This article originally appeared in The South Atlantic Quarterly 110:1, Winter 2011, pages 265-271.
The Masters of the Money game [on Wall Street] fell out of love with – and into a state of bitter, seething hysterical fury toward – Obama.
– John Heilemann, New York Magazine
Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further.
– Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone
If he survives the current backlash against his presidency, Barack Obama could be the greatest U.S. president of my lifetime, even though I will be in progressive opposition to most of his policies. The paradox is inevitable and carries a lesson for progressives in general.
Obama already is likely to receive media and historians’' credit for the largest expansion of the health care safety net in forty years and for the most serious reform of Wall Street in sixty years. Before he's done, there will be more progress on green jobs and global warming than under any previous president and significant repair of many regulatory programs shredded by the conservatives. His appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court was historic. Hus primary and general election victories were epic markers in race relations. Hus opposition to the Iraq War made him the first president elected on a platform opposing an ongoing U.S. war. And his background as a community organizer has sparked an interest in service and activism not seen since the early 1960s.
I voted for Obama because a new generation of idealistic activists, including my grown-up kids, was passionate about his candidacy. If you were in Georgia and Mississippi in the time of terror, from 1960 to 1964, as I was, you would understand the depth of my joy at seeing an African American president emerge from the sacrifices and labors of the civil rights and voting rights movements. I think the Obama generation will be the cradle for new social activism in America.
As I list these achievements, I can hear angry voices claiming that Obama is no different from George W. Bush, or is Bush-Lite, one more reason to reject the Democratic Party or electoral politics altogether. Worse, the voices say, the current lack of street resistance is due to Obama's charming cooptation of progressives, not the inherent problems of the Left itself. These complaints are set out in a persuasive litany by Tariq Ali, who writes in the New Left Review that Obama "has acted as just another steward of the American empire, pursuing the same aims as his predecessors, with the same means" - though, he adds, Obama is an "upgrade" over his predecessors.[i]
Sharing such concerns, I helped form Progressives for Obama in 2008 with Danny Glover, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, and Carl Davidson, to create online space for those on the left who wanted to support Obama without being identified with all his views.
My own disagreements with Obama have been many, systemic, and growing.
I have long opposed the military interventions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. I wanted Obama to stand against the military coup in Honduras, not cave in to the oligarchy. It's past time for diplomatic recognition of Cuba. I am outraged at his retreat from his campaign promise to revise NAFTA, a trade pact that uproots thousands of immigrants to vigilante-ridden places like the Arizona desert. I want Medicare for all, not the brokered health legislation that he signed.
I wanted him to appoint Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz instead of Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner; to put green jobs, energy conservation, and renewables first; to prohibit deepwater drilling; and to rehabilitate and employ as many juvenile offenders as possible from a prison system holding 25 percent of the world's inmates.
Obama defines himself as a centrist, choosing positions squarely between the poles of whichever policy proposals he decides are politically relevant. In a country as sharply divided as ours, he might now have become president without this posture. But it's at the root of his problems in governing, because it inevitably means disappointing many of the votes who passionately supported him in the Democratic primaries.
Call it the art of compromise or triangulation, but Obama was very clear about this positioning from the beginning. He told the New York Times Magazine, "Either you're a Scoop Jackson Democrat or you're a Tom Hayden Democrat and you're suspicious of any military action. And that's just not my framework."[ii] For those who don't remember, Jackson was the state of Washington's "senator from Boeing" and a political godfather of the neo-conservatives. I am at the other pole, permanently.
This formulaic centrism means that Obama always will be positioned to the right of most progressives, including myself. Not that he always disagrees with us philosophically (he himself prefers a single-payer health care system), but because he requires the existence of a disappointed Left as proof that he commands the center. AS a result, many idealists, progressives, and rank-and-file Democrats will be rubbed raw by spending precious time and energy demanding that Obama do what they expect of him.
Obama is not the first president to offend his base deeply. Even if his ultimate achievements are historic, they will require his supporters to go through a grinding experience of incrementalism again and again.
But neither does this mean that Obama is only more of the same, nor that the two parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, nor that nothing significant ever results from the electoral process.
In the first place, there is the matter of race, the fundamental issue of the 2008 election, where the Democratic constituency is liberal and diverse while the Republicans tend toward apartheid. It took more than five hundred years to reach this point in Continental race relations, and just barely. It even may be the case that Obama's most important triumph was his election itself and that he will face fierce opposition if he pushes for any further redistribution of power.
I look at politics from the base up, which reveals a structural division in the Democratic Party. On one side are the (unelected) elites who control the money, the party hierarchy, the key executive agencies like the U.S. Treasury and the Pentagon, and the broader national security establishment. On the other are the Democratic and independent rank-and-file voters and constituent groups who care about jobs, social justice, peace, and the environment. Any movement for social change must be built with the support of those rank-and-file Democratic voters and like-minded independents, often through outside or intraparty insurgencies, where elite policies become insuffereable. Or when hope breaks out, as in the primaries and caucuses where the Obama movement overcame the Clinton establishment. A longer-term power base to the left of the elite Democratic mainstream can be built in dozens of cities, states, and congressional districts where the density of progressive voters is strong enough. Only from such as growing base can innovative initiatives be tested and the pressure built to move Obama's center father to the left.
This is the heart of progressive America, which rests not in the Beltway or progressive television studios but on community-based social movements, fighting local battles year after year, including but not limited to electoral battles. Such movements constitute a kind of party of the people that exists primarily outside the institutions but periodically stages what I call "interventions from below" when they perceive an opening. They are not only a resource for campaigns but are steadily creating sustaining "communities of meaning" in their everyday lives, necessary for the long haul.
In California, for example, although rent control is off the table in elite mainstream discourse, a renters' rights movement in Santa Monica has thrived for thirty years, keeping thousands of units affordable and depriving landlords of hundreds of millions in profits they could have pocketed at market rates. Through an initiative passed forty years ago, the California Coastal Act has preserved free public access to California's beaches for millions of people. Although the forces of privatization and gentrification cannot be stopped without a larger progressive movement, the quality of life has been enhanced for several generations of Californian renters and beachgoers by community-based movements.
The dilemma I share with Obama's critics is how to empower this progressive Democratic base against the more conservative leadership of the party itself. Given the asymmetry between grassroots and elites, the only foreseeable opening for progressive change is through social movements that mobilize new voters, persuade the fence-sitters, and threaten the equilibrium of the elites. If the elites cannot be overthrown or will not wither away, it still is possible to gain ground against their deepening occupation of our lives.
For example, despite the lack of media recognition, there was a powerful popular movement against the Iraq was that still continues to shape public opinion against the Afghanistan war. In a July 2010 CBS poll, 73 percent of Democrats thought Obama should set a timetable withdrawing from Afghanistan, with 54 percent of independent voters agreeing and 68 percent of Republicans opposed.[iii] Where did this trend originate, if not in the legacy of consciousness begun in Vietnam, continuing through the Central American wars, and erupting again during the George W. Bush years? This public doubt didn't appear like a cloud but came from the political weather building up in civic society over decades. Steady work in local communities by progressive antiwar activists surely contributed to this climate. So powerful was its rise that the Republican congressional majority was dumped in 2006, and Barack Obama triumphed in the Democratic primaries and general election in 2008. Those who believe the wars should have ended after those elections are misreading the power balance in America, where civic society and public opinion count for something but cannot bring down the empire by the election of Democrats. In the words of Ted Koppel, we could not stop the wars, but we could "complicate their prosecution."[iv]
If Obama wants to salvage his domestic agenda and be reelected in 2012, he will have to de-escalate militarily and implement an exit strategy for Afghanistan. Such as change will be possible only if public opinion resists manipulation from above and committed activist networks throw themselves into the tranches for yet another close election.
In addition to concentrating on immediate focal points like Afghanistan, progressives will have to popularize an alternative narrative of globalization, one linking the U.S. empire militarily (eight hundred bases), economically (NAFTA, WTO), culturally, and spiritually (multiculturalism versus the neo-Crusaders). More concretely, progressives need to make the case that our military occupations undermine our ability to invest in domestic priorities. For decades, the centrist Democrats have campaigned with a declining ability to deliver both guns and butter. Their fading paradigm is the New Deal combined with "muscular internationalism," which in practice means swelling military budgets and prolonged military occupations. Specifically, neoconservatives and many Pentagon planners view Afghanistan as merely one "small war" in the context of a fifty- to eighty-year "Long War" doctrine.[v]
If Obama succumbs to pressures to further the Long War, his ambitions for a domestic agenda will be undermined. Only a progressive movement can help compel and convince him to implement his words at West Point: "the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."[vi]
Obstructing one war after another in the Long War that will last our lifetimes is not a cheerful prospect to consider, but what is the alternative? This agonizing and complicated process of change has many parallels throughout our history. Time and again, the ruling elites have been forced to make concessions that seemed inconceivable at first but were finally accepted, if only to restabilize the existing institutions. To consider these reforms as nothing more than mere "upgrades" understates the time and energy invested by social movements that lead to real improvements in everyday life-if not always to revolution. To be enfranchised rather than disenfranchised was more than an upgrade if you were a woman in 1900 or an African American in the Deep South in 1960; it meant a protection of dignity and a step forward in life. Those were not merely cosmetic makeovers.
The abolitionists, rebel slave uprisings, and finally civil war itself caused President Abraham Lincoln to invite his "old friend" Frederick Douglass to the White House. Radical labor organizers and militant factory occupations forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support the Wagner and Social Security Acts. The sit-ins and civil rights revolution forced President John F. Kennedy to endorse the 1963 March on Washington and voting rights. All these leaders became the enlightened centrists of their times because of the force of social movements, though they fell short of radical dreams. That has been the fate of radicalism in our history, at least until now. The revolutionary impulse ends in reform.
Symbolized by Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Wall Street crisis, and global warming, the great struggle ahead over reform on many fronts will be whether the United States can adjust to a multipolar and multicultural world, at home and abroad, or whether it instead pursues an agenda of defending its declining power.
Now a great counterrevolution is rising against Obama and, more broadly, against the civil rights, labor, social welfare, and environmental reforms of the 1930s and 1960s. The Obama victory has led to division and demoralization in the ranks of the victors. Obama is caught between the social movements that helped elect him and the Machiavellians he must placate in order to stay in power. The Pentagon and Wall Street elites have turned against him, and the Democratic hesitation to adopt a program of progressive populism has resulted in the loss of issues of middle-class economics to the American Right and the Tea Party. Will we understand that, in fact, there is life after empire, and act accordingly.
In reframing this national narrative, preserving, protecting, and pressuring the Obama coalition are musts. At the same time, we should take advantage of every opportunity to decentralize progressive power to the participatory constituent level. The Internet makes this more possible than ever before. The primary location for progressives should be in social movements that build power from the bottom up, moving public opinion in a manner that pulls the center in a progressive direction, while creating innovations that make a better future plausible. Demands for greater popular democracy should include automatic voter registration, weekend voting, public financing of elections and preserving the option of states (like California) to adopt stronger programs than the national floor on vital issues like achieving a green economy and single-payer health care. The 1960s' demand for participatory democracy, bolstered by new technology and global communications, will only continue to grow in possibility.
[i] Tariq Ali, “President of Cant,” New Left Review, no. 61 (January-February 2010): 99-116, 108, 114.
[ii] James Traub, “Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?” New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2007.
[iii] Stephanie Condon, “Poll: Most Want Afghanistan Withdrawal Timeline,” CBS News, July 13, 2010, www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20010459-503544.html?tag=contentMain;contentBody.
[iv] Ted Koppel, interview with Tom Hayden, Nightline, January 16, 2003.
[v] Tom Hayden, “Kilcullen’s Long War,” The Nation, November 2, 2009.
[vi] Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (West Point, December 1, 2009), available at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-address-nation-way-forward-afghanistan-and-pakistan.