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The Anatomy of an Obama Revolution

Sara Robinson wrote a prescient essay earlier this year (h/t Jeff BlakelyBlakley of Turning Points) exploring the promise of Barack Obama – and how the country was ready for change.

She applied the lessons of Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution (by way of the sociologist James C. Davies) to our current moment and to understanding Obama’s campaign. I’m not entirely convinced by the essay – as I don’t think America was or is as near to revolution as Sara Robinson suggests. I think that one of the touches of genius marking our political structure is that it allows change to come well before revolution is needed. And in our current age, the greater threat than revolution is apathy.

Which is why one of the first points Robinson brings up to suggest that we could be on the verge of revolution strikes me as off. One of Brinton-Davies pre-conditions of revolution is a economically advancing society that suddenly crashes. We are certainly might be headed there – more clearly now than back last winter when Robinson wrote this piece. But the most Americans today – especially younger Americans – have been lacking in that precise quality that comes from economic progress Robinson deems essential to a revolutionary people – what she calls “the kind of hopeful belief in their own agency that primes them to become likely revolutionaries in an era of decline.” (A phrase I have used before to describe this hopeful belief in one’s own agency is “engagement with power.”) Neither today’s youth nor today’s middle aged seem to have that belief – at least not in a political sense. There is a kind of hopeful belief in entrepreneurship – but that focuses on private actions and success in the market – very different from revolution.

However, since Robinson has written this article, it seems that people have become engaged with power again – in the Obama movement, in his campaign, and in the election. Although apathy is still quite real, and if Obama is able to continue to inspire people to participate in politics, he may end up creating an engaged citizenry – which is the key ingredient in both a successful democracy and a pre-condition for revolution.

Robinson also makes an excellent point regarding the essence of pragmatism in ensuring stability in a society such as ours:

Now, we’re also about to re-learn the historical lesson that liberals like flat hierarchies, racial and religious tolerance, and easy class mobility not because we’re soft-headed and soft-hearted — but because, unlike short-sighted conservatives, we understand that tight social cohesion is our most reliable and powerful bulwark against the kinds of revolutions that bring down great economies, nations and cultures…[The] headless ghosts [of past plutocratic nobilities] bear testimony to the idea that’s it’s better to give in and lose a little skin early than dig in and lose your whole hide later on.

Again – I’m not sure that we, as a society, are at the point when the elites (the ones Sarah Palin palled around with rather than railed against – the corporate and conservative ones) need to worry about their heads. But the overall point – that everyone in society must give up something, that pragmatism must rule over pure self-interest or ideology – that point is essential.

I suppose I tend to read this essay as an argument for smart policies to prevent revolution rather than as a prescription, which is consistent with my conservative politics based mainly on trying to prevent a revolution from being necessary. That perhaps is the best way to understand and define Rooseveltian liberalism.

One reply on “The Anatomy of an Obama Revolution”

Interesting take on Robinson – one that I share. I’m not sure that I would share your classification of being conservative, politically, though. Labels are so uninformative, aren’t they? I enjoyed reading about Taleb – hadn’t known of him before. Thanks for the link.

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