic; the economy is in shambles; and the vast majority of the citizens of the world have come to realize in the last eight years that U.S. imperialists are incredibly voracious in their desire to gobble up as much of the world’s resources as they can get their weapons and hands on.

It seems to me that U.S. imperialism is irrevocably on the decline. However, how that decline is managed by U.S. presidents is significant. The George W. Bushes would continue the downward spiral with reckless abandon, creating more fascism at home and more death and destruction abroad. It is not my hope, of course, that President Obama make the United States a kinder, gentler imperialism, an Imperialism Lite. I hope he will improve the quality of life in this country with health care reform, a significantly greener economy, a more viable and creative education system, and other much needed progressive reforms. I hope as well that he will realize that the citizens of other countries do not want us to dominate them. But I know that he will not make the transition from U.S. Imperialism to U.S. democratic nonviolence and international cooperation without our help. He has said that often. He will listen, I believe, only if we lift up our voices. He will head in the right direction only if we stride forward with or just ahead of him. As Gandhi wrote, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Richard L. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of German and Peace Studies at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, directed the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He has published articles on German culture and Gandhian nonviolence, and edited Gandhi's Experiments with Truth: Essential Writings by and about Mahatma Gandhi (Lexington Books: 2006).


1. “Naomi Klein Interview,” The Progressive, Interviewer, Matthew Rothschild, February 2009. progressive.org/mag/intv0209.html
2. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1997, 359.
3. Cf. Frances Moore Lappe, “Wasn’t it Also Obama’s Democracy Speech,” The Huffington Post, March 26, 2008. In reference to Obama’s widely read speech on race of 3/18/09, Lappe write, “Obama's speech was one of our nation's most thoughtful on race and contained important character clues. But let's not miss the speech within a speech -- the one about democracy itself.”
4. 142 and 144 in the next quote.
5. thenation.com/doc/20090126/nonviolence. Cf. also David Remnick, “The President’s Hero,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2009: A couple of decades ago, when Barack Obama was on a break from Harvard Law School and visiting friends in Chicago, he carried around a copy of “Parting the Waters,” the first volume of Taylor Branch’s magnificent trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rise of the civil-rights movement. Obama was staying with Jerry Kellman, his mentor during his three years as a community organizer on the South Side. Kellman said that he greatly admired Branch’s book. Obama brightened and said, “Yes, it’s my story.”
6. stanford.edu/group/King/publications/speeches/Give_us_the_ballot.
7. “An Unfinished Dream,” Newsweek, Commemorative Inaugural Edition, Jan. 27, 2009, 91.
8. zmag.org/zmag/viewArticle/20424.
9. Raising Up a Prophet: The African-American Encounter with Gandhi (1992)
10. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006, 49.
11. gallup.com/poll/111781/Blacks, Postgrads, Young Adults Help Obama Prevail.
12. In New Progressive America, “Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority,” americanprogress.org/issues/2009/03/progressive_america
13. democracynow.org/2008/11/24/noam_chomsky_what_next_the_elections.
14. zmag.org/zmag/viewArticle/20424 in this and the next quote.
15. “Twenty Years of Demographic …,” cited above.
16. alternet.org/democracy/121577/yes_we_can_dare_to_hope_..._but_we'll_need_to_work_hard_

to_bring_real_change__ in this and the next quote.


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