My friend observed:
He added that Barack Obama comes the closest to such a figure today -- not because Obama is so clearly progressive himself, but because his identity and life history make him a figure whose very prominence suggests that alternate visions might be possible for this country.
Much later one of the young women (the young organizers were mostly women) commented: "I understand why we might hope a leader figure will emerge. But I don't like thinking that way. Besides the leader figure is always so gendered...."
She's right of course. Her question took me back to concerns I've often felt in California political campaigns. What makes my home a "blue" Democratic state is that there is a possible coalition that makes a voting majority that is loosely liberal -- but only if all parts of it hold together. That coalition needs to attract African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, new citizens, the unionized working class (especially white union member households), white women, gays of all colors and economic means, and people of progressive convictions. That is, the winning Democratic coalition is a hell of a mixed bag.
And therein lies the problem that begs for recognized mainstream leadership: on contentious issues such as many of our initiative measures, there are very few spokespeople who can speak across all those communities with moral and intellectual authority. We don't all listen to the same "leaders" and we don't always credit others' leaders.
The only campaign I've ever been part of that seemed to bridge all those gulfs was the 2003 effort (in the middle of the circus that was the gubernatorial recall) to defeat Prop. 54, a ban on the state collecting racial information. Who did opponents find who could speak to all across chasms of race and class interest? Focus group investigations suggested that "the man" was former Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop. Voters listened to an eccentric-appearing old white man with a beard and voted the thing down.
I don't know quite what the Prop. 54 story implies except perhaps that it illustrates how strongly all of us wish for some authority to validate our views. Progressives cannot ignore how strong the impulse to seek authority can be, at the same time we try to help people learn to do their own thinking.
There it is again.