Progressive students must push Obama now: a post-election interview with Clayborne Carson

by Kristian Davis Bailey, ’14

This week the United States made history by re-electing Barack Obama as its first African-American president. While the political climate of our country may have had a sobering effect on the national mood, the overall tone of campus seemed to be one of celebration. Cheers of excitement rang from the lounge of my dorm in Ujamaa House, Stanford’s African and African American themed dorm. The larger campus as a whole seemed to echo this enthusiasm–88% of students voted for Obama in the 2012 elections, according to The Stanford Daily.

In the midst of this environment, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Clayborne Carson for fifteen minutes on his responses and reactions to President Obama’s reelection. Carson has been tasked with editing and publishing the complete papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. and directs the Martin Luther King Research Institute at Stanford.

I am currently a student in Carson’s introduction to African American history course “The Modern African American Freedom Struggle,” where we are trying to figure out what gains blacks have made in our modern freedom struggle since 1968. Our comparative discussions framed my conversation with Carson.

‘Act on your own, force Obama to follow your will’
It is necessary for students to create their own progressive pressure on the political system, Carson told me Tuesday night.

“If [people] believe that Obama was the best choice, they shouldn’t just leave it to Obama to carry out any kind of progressive agenda,” Carson said, adding that grassroots support is a necessary factor in creating effective policy.

I had asked Carson about an anecdote he mentioned in class that same day. Carson told us he had addressed a group of students at Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, the day before Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “The most important day is not tomorrow, but the day after,” he recalled telling the audience.

We had discussed in class that Obama’s election was not an end in itself, but the beginning of a process that held potential for great change if we became active participants in nudging Obama along.

Carson followed up on this notion, underscoring that he hopes people have gotten over viewing Obama as someone who could perform political magic and change things by himself.

“I hope people have gotten over that and understand that all this [election] does is it provides a political climate in which it’s possible for a progressive agenda to take hold,” Carson said. “Under a Romney presidency, that would have been very difficult.”

Obama’s reelection is not a guarantee that the country will see more progressive policies, Carson cautioned.

“In some ways, Obama can provide leadership and I hope that he will provide bolder leadership in the second term than he did in the first term, but it’s ultimately going to come down to whether the progressive left can provide the kind of grassroots energy that came out of the Tea Party Movement,” Carson said, having noted the effect the Tea Party has had on American political discourse since 2010.

Noting that he disagrees with the Tea Party and that they had significantly more funding behind them than the Occupy Movement, Carson stated that it is going to take a grassroots movement with political power to transform the country into a new direction.

“And that’s what I hope will happen over the next four years,” Carson said. “That there will not be this sitting back and waiting for Obama to act, but rather people will understand they have to act on their own and force Obama to follow their will.”

‘Students have to apply the political pressure’
I asked Carson what sorts of questions he thought should students be asking to assess their demands for Obama and the political system.

Carson said that the crucial question for the country right now is ‘What is the role of government going into the future?’ The Republican answer to that question, he said, is a smaller government except for military spending.

“If you disagree with that answer, it’s necessary to come up with a counter answer,” Carson said. “Do we want national healthcare? Do we want better educational opportunities?”

Providing opportunity and equalizing access to such options are what a lot of Obama’s supporters would like to see the government focus on, Carson said. Progressives have to be willing to pay for this kind of government, Carson advised.

This ‘payment’ does not only refer to money, but also requires that we personally invest in politics.

Carson mentioned the difference in public education between the 1960s, when he attended UCLA, and today when students like his granddaughter aren’t offered all the classes they want and rack up huge debt for their education.

Obama is not going to bring down tuition fees at state colleges and universities by himself, Carson warned.

“[Students] have to apply the political pressure to make sure that their generation has the same opportunity as my generation had,” Carson said.

Before ending our conversation, I asked Carson to elaborate on why he used the terms ‘Republican,’ ‘progressive’ and ‘left’ so much without referring to ‘democrats’ as much.

Carson said that while he recognizes the Democratic Party is not leftist or progressive, Democrats seem left-leaning since Republicans have shifted so far to the right.

This pull to the right puts progressive-minded people in a bind where they have no choice but to support Democrats, according to Carson.

“The Democratic Party is – for better or for worse – the only option for those who see the government as a tool for social justice, as a tool for opportunity for everyone-as a means of reversing the rising gulf between rich and poor, even though the Democratic Party has not been a strong voice on those issues,” Carson said.

Carson said Democrats were able to succeed in this election because the Republican Party has been a negative voice on social issues. “They just haven’t offered themselves as an alternative,” he said.

Looking forward, Carson sees change on the horizon for American political discourse. An inevitable shift – either in the Republican Party or in whatever organization replaces it – should present a viable alternative to the Democratic Party, he said.

“I think it’s going to take a while – maybe this will send another message [to the Republican Party],” Carson said. “And if Obama has a successful second term and they lose a few more elections, they’ll either become irrelevant as a political party or get the message that they have to change.”

To see the issues I’d like to agitate for political action on, check out my column “Why I’m Not Voting For Obama” in the Election Day issue of The Stanford Daily. Please feel free to share your questions comments here or there! To read Dr. Carson’s perspectives on Obama’s 2008 election, check out his article here.



Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior from New York studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. He’s interested in how to use media to discuss identity, privilege and power.  

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3 thoughts on “Progressive students must push Obama now: a post-election interview with Clayborne Carson

  1. Please see my analysis of what we should do with Carson’s calls for action here:

  2. esqg says:

    Just wanted to say I’ve been thinking about how activists set the stage for Obama to weigh in, and the successful strikes against Wal-Mart are a great example: watch him talk.

  3. Cole Manley says:

    Thank you for this article, Kristian. I think Dr. Carson and you both are touching on an important point: how can the people force social change and speak truth to power. Thus far Obama has not shown leadership on social or economic issues and has continued an American foreign policy of war and aggression through drone attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Can an activist coalition unite for peace and justice and force a change in Obama’s leadership? As Dr. Carson has mentioned, the Occupy movement suffered without organization, so how can we improve upon this?

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