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On Revolutionaries and Politicians

April 14, 2009

I was just reading myself some Racialicious, and there was an article that referenced people’s disappointment in Obama’s lack of obvious measures to help African-Americans. Now, this is nothing new, but it again made me think on something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time (but just never seemed to get to).

This is the difference between revolutionaries and politicians.

In brief, a revolutionary is somebody who – through passionate, radical action – sparks drastic change. Most often, we associate revolutionaries with war, of course (because they are generally catalysts for revolution, hence the word). But revolutionaries aren’t always fighters. They can be present in times of martial peace. Because, to me – revolutionaries are folks who spark change through non-political means. Revolutionaries can be people like the American Civil Rights leaders of the 60s, who sparked change through non-compliance with racist laws. They can be folks who spark grassroots movements to change systems that governing bodies can’t or won’t change.

Politicians, on the other hand, work through government. These are literal politicians who run for elected office, but they can also be lobbyists and other folks who drive their desires through the hoops and bureaucracy that is the government machine. These people also bring about change, but more subtly. They work through compromise and diplomacy, and an attempt to establish a middle ground.

Both sides can bring about just change. Both sides can bring about destruction and injustice. They just have different mentalities and methods in doing so.

And the big problem people already disappointed by Obama have is that they mistook him for a revolutionary. His charisma and speaking ability conveyed passion to his listeners, and they mistook their own inspired passion as that of revolution. His historic rise to the White House was a symbol of change that people mistook for a step towards revolution. These folks got caught up in the wave and thought they had voted a revolutionary into the White House. And now – as they start to realize that sweeping reforms are not forthcoming, they are disappointed.

But the key here is that they voted Obama into office. Revolutionaries do not get voted in (until after their side of the revolution has prevailed, at least). Revolutionaries put themselves into power. Through acts of war or a passionate motivation of the people. Obama got the vote.

And, to do so, he had to be a politician. He didn’t stomp and call out all the ills of this country. He didn’t condemn its sick history. He didn’t demand justice. He ran the middle ground. He noted this country’s past, then said how great it had become. He called out his predecessor’s mistakes, but never said he’d pull our armies out of foreign lands. He made use of his mixed heritage to say how white folks and black folks and everyone else walk the same road, more or less. He compromised. Because that’s what you do, as a politician. That’s how you get elected. That’s how you bring about slow and steady change within our governmental system, and within the parameters of the law (just or otherwise).

And he’s not going to stop being a politician now that he’s in. He’s part of the machine – there’s no override switch once you’re in. And so you will NOT see Obama suddenly call attention to race and disparities in this country – because a politician can’t do that and survive.

Although, neither can a revolutionary.

The photo above is of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He served that role for less than a year before he was murdered (with Belgian and US CIA complicity). His newly-independent country fell into chaos at around the same time (more or less as he got himself elected), and it has probably been one of the most war-torn, historically, nations in all the world since.

And the question is: how did that happen? Because it’s widely accepted that Lumumba was an amazing man. Passionate, brilliant, and – most importantly for a revolutionary – charismatic. His fire and determination fueled his country’s fight for independence from Belgian -and helped them prevail. He sparked drastic change. His vision for the future inspired other African nations to fight for their own independence and to try to work together to rebuild.

And yet – as his government tried to settle in, he already had his army mutinying, and multiple rivals tearing the people apart. The UN swept in, the CIA chose their best interests, and Lumumba was murdered. And the country hasn’t seen real hope since.

And that’s the problem with revolutionaries – they are not about compromise. And so, as they are inspiring people to their cause, they also end up burning bridges. They are also about passion and big ideas – and government has no time for big ideas when all the little things need taking care of. Revolutionaries are two-to-three steps ahead of reality, and they often pay for that. Because revolutionaries do not make good politicians. Once the drastic change has come, most revolutionaries are unable to settle into the nitty-gritty daily grind of simply running things.

And so? Both are necessary. We need the revolutionaries to challenge the status quo and kick people into tearing down accepted injustices. But we need the politicians to calm things down and keep people fed and employed. To keep the water running and the utilities covered. We need revolutionaries to think big and outside of the box. And we need the politicians to work within the box to steadily enlarge it.

It’s hard to accept, sometimes. Because politicians often seem to end up so soulless in their roles of compromisers. Constantly pandering to their public and trying to keep the most powerful interests happy. We love the revolutionaries because they’re so inspiring and make such a good story. So many of them end up dying at the height of their glory – making it easy to turn them into heroes. But, to put it in more day-to-day terms: it’s the politicians that keep the family fed and the electricity running.

I often find myself wondering which side I tend towards. I definitely lean to the revolutionary in terms of my “big ideas” and demand for “justice.” It’s so easy for me to see all that’s wrong with society and condemn it. And in doing so, I often jump right past realistic modes of change. However, I also find myself playing the slow-and-steady middle ground quite often. I try not to attack my opponents, try to slowly bring them over to my side. But I have no patience for the steady grind and day-to-day management of “the little things.”

So which way do I turn? What will be my legacy when I look back on my small fight for change in the world? Am I going to be the bread-winner and take care of the kids’ daily needs, or am I going to dream big and risk them going hungry (with the possibility of making it big and bringing back that huge paycheck)? The revolutionaries earn our acclaim (or hatred) while the politicians earn our contempt (or disappointment). Who do I want to be?

Obama? Or Lumumba? Or is there a somewhere-in-between?

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4 comments

  1. “Somewhere in between” takes a couple of generations to learn.


  2. I think Evo Morales in Bolivia straddles the line between politician and revolutionary and does it well. Witness his going on a hunger strike last week to pressure legislators into approving a new constitution that further empowers the indigenous majority.

    Interesting also how it’s not just the left that mistook Obama for a revolutionary – the right is doing that too. Yesterday the governor of my state held a press conference and called the federal government “oppressive” a few times, claimed Texans won’t accept its authority any longer (hmm, didn’t Texas attempt secession once already? How’d that go?). Today there are supposedly grassroots “tea party” protests across the country.

    I get the feeling there’s an element of fearful racism behind a lot of this crap, but also genuine right-wing hysteria at Obama’s modest steps towards re-distributing the tax burden, opening relations with Cuba, legalizing undocumented immigrants, etc.. I figure if Obama’s pissing off these folks this much he must be doing something right.


  3. So, I’m behind on my blog reading, but I am so glad to read this. I listen to Pacifica radio and I’ve heard lots of people on the left bemoaning the lack of change Obama has made to date. And I keep thinking that it has only been a few months and that he can make some changes but government is big, slow and it takes a lot to get what you want in place (unless you are Bush and do some sort of Jedi-mind trick on the Congress and the Executive branch as a result of a terrorist attack). I’ve heard a lot of people say that FDR on several occasions had advocates come to him and passionately tell him about some wrong, and he would tell them he agreed with them (a specific incident on racial integration in the federal workforce comes to mind) but he told them that they had to do the work to MAKE him do it. I think he meant that if he just did it without popular support and regular people being out there and advocating and pushing and making a stink he couldn’t get COngress to do it and the American people would feel like he was being unilateral. I think Obama has even said something similar that people still need to go out and make their voices heard and beat him up sometimes to make the change. Also, Obama is an extremely smart and deliberative person and he is making changes but we won’t see them or realize how far-reaching some of them are for awhile. And if he did try to make a revolutionary and major change without some consensus and without going through the proper steps outlined in our laws and in the Constitution he would be as bad or worse than Bush. I think it would be sort of scary if we had a true revolutionary running the government. It might be nice when you agree with that person, but if you don’t or if they are not benign with that, we could go down a serious dark road.


  4. I know it has been two years since you wrote this post but I wanted to respond at this late date. Your analysis of revolutionary vs. politician provides a strong foundation for analysis of others including historical figures but for ourselves as well. As much as we may admire revolutionaries (and I do), those who live often turn to a dictatorship, a one man rule with the proverbial iron fist. In the end some turn on the very people they want to help.
    As you pointed out, politicians who govern must compromise and reason. Demanding rarely works. In a democracy she or he represents all the people, even the scary ones.
    On the other hand, Obama has made many changes, some quietly and quickly and others, an outright mess and many in between. I find it interesting the some on the left bemoan Obama’s actions or lack of action as they view it. There are times when I think they believe they elected John Shaft. I sense a racial undertone as the all second guess his motives and abilities.
    I would certainly like to read another post by you on your observations.



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