Even Bigger than The Hype: Obama's Candidacy as World-Historical

06/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As Senator Barack Obama finally clinched the Democratic nomination for the 2008 presidential election last week, many observers reiterated his groundbreaking role as the first minority nominated to the nation's highest elected office.  But the ebullience in some circles over Obama's primary victory actually downplays his significance.  His candidacy appears even more remarkable when seen in the context of world history over the last 500 years.

Across the globe, numerous world powers over time have attempted to assimilate peoples over whom they once asserted a colonial relationship. The era of European colonialism, for instance, spanned several centuries and most of the globe. And its effects visibly linger today, apparent in the distribution of power and influence within the international community.

The numerous obstacles impeding the process of de-colonization help explain why descendents of colonized peoples have never emerged to lead a global power — until now.

The Continuing Impacts of Colonialism

Palestine and the Indian Subcontinent are merely two among many regions devastated by predictable violence after colonial powers withdrew. Artificial post-colonial boundaries cleaved some nations apart while simultaneously forcing together distinct nations in many other places to share — and often struggle over control of — a single state.

During the Cold War, many recently independent countries became pawns in a global chess game among the superpowers. Typically, superpowers gained access to natural resources and local markets by offering graft and weapons for corrupt rulers and their armies. Many developing countries were plundered by multinational corporations that took advantage of double standards in the rules governing international trade, or even assassinated workers to prevent them from unionizing.

And all over the world, drawn by the opportunities that only powerful countries could offer, the world's best and brightest fled their homelands through "brain drain." This migration enhanced Western economic prospects with an infusion of foreign talent, motivation, creativity, and industriousness — while marginalizing countries left behind in the global periphery. It was brain drain that brought Obama's father to the University of Hawaii in 1959, where he met Obama's mother.

Racism in America

Brain drain and other colonial dynamics dramatically increased the diversity of the populations in the imperial centers. Lebanese, Jamaicans and Indians flocked to London. Algerians migrated en masse to France. And people of African descent, through the especially vicious and brutal legacy of slavery, came to shoulder — and ultimately enabled — much of America's agricultural and industrial ambition. Similarly, Chinese built the western transportation infrastructure and working class Latinos continue to provide most of the countries tangible goods and basic services.

Some propose that Obama's nomination proves that our nation has finally transcended its racist past. But America remains plagued by various forms of institutional racism.

For instance, the cradle-to-prison pipeline and sentencing disparities throughout the criminal justice system continue to impose a disparate impact on racial minorities. Marginalized public schools and land use decisions placing toxic industrial sites in the midst of minority neighborhoods further demonstrate the incremental challenges still faced by communities of color, beyond implicit bias and private discrimination in housing and the workplace. And, of course, Native Americans were long ago all-but-exterminated in the conquest of the West.

Put simply, Reverend Wright was right — and whatever the Obama campaign's tactical calculus about disclaiming Wright's jarring analysis, its accuracy should not be disregarded by observers merely because it offends the most "bitter" Americans among us.

But even though racial inequities persist, there is no doubt that the first black President will be a milestone, a watershed seemingly unthinkable before Obama's meteoric candidacy.

The Only Plausible President...

Of course, Obama has yet to win the presidency. But confronting an aging agent of a failed conservative ideology, committed to an untenable war that has proven itself an economic, military and diplomatic debacle, he is well poised for victory this November.

First, McCain's allure previously inhered in his anti-establishment convictions, which he has abandoned. After once challenging Washington insiders with an assertive call for campaign finance reform, McCain has more recently emerged as the most vocal proponent of industrial militarism, supporting the same corporate interests (e.g., defense contractors, resource extraction companies) that dragged our country into the disastrous war in Iraq over the interests of military families and our resource-starved domestic communities.

Even worse, McCain resigned his principled rejection of torture — founded on his own experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — to more recently accept torture as a legitimate tool of statecraft. Voting against a proposal to prohibit torture, "McCain reveal[ed] himself as a positioner even on the subject on which he has gained a reputation for unimpeachable integrity."

Moreover, McCain's broader policy paradigm repeats the failures of the Bush Administration, while Obama's fresh thinking reflects an overdue dose of sanity.

On the domestic front, Obama has enthusiastically engaged the healthcare and climate crises, while also arguing for comprehensive immigration reform. McCain has either turned a blind eye or flip-flopped on these issues.

The candidates' respective foreign policy visions are also starkly opposed. Shrugging off the Washington consensus, Obama has repeated calls for multilateralism and will diplomatically engage hostile powers like Iran. Meanwhile, McCain would resign such efforts to avoid new conflicts and instead escalate and perpetuate existing ones. McCain's "shoot first" vision has already exhausted the nation's military and crashed the economy, whereas Obama's diplomatic approach leverages — and could help restore — the goodwill established by America's historical commitment to human rights and democracy.

While obviously momentous in its own right, Obama's eventual victory is ancillary to his impact on our political culture. "Whether he does or doesn't [win in November]...the mere fact of his nomination has done something very important." Not since JFK has a leader mobilized such a groundswell of support. His mark has already indelibly stamped a generation and indicates the future of the American body politic.

...Sets a World-Historical Precedent: The Colonized Tail...

Obama will be the first standard-bearer of colonized peoples to lead a global superpower.

On the one hand, his personal history does not intersect the brutal legacy of crimes committed against African-Americans who trace their origins in the U.S. to the abomination of slavery. But his father is from Kenya, which was colonized by Britain. And, in a typical response to the impacts of colonialism, he came to the U.S. seeking educational opportunity. Obama's origins reflect quintessentially post-colonial migration.

Moreover, Obama has spoken boldly — even in the face of public criticism — about the various inequities that continue to divide our communities along racial lines. On the other hand, he has hardly championed minority interests in the U.S. Senate, acquiescing to the status quo policy framework though it systematically abuses people of color in arenas including housing, primary and secondary education, the workplace, criminal justice and the political process. But Obama has remained a vocal proponent of meaningfully addressing race relations in a way that has never happened in America, and while serving in the Illinois state Senate, he built bipartisan coalitions supporting measures to protect minority communities from racial profiling and death row inmates from coerced confessions.

And of course, Obama's demographic identity and skin color render him unique among his political peers. His example represents the zenith of the American dream, proof to minorities everywhere that, in fact, "Yes, we can."

...Wags the Imperial Dog

The message of hope that Obama promotes evokes parallels for peoples around the world abused by colonialism and its continuing effects — and not just American Latinos, for whom Cesar Chavez already popularized the chant "Si se puede" thirty years ago.

America's historical conquests led to some colonial claims (e.g., over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines), but their greater legacy included the end of European colonialism as America emerged from the dust of the World Wars among the only world powers left standing. Now, fifty years after liberating Europe from Nazism, the U.S. will become the first world power led by a post-colonial head of state.

By word and deed, Obama has helped revive two fundamental American narratives: the Horatio Alger vision of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," as well as the international melting pot represented by Ellis Island and the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Equally as important as his identity, policies and rhetoric is Obama's timing, for his emergence on the national scene comes at a time when each of these narratives are threatened.

Economic stratification has turned the U.S. from a meritocracy into a plutocracy, and the crushing weight of compounding crises in education, housing and healthcare has pushed an escape from humble beginnings further out of reach of many American children.

Meanwhile, rising xenophobia has marginalized immigrants despite our formative contributions to the nation. Even after millions mobilized in 2005 to stop aggressive proposals to restrict immigrant rights, local efforts across the country emerged to crackdown on undocumented workers and demonize them in media.

These narratives — America's meritocracy and our cultural inclusiveness — are flagging at a time that (and perhaps precisely because) America is losing its grip on its status as global hegemon.

America's Role in the World

The mortgage crisis, mounting economic downturn and falling dollar are each tumultuous standing alone. Together, they portend a domestic economic realignment that could rival the Great Depression in its scale. An international realignment in which the U.S. loses its previously privileged economic and diplomatic position has already begun.

At the same time that our world-historical fortune has seemed to wane, the United States is reminded by Barack Obama of "where it came from." The country that introduced democracy to the modern world, defended it from totalitarianism, and forged a multicultural melting pot will now be led by a man who is half-African.

No candidate with Indonesian parentage has ever viably contested senior executive office in the Netherlands, nor have any with Algierian lineage done so in France. Such a feat would not be possible in Britain, which colonized the land of Obama's father. While Benjamin Disraeli led Britain in the 19th century, his family was European and had lived in England for fifty years by the time he was born, he renounced his Italian and Jewish heritage long before entering public service, and he was a staunch supporter of imperialism.[1] South Asians remain marginalized in Britain. Finally, the indigenous peoples of South America continue to struggle for basic rights in their own states, well after having thrown off the yoke of Spanish colonialism.

Can He Deliver?

Senator Obama has no historical parallel. Seen through the lens of post-colonial relations between ruling demographic majorities and the minority populations that struggle for equal rights & opportunities around the globe, his closest peers are Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

before leading a grassroots movement in South Africa that transformed the nation from a blighted moral backwater into
. Bhutto was an equally monumental historical figure as the first female head of state in the Muslim world, but proved to be
by political rivals within her own family.

These examples offer contrasting visions of how the Obama Administration may be recalled in the future. Ultimately, Obama's future trajectory in public service depends on the American people.

Obama will ride to the White House on calls for profound and dramatic change after eight years of dramatic failure in Washington.  But whether he can successfully reverse the nation's course will hang on his ability to displace political moderates in Congress — and reactionaries in the bureaucratic civil service and the Supreme Court — who will remain in office well after the transition in the White House.  Each of these groups will attempt to constrain an emerging progressive consensus.

Will Obama's legions of supporters remain engaged after his election, shifting the ground beneath their elected representatives by transforming the nation's discourse beyond 2008? If we congratulate ourselves for voting and then fail to mount sustained grassroots pressure, he will ultimately either vacillate before, or be vanquished by, the stultifying institutions he will confront in DC.

But already, Obama's impact on world affairs has risen to historic proportions. We watch history being made in the moment — but to think it the history of only our nation repeats the Bush Administration's myopia. Barack Obama has rewritten the future history of nothing less than humanity.

[1] See Robert Blake, Disraeli 760 (1966).