It is a challenge to rise up, organize, and reshape the center, and build a climate of public opinion so intense that it becomes necessary to redeploy from military quagmires, take on the unregulated corporations and uncontrolled global warming, and devote resources to domestic priorities like health care, the green economy, and inner-city jobs for youth.
What is missing in the current equation is not a capable and enlightened centrist but a progressive social movement on a scale like those of the past.
The refrain is familiar. Without the militant abolitionists, including the Underground Railroad and John Brown, there would have been no pressure on President Lincoln to end slavery. Without the radicals of the 1930s, there would have been no pressure on President Franklin Roosevelt, and therefore no New Deal, no Wagner Act, no Social Security.
The creative tension between large social movements and enlightened Machiavellian leaders is the historical model that has produced the most important reforms in the course of American history.
Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left of their own base. There are no shortcuts to radical change without a powerful and effective constituency organized from the bottom up. The next chapter in Obama's new American story remains to be written, perhaps by the most visionary of his own supporters.
Progressives need to unite for Obama, but also unite organically at least, and not in a top-down way on issues like peace, the environment, the economy, media reform, campaign finance, and equality like never before. The growing conflict today is between democracy and empire, and the battle fronts are many and often confusing. Even the Bush years have failed to unite American progressives as effectively as occurred during Vietnam. There is no reason to expect a President McCain to unify anything more than our manic depression.
But there is the improbable hope that the movement set ablaze by the Obama campaign will be enough to elect Obama and a more progressive Congress in November, creating an explosion of rising expectations for social movements here and around the world that President Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009.
That is a moment to live and fight for.
Tom Hayden is a longtime political activist and former California legislator. This article was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which the Guardian is a member, and is being carried in newspapers across the country this week.