The second possibility is the reverse, namely that the popular force that has been mobilized around Obama’s presidential campaign simply exhausts itself in its governmental victory. On this view, once Obama has been elected, citizens can switch off politically and sit back and watch how well his administration does. Politics becomes reduced to a spectacle of media and governmental representation. Furthermore, this possibility is undoubtedly the one favoured by the Obama campaign itself, which explains the somber, slightly disappointed tone to Obama’s speech on the night of his victory: ‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term’. On this view, the rhetoric of change (‘Together we can change the country and change the world’) was simply what it took to get people mobilized. Once the victory is secure, there must be no further mobilizations at the popular level. All must henceforth be mediated through the apparatus of government. Politics as the experience of a people suddenly present to itself and aware of its awesome power has to die at the precise moment when a representative government is elected.
This is perhaps the tragedy concealed in the events of the late evening of November 4th: as I walked to the subway at about 10 p.m. a vast United States flag was being unfurled in Union Square; there were spontaneous parties in the streets of my part of Brooklyn, and many others can testify to much more exotic, collective experiences. This was a moment when people, no longer cowed by the power of the state and held in check by the police, suddenly become aware of their power and the power of their activity, which is nothing less than the activity of liberty. At such a moment, no force can stop them and a demonstration or street party erupts into being. This is collective joy. There is the potential for a political moment here, but it is a potential whose actualization is denied by the very representative process which is being celebrated. At the moment when people become aware of their power through the activity of the vote, they are simultaneously rendered powerless by the representative process. Liberty slips from the hands of those who have suddenly become aware of its power. In the face of such human fireworks, it is not surprising that Obama cancelled the firework display planned to accompany his victory speech. The message is clear: ‘The victory is yours. But when you’ve finished celebrating, dancing and crying, return to your homes and be quiet. Thanks to you, the business of government is ours and we will take it from here. We’ll let you know how it goes. P.S. Please don’t take popular sovereignty too literally’.
It’s a couple of months old now, but this piece by Simon Critchley captures the moment well.