Who are we waiting for?

During the Presidential campaign, candidate Obama invoked the language of community organizing and the civil rights movement, especially with the discourse of “yes, we can” and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That seemed fitting for a campaign that had a place for millions of people to take to the sidewalks and knock on doors to turn out votes.  Does it have a place in an administration?

Harry Boyte of the Humphrey school at the University of Minnesota seems to think it should.   But should it?  Does the buck stop at the President’s desk, or do we all share some deep responsibility to change this country?

Here’s a snippet of Boyte’s recent op-ed on the topic:

Over the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama changed his message from “we” to “I.” The challenge for the president, if he is to achieve his administration’s potential to unleash the energy of the nation, is to return to and flesh out “yes, we can” in the everyday work of addressing our common problems.

Obama launched his campaign for president with the idea that “all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate.” He had learned a philosophy of civic agency — that we all must become agents of change — from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. And in extraordinary ways, he used the presidential campaign as a vehicle for taking the message of agency to the nation. “I’m asking you not only to believe in my ability to make change; I’m asking you to believe in yours,” read the campaign website. The message was expressed in campaign slogans such as “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” drawn from a song of the freedom movement of the 1960s.

It also infused the campaign’s field operation. As Tim Dickinson, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, put it in a review of how the field operation reflected an organizing approach, “The goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance.” Field director Temo Figueros explained, “We decided that we didn’t want to train volunteers. We wanted to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves.”

On Wednesday night, at the news conference marking the first 100 days of his administration, Obama was asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of the largest U.S. companies. “I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already,” he laughed. “I’ve got more than enough to do.”

The change has partly reflected the administration’s adjustment to the fierce pressures of the Washington press corps. As Peter Levine noted as early as December 2006, reporters and pundits assumed that Obama’s words about citizenship and involvement “were just throat-clearing.” Journalists and pundits constantly demand that he explain what he is going to do to solve the problems facing the country.

But the general citizenry outside of government is not composed of innocent bystanders. In our consumer-oriented society, we too easily assume that government’s role is to deliver the goods. Dominant models of civic action, as important as they are — deliberation, community service, advocacy — fit into the customer paradigm, as ways to make society more responsive and humane. The older concepts at the heart of productive citizenship — that democracy is the work of us all, that government is “us,” not “them” — have sharply eroded.  [read more]

If we all had a role, what would that be? I want to agree with Harry, but I’m not sure how to “operationalize” that on day-to-day matters, including waging and ending wars.

My guess is that we can still be the ones we’ve been waiting for if we realize the importance of public will and civic capacity.

When I was a kid, my family adopted a retired, champion Afghan hound.  The owners said that she could jump our eight-foot fence, but not to worry — she didn’t know she could.

Likewise, I think that there is tremendous power that the public has to create or block change, but generally we seem to be oblivious to this power, even though it has tremendous effects large and small.  I’m referring to the power that Hannah Arendt noted that is created when people talk and act together — the capacity that is created to create and transform a public world.

As for how to operationalize this, we need practices and spaces to make this real.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I think we start by separating campaign thinking from democratic thinking. Tocqueville’s observation that Americans form ad hoc associations to deal with problems rather than asking for help from pre-existing institutions requires three things: a problem, a random group, and sleeves (for rolling up).

    Right now, all this civic participatory energy is oriented toward national and international affairs: starting and ending wars, managing a global economy, managing federal agencies, but there’s got to be a division of labor. I can’t bring peace in the Middle East, and the President can’t deal with potholes, make my local public school effective, or my police force accountable. I suspect that this is a little disappointing for both of us, but if we’re ever going to “operationalize” (ugh management speak: how about “exercise”?) civic capacities, we’re going to have to adjust our expectations to match our roles.

  2. I like the story of the Afghan hound.

    It reminds me of the scene in the movie ‘A Bug’s Life’ where all the ants suddenly realize they can get rid of the grasshoppers if they work together. (I have a five year old so I spend a lot of time thinking about kids’ movies.)

    I don’t know if you read this story in The New Yorker:


    It’s not entirely relevant to your post here but the description of how economic interests influenced decisions on the budget and stimulus package was an indirect reminder that legislators may consider citizens’ views much less often than they consider those with the power to donate substantial sums to their campaigns or to their opponents’ campaigns. That’s not an insurmountable hurdle but it might be a good target when we’re trying to change the country.

    This is one fence I want the dog to jump over and this is one fence I think the dog thinks it can’t jump over.

    Is addressing how our institutions work not a good public role? I care about potholes and public schools but I care about global warming more at this point.

  3. Hi, Lisa. Well, I’m going to have to see A Bug’s Life, and my kids will probably thank me. And I’ll check out the New Yorker story.

    As you point out, the problem of money in politics is huge. It’s not just that moneyed interests have disproportionate influence; they can often work to overtly diminish “the dog’s” understanding that it can jump over the fence.

    And, hello, Josh. I appreciate your thoughts. I agree with you about 90 percent. My only disagreement is that even if the general citizenry can’t exercise (better word, indeed) its power on national issues as much as it can on potholes, it’s important for the public to deliberate on the issues in order to develop public will about what needs to be done. I think this is something like what Habermas meant when he discusses how social movements can put the government under siege.

  4. lisa: I dither on this a lot, because I truly want ordinary folks to be involved in major decisions, but I think direct democracy is dangerous and there’s no reason to believe they’d get something like global warming right, mired as it is in scientific jargon and difficult economic policy-making. A subset of the public is probably capable of getting global warming right, though, and I’m guessing you’re a part of it. The question is how to make sure that that subset, call them the ‘chattering classes’ get their way. Since the chattering classes tend to be economically secure (which is why they can afford to talk and think for a living) it seems like allowing them to put their money where their mouths are is maybe not such a bad thing. In addition, money in politics helps to unseat incumbents and famous names, who would otherwise be untouchable by upstarts like Barack Obama. Of course, it also tends to align political interests with economic ones, and that seems unfair.

    Yet if our politicians were deafened to economic woes, how would they protect the real economic interests of their people? Voters are not economists, as evidenced by their continued belief that immigration controls and protectionist trade policies will benefit them. Somebody has to make sure they don’t let popularity determine policy, and one way to do that is to give financial support for them to fight the blinkered populists like John Edwards (or Sarah Palin) who will say anything if it sounds good.

    If we just stopped protecting the speech rights of corporations as if they were people, I think many of these problems would dissipate, without sacrificing the principles of free speech and contested elections. But this is a major problem, and though I probably belong to the chattering class I still have yet to fully work it through. I could well be wrong. That’s a modesty and fallibilism you rarely see in masses and crowds of activists.

    This goes to Noel’s point about Habermas: he didn’t say that ‘social movements’ can put a government under siege, he says that normative political theory can sap the value-preferences that bureaucrats use to justify their policies: for instance, by undermining justifications for homophobic marriage policies or expansionist war-making. We can’t lay siege to the government, only to its ‘pool of reasons.’ Social movements are a necessary support for this normative discursive work, but they’re subsidiary to the reason-giving and reason-refuting work of deliberativists.

    This is evidenced by the fact that we remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s name, idea, and speeches more clearly than we remember the names, ideas, and speeches of the thousands of attendees at his protests, marches, and rallies. If a few women and men compose the words that a thousand protesters chant, who do we credit? Certainly not the guy in the seventh row, third from the right. Of course, it matters that that guy is there, and I wish he’d show up more often. But we’d be in a different situation if those thousands had all decided that they needed to have their individual voice and opinions heard, in their own individual ways. Then we wouldn’t have thousands shouting with one voice, we’d have a cacophony.

    It’s okay with me if all the jingoists, pro-lifers, and anti-gay protesters decide to stop protesting and start deliberating, but I’m glad that the Civil Rights movement had folks willing to subordinate their individual opinions and views to those of their smart leaders, and I hope that the pro-environmental, pro-peace, and pro-choice groups will follow their lead, so that the BEST reasons, rather than the most popular ones, will continue to find their way to the surface.

    (PS-Congrats to Maine for letting reason triumph over prejudice!)

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