Sean Wilentz: Live by the Movement, Die by the Movement





[Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008.]

More than candidates are defeated in elections. So are ideas. The Democrats’ heavy losses in the midterm elections may now force a reassessment and overhaul of the Barack Obama political experiment. Whether the president has the dexterity and fortitude to navigate through the harsher Washington political environment of the next two years will determine his survival. Clearly, the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him—the idea of electing a “post-partisan” president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement—has failed.

The dream of the Obama presidency based on a movement model of politics was devised by Marshall Ganz, a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training Obama volunteers—and articulated by Ganz’s ally, Peter Dreier, also an Obama adviser, a member of Progressives for Obama, and a politics professor at Occidental College. Ganz was both the theorist and practitioner of the Obama-as-movement-leader notion while Dreier played the role of publicist, heralding the new age in articles in The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were “practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system....

But is the social movement model adequate to democratic governing, especially as the basis of a presidency? What Ganz does not consider is that his own theory and practice of the Obama 2008 mobilization, explicitly based on values, emotions, and feelings, disdaining any particular policies or political goals, may have been a dead end once Obama took office—and that it even helped foster an inevitable disillusionment....


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list