Magazine article Poverty & Race

Social Justice Movements in a Liminal Age

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Social Justice Movements in a Liminal Age

Article excerpt


The brief, ecstatic Obama-centered period of 2008-2010 seems to resist all of the stories that have since been spun about it, from triumphant narratives of transformation, to angry jeremiads of betrayal of the progressive cause, to the apocalyptic stories of national ruin that animate the Right. In sober hindsight, it looks more like an opening chapter than a climax: a period in which a few major, hardfought breakthroughs that will tangibly improve people's lives were won; many opportunities were squandered, and many crises were left unaddressed; no grand ideological re-alignment occurred; and the social justice movement overall did honorable work, but struggled to make the most of an extraordinary moment.

I remember vividly now a moment in the heady days after the 2008 election, when some heralded the triumphant return of a Rainbow Coalition that might produce a lasting progressive governing majority. A close aide and friend to the President said to me that in his view nothing fundamental about American politics and society had changed, other than that there would be a new occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that it would be a mistake to over-read the election results, as many were doing. The balance of power among contending social forces in America was not essentially altered. Most Americans who voted for and against Obama, contrary to what ideologues of both left and right like to believe, subscribe to no coherent doctrine of any kind and are capable of holding utterly contradictory opinions without discomfort. There had been no tectonic shift in ideological underpinnings. And whatever one chooses to believe about the underlying commitments of the President, it is indisputable that he was elected by himself, not with legions of Members of Congress sworn to his or any agenda. In other words, we have gotten pretty much what might be expected, given the prevailing social conditions, political institutions and ideological contours of the country.

The achievements of this periodthe largest expansion of anti-poverty programs and the largest expansion of the New Deal state in 40 years- were far from trivial in policy terms. They were achieved largely through disciplined, hard-fought ground campaigns which have not received the appreciation or recognition they deserve, perhaps understandably so, given the period of backlash that followed. It is notable that what was achieved in policy terms was hi no way accompanied by a story that has stuck- and if there is a great failure of both the Obama Administration and the Left in this period, it has been (until Occupy!) a failure of story-telling.

That this period was brought to an abrupt end by the Tea Party, virulent right-wing populism and its electoral expression in 2010 also raises the questions about whether the country is now in for a lasting period of backlash and whether the hopes raised in 2008 were altogether unjustified.

It may be that the arc of the story is hard to decipher because we are still in the opening chapters. We are, I would argue, in a liminal period- a confusing, contradictory and highly unstable period of transition in which many futures are now possible- and aspects of those very different futures are manifest in our present. The confluence of the economic crisis, demographic change, and the radicalization of the Right have created a highly volatile situation, and we are probably not done lurching back and forth between the futures presaged by the elections of 2008 and 2010. Neither the hope for an inclusive, just world nor the prospect of a brutally unequal and racialized one are fantastical - they are both here, right now.

Perhaps what is most striking about the present moment is the extent to which, after such wild swings in the public debate, nothing definitive about our country's trajectory is yet decided. Not even the highly consequential election of 2012 alone is likely to decide the question. What we do now and in the coming years matters a great deal. …

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