The grotesquely hyperdiscussed New Yorker cover. Are you fed up yet? A classical case of much ado about nothing, typical of a political culture that constantly substitutes banalities for serious reporting. And these jokers call themselves journalists and professional commentators.
Where Obamaism Seems to be Going
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
By Adolph Reed, Jr.
Prof. Reed takes us on a tour de force of transformations and other illusions associated with the Barack Obama phenomenon, as interpreted, conjured or hallucinated by the “left” – whoever that is. These certainly may be the End Days – but for what political tendencies? Will “progressivism” be transcended out of existence, along with race (with the exception of whites, of course)? We can all either patiently stay tuned, or we can seek answers from precocious youth, who are blessedly unburdened by experience. Could it be that nothing out of the ordinary is going on at all – just Power maintaining its grip?
“It is ironic that Obama would be the one to complete Clintonism’s redefinition of liberalism as conservatism.”
A friend called me a few days ago from Massachusetts, astounded at a WBUR radio program featuring Glen Greenwald from Salon.com and Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, in which vanden Heuvel not only unflaggingly defended Obama’s open and bald embrace of right-wing positions during the last few weeks against Greenwald’s criticism, but also did it from the right herself, calling him a “progressive pragmatist.” She affirmed Tom Hayden’s insistence on the Progressives for Obama blog that the candidate is a progressive, but a new kind of progressive, or some such twaddle. In response to Greenwald’s sharp rebuke of Obama’s FISA sellout, she acknowledged that he had “missed an opportunity to lead.” Defending his June 30 patriotism speech that included a gratuitous rehearsal of the right-wing line about anti-Vietnam War protesters from the “counterculture” who “blamed America for all that was wrong in the world” and the canard about antiwar activists “failing to honor” returning Vietnam veterans, which Obama asserted “remains a national shame to this day” despite the fact that is an utter lie, vanden Heuvel pointed again to Hayden’s endorsement as a sign that Obama’s cheap move must be okay because, after all, Hayden was a founder of SDS.
And perhaps most tellingly, despite their disagreements, Greenwald and vanden Heuvel both supported Obama’s practice of going out of his way to attack black poor people, most recently in his scurrilous Father’s Day speech and again before the NAACP. (And, by the way, he grew up without a father and is running for president, no?) To Greenwald, this is the “Obama we want to see more of,” the one who takes positions that are “unorthodox” and “not politically safe.” Since when has it been unorthodox or unsafe politically to malign black poor people in public? Who the fuck has been doing anything else for at least twenty years? Public sacrifice of black poor people has been pro forma Democratic presidential strategy since Clinton ran on the pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and made a burnt offering of Rickey Ray Rector, and victim-blaming based on just-so stories about supposed “behavioral pathology” has been the only frame for public discussion of poverty for at least as long. To vanden Heuvel, Obama’s contretemps with Jesse Jackson, who, ironically, has his own history of making such attacks, around this issue reflects a “generational division” among black people, with Obama representing a younger generation that values “personal responsibility.” She also, for good measure, asserted that Obama has been “nailed unfairly” for his cozying up to the evangelicals and promising to give them more federal social service money. In explaining that he comes out of a “community organizing” tradition based in churches in Chicago, she didn’t quite say that the coloreds love their churches. But she didn’t really have to say it out loud, did she?
“Since when has it been unorthodox or unsafe politically to malign black poor people in public?”
This is what passes for a left now in this country. It is a left that can insist, apparently, that Obama’s FISA vote, going out of his way (after all, he could simply have followed the model of Eisenhower on the Brown decision and said that the Court has ruled; therefore it’s the law, and his job as president would be to enforce the law) to align himself – twice, or three times — with the Scalia/Thomas/Roberts/Alito wing of the Supreme Court, his declaring that social problems, unlike foreign policy adventurism, are “too big for government” and pledging to turn over more of HHS and HUD’s budgets to the Holy Rollers are both tactically necessary and consistent with his convictions. So, if those are his convictions, or for that matter what he feels he must do opportunistically to get elected, why the fuck should we vote for him?
I’d been thinking about doing a “See, I told you so” column about Obama; then, especially given the torrent of vituperation and self-righteous contumely I got after arguing that he’s not what far too many nominal leftists were trying to make him out to be, I was tempted instead to do a “To hell with you, you deserve what you get” column. But the smug yuppies to whom I’d address that message — the fan club we encounter in foundation offices, faculty meetings, soccer games and dinner parties and on MSNBC and in the Nation — are neither the only people who’ve listened to Obama’s siren song nor the ones who’ll pay the price for their self-indulgent idiocy. (And Liza Featherstone deserves acknowledgement for having predicted early that the modal lament of the disillusioned would compare him unfavorably to Feingold.) Among other things, as I saw ever more clearly while watching Rachel Maddow talk with another of that Dem ilk about Obama and his family — how adorable and “well-raised” or some such his kids are, etc, etc — a few nights ago on Keith Olberman’s show, an Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy, and, since even “left” discourse in this country seems capable of conceptualizing the latter as a politically significant matter only in terms of the former (or its gender or similar categorical equivalent), that could just about complete purging entirely out of legitimate political discourse the notion that economic inequality is rooted fundamentally in capitalism’s political and economic dynamics.
Underclass ideology — where left and right come together to embed a common sense around victim-blaming and punitive moralism, racialized of course but at a respectable remove from the familiar phenotypically based racial taxonomy — will most likely be the vehicle for effecting the purge. Obama’s success will embody how far we have come in realizing racial democracy, and the inequality that remains is most immediately a function of cultural — i.e., attitudinal, and behavioral — and moral deficits that undercut acquisition of “human (and/or “social,” these interchangeable mystifications shift according to rhetorical need) capital,” a message his incessant castigation of black behavior legitimizes. In this context, the “activism” appropriate for attacking inequality: 1) rationalizes privatization and demonization of the public sector through accepting the premise that government is inefficient and stifles “creativity;” 2) values individual voluntarism and “entrepreneurship” over collective action (e.g., four of the five winners of the Nation’s “Brave Young Activist” award started their own designer NGOs and/or websites; the fifth carries a bullhorn around and organizes solidarity demos); 3) provides enrichment experiences, useful extracurrics, and/or career paths for precocious Swarthmore and Brown students and grads (the Wendy Kopp/Samantha Power model trajectory), and 4) reduces the scope of direct action politics to the “all tactics, no strategy,” fundamentally Alinskyite, ACORN-style politics that Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone have described as “activistism” and whose potential for reactionary opportunism Andy Stern of SEIU has amply demonstrated. Obama goes a step further in deviating from Alinskyism to the right, by rejecting its “confrontationalism,” which severs its rhetoric of “empowerment” from political action and contestation entirely and merges the notion into the pop-psychological, big box Protestant, Oprah Winfrey, Reaganite discourse of self-improvement/personal responsibility.
“An Obama presidency (maybe even just his candidacy) will likely sever the last threads of any connection between notions of racial disparity and structurally reproduced inequality rooted in political economy.”
All of the above salves the consciences of our professional-managerial class peers and coworkers who want to think of themselves as more tolerant and enlightened than their Republican relatives and neighbors, even as they insulate themselves and their families as much as possible from undesired contact with the dangerous classes and define the latter in quotidian practice through precisely the same racialized and victim-blaming stereotypes as the conservatives to whom they imagine themselves superior. This hypocrisy, of course, is understood within the stratum as unavoidable accommodation to social realities, and likely to be acknowledged as an unfortunate and lamentable necessity. Yet those lamenting at the same time reject out of hand as impractical any politics that would challenge the conditions that reproduce the inequalities underlying those putative realities. Obama, in the many ways that Glen Ford, Margaret Kimberley and others have catalogued here, is an ideal avatar for this stratum. He has condensed, in what political dilettantes of all stripes rush to call a “movement,” the reactionary quintessence that Walter Benn Michaels in The Trouble With Diversity identifies in a politics of identity or multiculturalism that substitutes difference for inequality as the crucial metric of political criticism. It’s apt in this connection that even elites in the Mississippi Delta, down to the level of the Cotton Museum in Lake Providence, LA, and the blues museums that dot every hamlet on US 61 in Mississippi between Greenville and Memphis, have come to appreciate the political and commercial benefits of multicultural celebration and even civil rights heritage tourism, without destabilizing the underlying relations of racialized subordination.
Indeed, Obama represents a class politics, one that promises to cement an alliance anchored in the professional-managerial class (including, perhaps especially, the interchangeable elements of which now increasingly set the policy agendas for what remains of the women’s, environmentalist, public interest, civil rights and even labor movements) and the “progressive” wing of the investor class. (See, for example, Tom Geoghagen, “All the Young Bankers,” The American Prospect, June 23, 2008.) From this perspective, it is ironic in the short term — i.e., considering that he pushed HRC out of the way — that Obama would be the one to complete Clintonism’s redefinition of liberalism as conservatism. So there’s no way I’m going to ratify this bullshit with my participation, and I’m ready to tell all those liberals who will hector me about the importance of voting that it’s the weakest, most passive and least consequential form of political participation, and I’m no longer going to pretend it’s any more than that, or that the differences between the Dem and GOP candidates are greater than they are, just to help them feel good about not doing anything more demanding and perhaps more consequential.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to vote for Obama, though I do say it’s wrong-headed to vote for him with any lofty expectations. I would also suggest that it’s not an open and shut case that – all things considered – he’s that much better than McCain. In some ways Obama would be better for us in the short run, just as Clinton was better than the elder Bush. In some ways his presidency could be much worse in the longer term, again like Clinton. For one thing, the recent outpouring of enthusiastic support from all quarters – including on black academic and professional list serves and blogs and on op-ed pages – for his attacks on black poor people underscores the likelihood that Obama will be even more successful than Clinton at selling punitive, regressive and frankly racist social policies as humane anti-poverty initiatives. In a way, I suppose, there could be something useful about having a large strain of the black petite bourgeoisie come out as a militant racial class for itself. Maybe that could be a prelude to a good fight, but unfortunately there’s no counterweight. And the black professional-managerial strata, despite their ever more blatant expressions of contempt for black poor people, continue to insist on speaking for the race as a whole.
“Obama represents a class politics, one that promises to cement an alliance anchored in the professional-managerial class and the ‘progressive’ wing of the investor class.”
Lesser evilists assert as indisputable fact that Gore, or even Kerry, wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Perhaps Gore wouldn’t have, but I can’t say that’s a sure thing. (And who was his running mate, by the way?) Moreover, we don’t know what other military adventurism that he – like Clinton – would have undertaken to make clear that he wouldn’t be seen as a wimpy Democrat. As to Kerry, even though like all the other Dem presidential aspirants who voted for it, except Edwards, he claimed later that he thought he was voting for something else, he did vote to invade Iraq, didn’t he? And, moreover, during his campaign didn’t he say that, even if he’d known then what he knew in 2004, he’d still have voted for it? No, I’m not at all convinced that the right wouldn’t have been able to hound either Gore into invading Iraq or Kerry into continuing the war indefinitely. Sure, neither Dem would have done it as stupidly and venally as Bush, but that’s no comfort to the Iraqis, is it? Nor does it suggest a break from the military interventionism – old school imperialism – that’s defined our foreign policy increasingly since Reagan. Obama is on record as being prepared to expand the war into Pakistan and maybe Iran, now apparently even generically anywhere in “Mesopotamia” (NYT, 7/14/08), after he does the Randolph Scott move and “talks” to his targets a couple of times. He’s also made pretty clear that AIPAC has his ear, which does it for the Middle East, and I wouldn’t be shocked if his administration were to continue, or even step up, underwriting covert operations against Venezuela, Cuba (he’s already several times linked each of those two governments with North Korea and Iran) and maybe Ecuador or Bolivia.
This is where I don’t give two shits for the liberals’ criticism of Bush’s foreign policy: they don’t mind imperialism; they just want a more efficiently and rationally managed one. As Paul Street argues in BAR, as well as in his forthcoming book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, an Obama presidency would further legitimize the imperialist orientation of US foreign policy by inscribing it as liberalism or the “new kind” of progressivism. You know, the black is white, night is day kind. And, as he has shown most recently in his June 30 speech he will similarly sanitize the galloping militarization of the society that proceeds under the guise of “supporting the troops.” (How many of you have noticed being called on by flight attendants to give a round of applause to the military personnel on board a flight – it may be only a matter of time before pretending to be absorbed in reading will no longer work, and those who don’t cheer them on will be handcuffed – or the scores of other little, and not so little, everyday gestures that give soldiers priority over the rest of us, in the mode of returners from the Eastern Front? Actually, befitting neoliberalism, these gestures are for the image of soldiers, what they get instead of medical care and income support for the maimed.) All in all, I’d rather have an inefficient imperialism, one that imposes some cost on the US for its interventions. Clinton, like Bush père and Reagan, was able to pull it off with “surgical” (i.e., broadly devastating and terroristic to the objects, relatively painless for the subjects) actions and had the good sense both to select targets that couldn’t really fight back and to avoid the hubris of occupation. To that extent, no one complained; this was the new Pax Americana that in principle could have gone on indefinitely, with successive US governments creating and lighting up demon regimes abroad as needed.
“An Obama presidency would further legitimize the imperialist orientation of US foreign policy by inscribing it as liberalism or the “new kind” of progressivism.”
This brings to mind Lila Lipscomb, the woman in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” whose son was killed in Iraq. She had proudly and quite happily sent two or three of her kids into the military before this one because it seemed like a reasonable bet for their being able to make the bases for better lives for themselves from the perspective of borderline poverty and general economic distress in Flint. Sure, the military no doubt lied in minimizing the likelihood of seeing combat and about how, if they had to do it, all their cool gear would keep them out of harm’s way as they fired up bad guys all over the world who were threatening our or somebody else’s “freedom.” And all the politicians, Dems and Republicans, supported every deployment on those terms. And, like the vast majority of Americans, she probably would never have been moved to question the propriety of traipsing all over the world fucking with people – killing them and destroying their lives – who hadn’t done anything to us. I don’t make light of deaths of American soldiers; nor do I want to make one of those “maybe this will make them understand” points (though we certainly must recognize why people on the receiving end of this country’s bipartisan foreign policy would feel that way). I do want to stress that: a) so long as we assign significance only to the death, injury, and sovereignty of Americans and not those of the people on whose countries we make war, we will be all the more likely to repeat wars like this one over and over and over and b) the bipartisan “support the troops” rhetoric that has become a scaffold for discussing the war is a ruse for not addressing its foundation in a bellicose, imperialist foreign policy that makes the United States a scourge on the Earth. Obama, like other Dems, doesn’t want such a discussion any more then the Republicans do because they’re all committed to maintaining that foundation. “Antiwar” arguments that begin with clauses like “since the troops are there” or “if they’re going to be there” are no antiwar arguments at all. To the extent that Obama and his like christen them as such, they legitimize as “responsible” an “antiwar” discourse that reduces to no more than a technocratic focus on fighting interventionist wars in ways that minimize American casualties. If that’s a “progressive” foreign policy, then, in the words of Amos from “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” include me out. And, by the way, since Obama is so fond of invoking Vietnam these days, I should remind the faithful that every major party presidential candidate between 1956 and 1972 – except one, Barry Goldwater, who ran partly on his willingness to blow up the world and was trounced for it – ran on a pledge to end the Vietnam War. Every one of them lied, except maybe Nixon the third time he made the pledge, but that time he had a lot of help from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
And then there’s the issue of the courts, the big joker the liberals wave when all other arguments seem shaky. But hasn’t Obama already aligned himself with the right wing of the current Court, three times in the current session, and on three pretty show-stopping issues? I know, the response would be that he’s just posturing and on balance he’d appoint more “centrist” — as even his running dogs put it – judges. (This is the “I know he’s always out with her in public and looks like he’s enjoying himself, but he told me he really loves me and is just sticking around for the kids” argument.) Frankly, the courts bugbear is beginning to look played out. Past a certain point of giving away the store programmatically and ideologically, it doesn’t much matter who’s on the Court. And the more ideological ground that’s given away, the farther right will be the boundary of acceptable “centrism.” Could Obama now nominate someone with a record of favoring gun control or late-term abortions for mental health reasons or opposing the death penalty? And this isn’t even to raise all the other, property and contract related areas where the Courts’ actions are significant with respect to people’s lives. There’s no reason to expect anything from him in this area, especially when you factor in all the hedge fund and investor class money he gets and his close University of Chicago Law School and Economics Department connections.
I’m increasingly convinced that the courts issue looms so large because the liberals have given away everything else. It feels ever more the property of Dem hacks who have to strain to find any basis for plausible product differentiation during election season. (A friend used to maintain that there’s so little difference between the two parties in this bipartisan era that people determine their allegiances in the same ways they sort themselves into Ford and Chevy people. Now I think it’s more like Buick v. Pontiac; they have the same structure and frame, same engine, and same chassis design – just different flourishes and labels.) It’s a deal-maker only if you accept the premise that formal preservation of Roe v. Wade is the paramount issue, the sine qua non, of gender justice in the United States or that holding on to the shreds of a mangled, “mended” version of affirmative action is the same for blacks. Those two areas don’t stand out so much when you add up everything the Dems have caved on that has more directly injurious effects on black people and women, often with more direct and persisting impact on reproductive freedom – or “choice” in the liberals’ capitulationist parlance – and economic security than abortion rights, which are exercised, at best, episodically, and affirmative action, the meaningful scope of which is effectively reduced by retreats in other policy areas. For openers, just think of comparable worth, welfare reform, publicly supported child care, cuts in Federal urban aid, education, the War on Drugs, NAFTA, the ethnic cleansing program of HOPE VI, corporate health care, privatization, abetting union-busting, fetishizing deficit reduction, as only among the most obvious areas where they’ve rolled over. For most blacks and women, most of the time, abortion rights and affirmative action are at best more symbolic than practically meaningful, particularly in a context in which in all those other areas that affect their lives directly, the Dems have already given away the store. Trying to stoke hysteria around abortion rights and affirmative action looks more and more like a feeble attempt to deflect attention from that fact, and to convince people who don’t stand to get much from a Dem victory that they should commit to them anyway – for the sake of those who do stand to benefit. I’ve finally realized what this move is all about: what makes the Dems every four years “better” is always something that the hacks and yuppies are likely to imagine getting if they win, and their disgusting moralizing about the imperative to vote for their “lesser evil” – which means “I may get what’s important for me, but you have to recognize that what you need is naïve or impractical” — is all about bullying the rest of us into believing we have an obligation to vote for what’s good for them.
“The courts issue looms so large because the liberals have given away everything else.”
Bill Clinton’s “successful” presidency underscores this point. Like baseball managers, presidents probably get too much credit for economic growth and too much blame for downturns. Yes, the growth of inequality may have been tempered in some ways during his administration. But how was Clinton able to pull off his triangulation that combined stimulating the economy while sharply reducing the deficit? I may be a little out of my depth here, but it seems to me that part of the answer is his support for another burst of deregulation in the financial sector, which generated the speculative stock market boom and its inevitable bust that wrecked so many small investors’ lives and gutted their risky, defined-contribution pensions. Another part apparently was his administration’s role in stimulating housing market speculation – which included encouraging in a couple of different ways the proliferation of subprime lending. Thus a longer-term effect in both cases, between bailouts and the concentration that’s part of capitalism’s crisis tendency, an element of its dynamic of “creative destruction,” was upward redistribution. And, by the way, if you add the fact that the steepest cuts in the federal meat inspection program occurred under Clinton (Tyson’s Chicken has its needs, after all), then the libs’ halcyon, nay Edenic, days of the Clinton presidency lose a lot of their prelapsarian splendor, as its fingerprints are all over three of the biggest domestic crises in this decade. And there’s no reason, other than the will to believe, to expect that Obama would be any better, and it’s entirely likely that in some ways – including those bearing on racial justice – he’ll be worse, again by moving the boundaries of thinkable liberalism that much farther to the right. There is nothing in his record, much less his recent courting of some of the worst tendencies of the right, to reassure us on this front. The argument that he has to give away everything in order to get elected is substantively only an argument that we have no reason to elect him.
All that said, I reiterate that, although I’ve been clear about my own decision to abstain from this charade, I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t vote for him. Nor do I see any third-party candidate as a serious alternative. I was a Commoner elector in 1980 and voted for Nader in 2000 (I’m proud to declare that, whatever else I may have done in my life, I’ve voted against Joe Lieberman at every opportunity I’ve had to do so), but the fact is that third party candidacies are really the same as not voting, just more costly and time-consuming. They aren’t an answer to anything. They don’t galvanize movements, and unless they emerge from dynamic, powerful movements – like the Republicans in the 1850s – they aren’t more than vehicles for collecting and registering protest by isolated individuals. This can be defensible, so far as it goes, but it is not an alternative or shortcut to building a movement capable of changing the terms of political debate. And that can’t happen during the heat of an election period.
The point is that we need to approach this presidential election stuff, and not just this time around, with no illusions about the trade-offs involved and recognize that it’s not even as simple a matter as Obama being better than McCain in the here-and-now on a select menu of issues. I could understand the impulse to rally the troops to produce the outcome that’s better on immediate tactical grounds, if we had some troops to rally. If we had such a base, it might even make sense to consider an organized boycott of the election, which may be the only way to keep from being treated like a 2 am booty-call for triangulating Dems. However, we don’t have it, and it can’t be built during an election season.
“Although I’ve been clear about my own decision to abstain from this charade, I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t vote for Obama.”
Perhaps the one luxury of the left’s weakness now is that we’re absolved of the need to hew so closely to such tactical considerations because we can’t influence the outcome of the election anyway. Pretending that we can is a convenient excuse for laziness and opportunism, on both intellectual and political fronts. This, by the way, is yet another area where we’ve been failed by much of the left media that too easily succumb to simple cheerleading, counting up outrages, and engaging in wish fulfillment, indulging the fantasy that there is a coherent political movement out there somewhere that can assert its electoral will.
Here are two sobering thoughts for the “yes, but” left. First, despite all breathless claims about how the Obama campaign “energized” young voters who could remain mobilized to become the cornerstone of the base that will push him to be more like the fantasy Obama, when all was said and done, 18-29 year old voters were 14% of those voting in the primaries. True, that was up a few points from the last several elections, but it is exactly the average of the “youth” turnout over the past thirty years. Second, the escrow account established by progressive Obama supporters to hold him accountable has, according to the New York Times (July 13, 2008) raised $101,375 from 675 people in nearly a month. By contrast, the campaign’s chief fundraiser, Penny Pritzker of the Chicago real estate magnate and philanthropic family, a week earlier scheduled “more than a dozen big-ticket events over the next few weeks at which the target price for quality time with the candidate is more than $30,000 per person”(NYT, July 4, 2008). I guess our side had better get cracking with those bake sales on Democracy Now!
Finally, I recognize that trade-offs would be involved in rejecting the premise that we can’t afford to jeopardize the chances for a Democrat’s victory, no matter how little he or she may differ from the Republican. Two little items in the July 15 NYT illustrate this point. One is about the Bush administration’s effort to push through a regulation requiring any hospital or medical facility that takes federal money not to discriminate in hiring those – nurses or pharmacists, for example – who oppose abortion or contraception on religious grounds. The second is that the GAO has outed the wage and hour division of the Labor Dept for its laxity and worse in handling complaints and apparently not paying attention to low-wage industries at all. When the right is in power, they can push their agenda into the administrative and regulatory interstices insidiously, and a Democratic administration, at least to this point, would be less likely to pursue objectives such as those, which clearly make things substantively worse than they were and at least temporarily more difficult to fight.
When and whether it’s appropriate, or not, to accept the immediate costs of such trade-offs is a decision that would be properly made systematically, in the context of a larger strategy for pursuit of political power, not on the fly, by individuals in the heat of the moment. It’s an issue that would best be discussed and debated in institutional forums – labor federations, constituent advocacy and membership groups – and through movement-linked media.
“Obama threatens to go beyond any of his Dem predecessors in redefining their all-too-familiar capitulation as the boundary of the politically thinkable.”
But here’s the catch-22: The left version of the lesser evilist argument stresses that it’s unrealistic and maybe unfair to expect anything of the Dems in the absence of a movement that could push them, and no such movement exists. True enough, but where is such a movement to come from if we accept the premise that the horizon of our political expectation has to be whatever the Dems are willing to do because demanding more will only put/keep the other guys in power, and they’re worse? I remember Paul Wellstone saying already in the early ‘90s that they’d gotten into a horrible situation in Congress, where the Republicans would propose a really, really hideous bill, and the Dems would respond with a slightly less hideous one and mobilize feverishly around it. If it passed, they and all their interest-group allies would hold press conferences to celebrate the victory, when what had passed actually made things worse than they were before. That’s also an element of the logic we’ve been trapped in for 30 years, and it’s one reason that things have gotten progressively worse, and that the bar of liberal expectations has been progressively lowered. It’s also one of the especially dangerous things about Obama, that he threatens to go beyond any of his Dem predecessors in redefining their all-too-familiar capitulation as the boundary of the politically thinkable, as the substance of “progressivism.” He can manage this partly because of the way that he and his image-makers manipulate the rhetoric and imagery of energizing “youth,” whose righteous fervor is routinely adduced to demonstrate the power and Truth of Obamaism, rather than evidence that they just don’t know any better.
The Obamistas have exploited the opportunism and bankruptcy of adults whose lack of will and direction, and maybe their hyper-investment as parents, lead them to look to precocious young people as sources of wisdom and purpose. But “youth,” first of all, is an actuarial and advertising category, not a coherent social group, and one of its defining features is lack of experience. Another, lest we forget, is its transience; youth, by definition, is a status that disappears with time, and rapidly. (I’m reminded of joking with comrades more than three decades ago, after the Student Organization for Black Unity – SOBU — had become YOBU about what would be the next step in the progression after Student and Youth.) The many organizational debates over the decades about where to set the upper age limit of the “youth” section should have been a signal of how arbitrary and concocted the category is. And these precocious young, mainly middle class enthusiasts, who believe that the world began when they started paying attention, have not had the experience of being sold out by Dem after Dem; they didn’t live through their parents’ versions of the exact same overblown and unfulfilled enthusiasms for Jesse Jackson, who also supposedly energized youth and was historic, and/or Bill Clinton. They haven’t seen the Dems run a slightly different version of the same candidate and campaign as their Magic Negro every four years since Dukakis, or maybe even Mondale or Carter, with almost always the same result. Many of them don’t understand the difference between a political movement and a protest march, chat room or ad campaign. And, most of all, they by and large don’t feel adult anxieties about health care, working conditions, pensions and the like. Therefore, they are the ideal propagandists for the fantasy that Obama can transform the political environment through his person, as well as his bullshit about “community organizing” and the real progressivism being that which transcends, even obviates, conflict, and his arsenal of student government platitudes like the notion that “hope” has a self-evident, concrete meaning or that partisanship is a bad thing or that “politics of gridlock” is something more than important sounding filler for use by the male and female news bunny corps and their stable of talking head guest commentators.
“Many young people don’t understand the difference between a political movement and a protest march, chat room or ad campaign.”
And, no, I don’t mean to dismiss young people’s role in politics. Because of their point in life and the social location associated with it, they tend to have more social energy and to be more inclined to experiment than older people. These can be valuable attributes for a political movement. They are also reciprocals of lack of experience and immersion in adult concerns. The Obamistas’ opportunistic exploitation of the imagery of youth activism, though, makes it especially important to be clear-headed, to avoid mystifications and facile nostalgia about what role to expect from young people in building a movement.
Neither the civil rights movement nor the Vietnam era antiwar movement was the product of precocious youth, least of all the sort who create their own NGOs, though both at various points depended heavily on the energy, flexibility and other talents of young people, however defined. The direct action explosion of the 1960s civil rights movement in the South was the product of years of organizing and institutional political agitation and action that stretched back to the 1930s. The leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association were adults: E. D. Nixon was more than 50 years old and a long-time activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and NAACP; Rosa Parks was over 30 and an NAACP functionary, and King himself, the novice, was a married father and pastor. SCLC, CORE and the NAACP similarly were led by long-time activist adults who shaped those organizations’ programs and their directions. James Farmer was 40 at the time of the Greensboro sit-in, and Bayard Rustin was pushing 50. And this isn’t even to consider the many labor and other organizations that fed into, shaped, and sustained the movement.
The story of the student and antiwar movements is similar. SDS began as an offshoot of the labor-based League for Industrial Democracy, and the anti- Vietnam war movement in no way is reducible simply to its student or youth component. Labor, civil rights, pacifist and many other types of activist organizations shaped, pushed, funded and directed the larger movement. It’s telling that the mass youth antiwar movement collapsed almost immediately with elimination of the draft.
I recognize also that one reason it’s so difficult to have the discussion about the point at which it makes sense, if not to break with the Dems at least to stop lying to ourselves about the cataclysmic significance of voting for them or not, is that the election year is in a way not the optimal time to have it. This is precisely because of the immediateness of the stakes and the kind of politics – i.e., by definition not “transformative,” if we take the term to imply potential to alter the terms of political debate substantially – elections warrant and require. The problem, though, is that even within the ineffectual enclaves that pass for a left, as well as all the more solid left-of-center interest configurations – labor, enviros, women, civil rights, etc — “politics” increasingly has come to mean only getting someone elected or defeated or some bill or initiative passed or defeated. So elections are the only context around which it’s possible that even politically attentive people and those who see themselves as activists are inclined to discuss political strategy at all. And then, because the frenzy of electoral jockeying stokes passions and leads to extravagant claims, the discussion becomes overheated, and distinctions between tactics, strategies and goals blur, with the first likely to drive the other two rhetorically. The predictably exaggerated claims that support electoral mobilization, e.g., “Obama is a transformative politician,” etc, strive to channel and subordinate all political discussion to the immediate goal of winning what can be won right now and not really entertaining questions about how much, not to say whether, it’s actually worth winning, or even whether the victory could be pyrrhic.
“How can we hold them accountable once they’re in office if we can’t do it when they’re running?”
So we “don’t have time” to have the strategic political discussion about how to try to change the terms of debate during the election year, and “we don’t have time” to have it between election years because (a) there are other, equally instrumental objectives that consume everyone’s time as immediately more pressing – some other 8% adjustment to fight for or against – and (b) the dilettantish left persists in the belief that some gimmick – some Special Candidate, some clever slogan (“No, we’re really the ones who ‘support the troops'” or “We need a policy that helps ‘working families’ and the ‘middle class'”) – can magically knock the shackles from the eyes of the majority that already exists as our constituency but doesn’t yet know it, if we could only find the right one. Then we’re back to the next election year, and some new candidate becomes the embodiment of all our hopes and dreams and the one who’ll call that majority together for us. Frankly, I’ve begun to suspect that the election year version of the “now is not the time” argument and its sibling, the “get him elected first then hold him accountable” line, as well as their first cousin, “Well, that’s what they all have to do to get elected,” reflect nothing better than denial of the grim reality that we can’t expect anything from them or make any demands of them. After all, how can we hold them accountable once they’re in office if we can’t do it when they’re running, when we technically have something we can withhold or deliver?
The fact is that they know we don’t have the power to make them do or not do anything and treat us accordingly, and they will until we develop the capacity to force them to do otherwise. I know this is a difficult message for those who like to believe that politics is about good people and bad people, or that writing really smart position papers that demonstrate the formal plausibility of a win/win agenda that satisfies everyone’s concerns should be enough to counter the influence of those $30,000 per head corporate and hedge fund contributors, but that’s just not the way the deal goes down.
So the question is: how are we to break this cycle to be able to try to build the movement we need to do anything more than staunch the bleeding? Consider as well that the staunching looks less and less meaningful to the growing population that gets defined as on the wrong side of the triage line and that each iteration of the losing game further shrinks the ranks of the relatively secure economically, drives more and more people to the margins, and shifts the thinkable terms of political debate, as well as the electorate’s center of gravity, more and more to the right. We have seen, for example, that after nearly thirty years of bipartisan government-bashing, even in the wake of massive catastrophes like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the notion of public obligation to provide for the citizenry’s well-being is steadily being wiped out of public consciousness. (And, by the way, those precocious NGO engineers are energetically instrumental in doing a lot of the wiping.) And it’s crucially important for those who identify with the left to recognize that there is no designated moment at which the crisis becomes intolerable and “the People” either “wake up” or “rise.” That is simply not the way politics works. Absent concerted, organized intervention, it could go on indefinitely, with all kinds of inventive scapegoating available to stigmatize the previous rounds of losers and provide desperate reassurances to the next. And that would be a political situation and social order likely to grow ever uglier and more dangerous.
Adolph Reed, Jr. is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Class Notes, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, W. E. B. DuBois and American Political Thought, and Stirrings in the Jug, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.