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Todd Gitlin: 'There was always a constructive ambiguity about Obama'

Todd Gitlin discusses Obama's legacy, Donald Trump, and the future of Bernie Sanders’ movement.


What happens to a dream deferred?
                                                            (Langston Hughes)

Todd Gitlin is one the most astute analysts of progressive politics in America. He is the author of a dozen books exploring the rise and fall of radical movements, including the New Left and Occupy. His writing is rooted in a lifetime of activism: between 1963-64, Gitlin was president of the Students for a Democratic Society, and he helped organise the first nationwide march against the Vietnam war. He has written at length on the role of the mass media, and is professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York City.

Our discussion focused on the relationship between ideology and electability, and a perennial question for the left: how does grassroots ‘outsider energy’ engage with ‘insider politics’? In other words, what price are progressives willing to pay for power? Gitlin is illuminating on how movements evolve and morph, and how dreams deferred are revived in different guises. This issue is now particularly pertinent for the supporters of Bernie Sanders, and for the activists of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

Gitlin is also insightful on Black Lives Matter, on the Republican Party’s nativist populism, and on Obama’s legacy. Speaking of how Obama’s own grassroots movement dissipated, he identifies the decision “not to be a transformational president but rather a transactional president. There was always a constructive ambiguity about Obama, partly in the minds of supporters, who fancied that he would be the incarnation of the mobilisation; but it was partly in his own nature, too”.

About the authors

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also published in an expanded edition, in paperback, in August, 2012 (HarperCollins).

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm

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