Obama’s mainstream success

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For Obama’s inauguration demonstrates in no uncertain terms is that success can be achieved via the mainstream and that to remain isolated in a parochial enclave of minority communitarian politics seldom gets you anywhere, points out Farish Noor.


The victory of Barrack Obama in becoming the first African-American President of the United States of America signals an important landmark for minorities living in plural multiracial societies today. For what it demonstrates in no uncertain terms is that success can be achieved via the mainstream and that to remain isolated in a parochial enclave of minority communitarian politics seldom gets you anywhere.

I am only raising this point for the simple reason that Obama’s win has obviously become a cause of celebration for many minority communities the world over; yet we fail to note that his success was secured by working by, with and through the political mainstream of the society he wished to change himself. Now ask yourself this: Could Obama, or anyone for that matter, have come to be where he is today had he been a member of an exclusive African-American party that spoke mainly about African-American issues?

One is reminded of the debacle of British politics in the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when the Labour party of Britain was having yet another one of its prolonged fits of political correctness. As a student then (and a supporter of the party) I was aghast at the spectacle of the Labour party destroying itself time and again at its annual party conventions as the members of the party clamoured for their share of political representation and presence on the front seats.

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First there came the calls of the so-called black caucus, who demanded that seats and positions be reserved for Black and Asian members of the party. This was followed by the Womens’ caucus who likewise demanded exclusive representation. The caucus then later split up into the white womens’ caucus and the black womens’ caucus, on the grounds that while women were generally the victims of sexism and patriarchy in and out of the party, the problems faced by black and white women were rarely ever the same.

The net result was that the Labour party was torn to shreds before the glare of the public, and the Conservative party on the other hand was happily intact thanks to their shared consensus that the best thing for Britain was to make more money, buy and build more houses, and impose more restrictions on the migration of foreigners… The other consequence of this was five successive defeats for the Labour party at the polls and Margaret Thatcher being the Prime Minister of Britain for two decades.

By contrast, the rise of Barrack Obama in the USA demonstrates that the brand of multiculturalism in America is closer to the assimilateionist model of France, where citizenship can and should count for most and where ethnic, racial, linguistic and religious differences should not in themselves become the objects of political contestation and rallying. Obama’s success was pinned in part on his ability to weave together the disparate demands and anxieties of Americans today in a new national narrative that promised nation-building for all, rather than penalties on the rich or privileges for minorities. It was this that managed to win him ground among even mainstream white Anglo-Saxon Americans who may have never even greeted a person of a different colour or cultural background all their lives.

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And so while we all breathe a sigh of relief and hope that this man will have the will and courage to put his words into action, we should also remember the circumstances of his recent success. It would be pointless of minority groups elsewhere in the world to turn to Obama as their model if they do not see that the lesson from his success is that victory can come via working against and within the mainstream, rather than avoiding it altogether. Obama chose to join the Democratic party of the USA, and one cannot get any more mainstream than that. No, this is not a man who is the progeny of the Black Panthers movement, and no, even his ‘radical’ plans to rebuild the American economy are far from radical in any meaningful sense.

One may lament the relative conservatism of Obama in fact, and argue that he is in fact a mainstream candidate whose politics is tamer than his rhetoric. And we still cannot foresee what the future holds for Obama and how this man will be judged by History in the decades to come. But what no-one can take from him is the fact that working as he did within the mainstream, he still managed to show that some concessions are worth the prize if you really want to be in the seat of power, and not remain standing forever in the rain as a soap-box orator, high on sentiment but low on action.

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