Iran and the politics of "yes we can"
The civic movement in Iran since the election on June 12 inspires all who believe in deep and living democracy. It shows the yearnings for empowerment, bottom up change, and civic agency stirring among young people across the Muslim world, what we also hear and read in the stories of Public Achievement teams in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.
This politics doesn't fit conventional boxes of left versus right, and President Obama's approach to the Iranian crackdown on demonstrators has drawn fire from across the political spectrum. John Nichols, writing in The Nation, flagship magazine of the left, labeled the president "diplomatic in the worst sense," "avoiding hard truths," and "speaking far too softly." Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate slammed the president. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Obama "timid and passive." Republicans sponsored a resolution widely seen as a veiled criticism of Obama, attacking the Iranian government. Democrats overwhelmingly joined them, and it passed by a margin of 405 to 1.
But Barack Obama's stance should be understood as different than the diplomatic caution charged by the critics. During his news conference on June 23, Obama's emotional identification with the demonstrators was unmistakable. "He praised what he called their courage and dignity, especially the women who have been marching," reported the New York Times. He declared faith in popular aspirations. "We know this: Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history." He told the story of a 26-year-old Iranian woman whose last seconds of life were captured by video camera after she was shot on a Tehran street.
What is at work in Obama's stance toward Iran, in my view--as in his magnificent speech in Cairo on June 4, expressing deep respect for and engagement with the Muslim faith and the Arab world--are the lessons he learned as a community organizer in Chicago: every culture, like every person, is immensely complex. Every community has democratic as well as authoritarian potentials. Statements from democracy cheerleaders based on simplistic divisions of the world into "good" versus "evil" can do considerable harm if manipulated by democracy's enemies. People must be the agents of their own liberation, and the most important democratic change comes from within, not from without. A crucial role which a president can play is often not to intervene directly but rather to highlight civic stories of courage and creativity--a concept of the presidency as bully pulpit outlined by the civic engagement committee of the Obama campaign.
Obama's approach is civic populism. It surfaces the older tradition of democratic self-assertion, collective organization, and cultural transformation represented by figures like Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Ella Baker, and Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Such politics of popular agency is an alternative to social democratic politics of the left and or unbridled worship of the market and capitalism on the right.
More simply, it can be called the politics of "yes we can."