President Barack Obama delivered a widely celebrated commencement speech to the students of Howard University on May 7. The speech, like so many addresses by the president, hit many of the right notes when he talked about people power. However, the president once again championed the necessity of compromise and lectured young people on the appropriate ways to fight for change.
The fundamental flaw in Obama’s argument is concerned citizens are not politicians. Concerned citizens, including graduating university students, should not worry themselves with compromise, as if they are elected leaders.
During his speech at the private historically black university, Obama declared, “Change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”
What Obama said was directly inspired by the movement for black lives or Black Lives Matter. In fact, only a few weeks ago, Obama participated in a town hall-style event with young people during a trip to Europe. “Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama suggested.
He preached the supposed importance of compromise, maintaining the people pushing for change had a “responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable, that can institutionalize the changes” sought. Concerned citizens have an obligation to “engage the other side and occasionally to take a half a loaf that will advance the gains” achieved.
For someone like the President of the United States, and others in positions of power, Obama’s theory of change and struggle may be rational. Adopting this approach definitely makes it less vexing and uncomfortable for elected officials, who must grapple with the angry demands of concerned citizens. Yet, it is rarely a good position to push for change with such an eye toward compromise.
The people’s historian, Howard Zinn, spoke on February 2, 2009, at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. It was right after Obama’s election, and Zinn said, “We are citizens. We must not put ourselves in the position of looking at the world from their eyes and say, ‘Well, we have to compromise. We have to do this for political reasons.’ We have to speak our minds.”
Zinn eloquently stated, “Where progress has been made, wherever any level of injustice has been overturned, it’s been because people acted as citizens and not as politicians. They didn’t just moan. They worked, they acted, they organized, they rioted if necessary.” And, “They did all sorts of things to bring their situation to the attention of people in power. And that’s what we have to do today.”
Obama appears to grasp this reality. He highlighted the slaves in the cotton fields and the marchers in Selma. He highlighted the “roar of women” who demanded the right to vote. He highlighted the “rallying cry of workers who built America.” He said, “Change isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then putting your feet up and saying, okay, go. Change is the effort of concerned citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.”
That is very similar to what Zinn insisted. The people’s historian believed that, rather than expend so much energy and focus on elections, “Our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
Still, Obama is wrong to assert democracy requires “compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.” It also distorts the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to place so much emphasis on the fact that he was willing to sit down with President Lyndon B. Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
It was only in Johnson’s interest to meet with King because there was a movement of resistance out in the streets. Passing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act would function as a kind of safety valve releasing some of the pressure on government.
Similar to previous presidents, Obama fancies himself as a kind of “consensus president”—a technician skilled at the art of compromise. King wrote for The Nation in 1965, “A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He becomes a technician rather than an innovator.”
King contended Presidents remembered for great achievements did not patiently await consensus. A mass movement propelled them into action. President John F. Kennedy was “forced by Birmingham and the tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress the Civil Rights Bill.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was impelled by labor, farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a constituent stimulus to the economy.” President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation under the pressure of war needs.”
The yelling and constant display of dissatisfaction with the status quo is needed to prevent momentum from waning. One should not, as Obama said in Europe, only “prepare an agenda that is achievable.” Nor should a movement prepare itself to only accept gains that are “achievable at the moment.” It issues a demand and struggles to achieve that objective, like the right to vote, even if the power structure currently stands as an obstacle to that right. Mass mobilization will move those in power to respond or else turmoil will be the status quo.
Just as King argued, “The search for a consensus will tend to become a quest for the least common denominator of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency, the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform.”
Concerned citizens are not elected officials. Activists are not political consultants. People engaged in protest should not fixate on whether a demand can be written into legislation and passed with 60 votes in the Senate. A movement should not dwell on whether FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver believes what they call for is favorable to a super-majority. The only matter of importance is showing up for the cause. Take a stand against war, against poverty, or against injustice, and let the politicians figure out whether they want to help the movement achieve those demands by being on the side of social progress.