Yesterday we inaugurated the 44th President of the United States, but the inauguration did not belong to Barack Obama so much as it belonged to the American people. The numbers are contested, but somewhere between 2 and 4 million people (nearly 1% of the entire population of the nation) made their way to Washington, D.C. for the ritual celebration of a truly historic moment. And what it celebration it was! As the photograph above can only begin to hint at (and as the roving and panning television cameras made all the more palpable) it was a spectacle of the first order.
Iconoclasts of all stripes, and many on the extreme left of the political spectrum, are cynical about political spectacles, and there is a point to be made about mindless rituals that animate an unreflective hero worship that can too easily encourage quiescence and mitigate civic agency. And truth to tell, we have seen a good deal of such spectacle and ritual in recent times. But at the same time we need to remember that democratic life demands rituals of social and collective communion that work to build the trust necessary to effectively negotiate the competing interests that motivate us as individual members of the polity. And the spectacle of this inauguration—a collecting of “the people” not just to witness the peaceful transfer of power but to voice its endorsement of a democratic polity predicated on the idea of national imperfection and the possibility of change and renewal guided by the “arc of justice”—was not just a passive or mindless acquiescence to the mass mediated display of bread and circuses to which, perhaps, we have become all too accustomed. It was instead an incredible and joyful collection of “the people,” the likes of which we have rarely seen: Millions strong, braving freezing temperatures, sharing the public space in communion with a set of ideas and dedicating themselves to the hard tasks ahead. It was their spectacle and their inaugural.
It would be a mistake, of course, to assume that the election of Barack Obama means that we have solved the problem of race in America, or to imagine that his presidency will recognize (let alone eliminate) all of the conditions of injustice (economic and otherwise) that plague our nation (and the world). But it would be equally mistaken to believe that rituals of communion and spectacles of national wholeness are unnecessary to the democratic way of life, or worse, necessarily undermine the path to a just and productive national solidarity. Ritualistic performances of political feeling are necessary (though not sufficient) to that task, especially when we remember what the ritual is all about, and here it is in honor of “we, the people.” The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the tasting, but from where I sit we are off to a good start.
Photo Credit: Win Macnamee/Getty Images