Liberals and Progressives Need a New Strategy in the Obama Years
by Michael Lerner
The 2008 elections revealed the great yearning of a majority of Americans for a world based on peace, social justice, generosity, environmental sanity, and recognition that our well-being is tied to the well-being of everyone else on the planet.
Yet many of those who spent time and energy on the 2008 campaign now believe Obama and the congressional Democrats have failed to fight for a world based on those principles. Media cheerleaders explain this as a function of Obama's personality and of his life experience as a conciliator whose highest goal has been to avoid "ideology" and bring people together. But the fact remains that Obama won much of his popular support by promising to bring fundamental change to government, to challenge the influence of corporate lobbyists, and to restore the Constitution's civil liberties and human rights, which had been violated in the Bush years.
So social change activists who a year ago were pleading to give Obama "more time" have, in the spring of 2010, become less charitable. They point to broken campaign promises, from renewed offshore oil drilling and nuclear power production, to keeping the Guantánamo torture camp open, continuing the war against Iraq, increasing our military presence in Afghanistan, renewing the Patriot Act, continuing "military commission" kangaroo trials, reserving the right to torture, and continuing the NSA's "domestic surveillance" program of spying on innocent Americans' emails and phone calls. Or they mention the shock they felt when Obama and the Democrats increased the national debt by trillions of dollars to assist banks and investment companies while doing very little to help middle-income and poor people weather the worst impacts of the economic meltdown and the close to 18 percent unemployment and underemployment rate. Democrats didn't even pass legislation to prohibit banks from charging exorbitant interest rates on mortgages.
Few of these critics minimize the huge obstacles created by Republicans in Congress, who have sought to ensure that Democrats have no "victories" to point to as they enter the 2010 elections. Yet what the critics maintain is that Obama and congressional Democrats, inheriting an economy and political system in crisis after decades of ideological Republican policies committed to downsizing government and serving the tax-cutting interests of the rich and the corporate elites, blew a unique opportunity to teach Americans a new way of thinking about politics and economy.
Accommodation Isn't Working
Instead of providing a full-throated critique of the mess that the previous administration's pro-market, pro-corporate, anti-government ideology had created, the Democrats under the leadership of Obama began to offer legislation that was mostly aimed at accommodating Republicans. This legislation did little to win the hearts and minds of the majority that had elected the Democrats in the supposition that they would shift national politics to finally give precedence to the needs of ordinary people over the needs of the wealthy and the powerful. Social change activists have looked on in increasingly sharp disbelief, wondering why it wasn't obvious to all that if the Republicans were committed to their worldview and Democrats to conciliation and compromise, that the outcome would move politics from the center to the right, thereby dashing the hopes of liberals and progressives on the rocks of inside-the-Beltway pragmatism and realism. Wasn't it obvious that this approach would prevent ordinary Americans from even hearing of a serious alternative to serving the interests of the powerful?
Obama has made some powerful and even visionary statements. But, his critics point out, his actual policy recommendations have seemed not to embody them. When Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman faced harsh opposition from conservative-dominated sessions of Congress, they did not run from the confrontation by presenting legislation that was already conceding much of what their opponents wanted. They instead presented and fought for a legislative program that could embody significant change. So even when they lost some of it, they managed to reshape the public understanding in ways that eventually got them a majority.
The ferocity of opposition to Obama and the Democrats is not a sufficient explanation for these failures. Obama received an electoral mandate significantly greater than that of George W. Bush, and Congress had a strong Democratic majority; together they could at least have put forward bills that embodied a new vision for America, fought for them strongly, forced the Republicans to filibuster for weeks on each point and hence be shown to be obstructing "the people's business," and gone to the country for a new mandate in 2010. Without that kind of vigorous struggle, the conservative worldview embodied by the right wings of both major parties became the dominant force shaping public discourse in the first year and a half of the Obama administration.
Why were the Democrats so afraid? Imagine, for instance, if the Democrats had fought for Medicare for All instead of a program that sends hundreds of billions of dollars to private health insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms by legally coercing the uninsured to buy insurance? What would they have lost? Would the Republicans have filibustered? Republicans already did that for a Democratic health care plan that had no cost restraints on rising health care insurance policies! Would they have threatened to call the Democrats and Obama "socialists" or "communists" or use vile racist slurs? They already did that! Would some right-wing extremists threaten or engage in acts of violence? That happened anyway!
The cumulative impact of this disjunction between what people had believed they were going to get from an Obama presidency and what Obama and congressional Democrats fought strongly for has opened up a chasm of despair (and even humiliation) on the part of many who allowed themselves to hope for something different. So in generating this despair and humiliation, the governing Democrats have created an activist vacuum, an empty public square that has been taken over by a racist and potentially quasi-fascist movement led by Sarah Palin and Tea Party members. These reactionaries are committed to the work of the corporate elite -- to downsizing government and disempowering it when it tries, however minimally, to restrain corporate avarice and protect those most hurt by the ups and downs of the capitalist market.
We view the potential ascendancy of quasi-fascistic forces as a real possibility and a tremendous threat to the humane values we espouse.
So here is the problem for progressives: we have to protect the liberals from the anger their policies and their cowardice have generated. We don't want the quasi-fascists to take their place -- and we believe that joining in the chorus of Obama-bashing only encourages the media to highlight the biggest bashers: the extremist Right. We are not in control of the media!
But it's not just that we can't risk giving more aid to the Tea Party. It's that many of us still hope that the Democrats can play a valuable role. To be entirely cynical about the chances of Congress pursuing progressive policies in a money-swamped corporate age is to be exactly where the corporations want us to be: cynicism leads to passivity, and passivity is a form of obedience.
We assert that congressional reforms that deliver movement toward a caring society are still possible. After all, the new health care legislation does insure another 32 million people and by some estimates will save as many as 30,000 lives a year. Nuclear arms are being reduced; the EPA is taking science seriously; we are no longer afraid of imminent war with Iran; and existing government services are being administered at the highest levels by people who want government to succeed, not fail. We should also credit Obama for his willingness to challenge the settlement policies of Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government in Israel. Taken together ... well, by no means what we had hoped for, but not to be minimized either.
These gains, however, are not robust enough to provide an alternative to the powerful onslaught that liberal and progressive ideas continue to face, an onslaught that threatens to bring the most conservative elements in both major parties back into power. The only way we can effectively protect the liberals is to help put them back on the right path by urging them to promote policies that embody the best in liberal and progressive thought. If we are to assist them, we have to openly criticize what is misguided about their current policies, as background to putting forward visionary progressive ideas, even though those will at first be dismissed as "unrealistic" or "utopian" by the very liberals we need to protect.
Strategize With Us June 11-14 in Washington, D.C.
To successfully support and critique our liberal allies will require a special kind of subtlety and sophistication on our part. We need you to come to D.C. June 11-14 to strategize with us on how best to build that progressive movement -- and to say "no" to the inside-the-Beltway realists and pragmatists who have led liberals and progressives into their current mistaken and unpopular path. At that gathering we will present our proposal for a Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA). The amendment would not only overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which further enables corporate money to shape electoral outcomes, but would also increase democratic control of the economy and empower Congress to take more dramatic steps to protect the environment. Taken together with our previously developed Spiritual Covenant with America, Tikkun's Network of Spiritual Progressives provides a plausible vision of where America should be heading in the twenty-first century (a vision not defined by what is "realistic" but by what is necessary to save human life from wars and environmental tragedy). Of course, central to our approach is also a commitment to see those with whom we disagree -- even the warmakers, the racists, and the fascists -- as fundamentally valuable and deserving of respect, even as we vigorously contend against their ideas and critique their public behavior. We need you there not only to give feedback on the specifics of the amendment (we'll reshape our final version in light of what we are hearing) but also to create a sufficient presence to command media attention and give greater weight to the ideas we are advocating. If spiritual progressives are to play a role in shaping America's future, you need to be there. You can register for the conference at spiritualprogressives.org by clicking on the picture of Obama in the left-hand column.
Bashing Obama is NOT the right strategy. Neither is keeping our mouths closed about the deficiencies in the program of the Democrats and the Obama administration. We must not let them continue down a path that is increasingly alienating the very people who are the energizers for liberal and progressive politics -- and lots of others as well. Our concern is not with elections -- we don't get involved in endorsing candidates or parties -- but rather in averting the further discrediting of liberal and progressive ideas, about which we care a lot.
The Real Issues in American Politics
We believe that by this point even the people who cheered on the Democrats' endless compromises must be realizing that their accommodationist strategy has not paid off either in new respect or in new political support. It doesn't matter how many compromises Obama and the Democrats make -- none of them will satisfy the Right because the issues are not the issue.
So what is the issue? Well, let's start with this: racism, one-sided class war, disappointment with government programs and with the spinelessness of the Democrats, and finally the despair, loneliness, and fear that commercial culture promotes.
The racism is not so hard to locate. Just map which electoral districts opposed desegregation, equal rights legislation, and policies to provide equal opportunities for African Americans and you go a long way toward mapping out the core constituencies of Tea Party activists and fans of Sarah Palin. The sad truth is that racism remains a continuing element defining the political consciousness of a significant minority of Americans. The level of anger expressed at Obama is in part a reflection of that racism.
But it's not just racism.
One-Sided Class War
For the past thirty years, America's corporate elite, the media it controls, and the wealthy people whose disproportionate funding of political candidates has earned them a high level of loyalty and subservience from both major political parties have engaged in a sustained and successful struggle to redistribute wealth from the poor and the middle class to those with the top ten percent of income in the United States. Meanwhile, trade agreements supported by both parties, coupled with the growing power of multinationals (which can easily relocate to other countries in order to pay lower wages and avoid safety, health, and environmental constraints on their selfishness) have dramatically weakened unions and their bargaining power, thereby decreasing union membership and shifting unions from industrial to service industries and to those representing public employees, a much smaller percentage of the workforce. The cumulative impact has been a deepening sense of powerlessness that is reality-based.
The media have played an important supportive role in this development by labeling those who challenge the inequities and disempowering of the working classes in America as themselves generating "class warfare." Any politician who presents a full-throated populist perspective is dismissed as "not serious." Their analyses are rarely presented to the public by the mainstream media. Instead they are dismissed as marginal before they even begin to campaign. The same applies to those who advocated for an end to war funding (which might have freed up funds for domestic projects beneficial to middle-income working people and the poor). For example, we watched the way that Dennis Kucinich's candidacy was sometimes ignored, sometimes trivialized by the New York Times in both 2004 and 2008, though the positions he articulated were closer to that of the Democratic majority than those politicians who were labeled "leading candidates" even before any serious campaigning had begun. Similar treatment was given to former Senator Mike Gravel in 2008 and to Governor Howard Dean and former General Wesley Clark in 2004.
There was never a better time to reverse these dynamics than during the winter and spring of 2009, when a powerful pro-working class progressive as president could have addressed this issue explicitly and refused to embrace any economic policy for saving the banks and Wall Street that did not simultaneously insist on directly and immediately benefiting America's middle class and poor.
Disappointment with Government
There is a growing skepticism about the ability of government to solve any problems, a skepticism that has legitimate foundations in the actual experience of many people.
The desire to "get something passed" through Congress and state legislatures that shaped the "realistic" and "pragmatic" policies of Democrats for the past eighty years created a series of policies and programs that were deeply deficient.
- Instead of eliminating slums and building decent housing for the poor, the government built lousy housing that made people living in feel they had been warehoused, not cared for.
- Instead of eliminating joblessness by creating an ongoing jobs program to meet desperately needed social needs (such as the need for adequate and well-trained child care and elderly care, for a rebuilding of our inner cities, for adequate alternative forms of wind and solar energy, and for workers to carry out a Global Marshall Plan), we instead provided (often wildly inadequate) welfare or unemployment benefits that affirmed unemployment as "a fact of life" rather than a blight that could have been eliminated.
- Instead of requiring government employees' tenure to be based in part on how well they treated the public, we imposed "productivity" restrictions on government employees that made them feel they would not be rewarded for showing American citizens that the government was put in place as a vehicle to provide the kind of caring for our neighbors that most of us couldn't fully express because we had to make a living on our own. The public came to feel disrespected and even abused by government employees, many of whom would have been much more caring and considerate had their supervisors not pushed them to give less time to caring and more time to endless reports and paper trails (often to protect themselves from elected officials who sought public recognition through attacking government for being bloated and inefficient).
- Over and over again the liberals dismissed these larger plans as utopian, only to find that the compromises they made also generated a deep disrespect for government that is blowing up in their faces to the detriment of everyone.
And then there is the constant capitulation of the Democrats and their liberal cheerleaders in the media to the agenda of the corporate elites, and more recently, to the desires of the national security apparatus and the military industrial complex. Whether it be in continuing to vote year after year for the needs of the American Empire (a term used more freely by commentators on the Right, who feel no need to apologize for what is obviously a reality because the United States maintains close to a thousand military bases around the world, but refuses to tell ordinary citizens or members of Congress how many and exactly where) or for the needs of the banking, investment, insurance, and health care profiteers, the Democrats have given the impression that there is little correspondence between their election-season claims to fight for ordinary citizens and the actual policies they support or fund once in office. The Obama administration's budget freeze for the next three years exemplifies these distortions: it is increasing funds for the military and for expanding nuclear facilities while freezing spending for education, nutrition, air traffic control, and national parks.
The Loneliness and Fear Generated by a Commercial Culture
All these developments, of course, must be set in the context of the decrease in human solidarity that continues to worsen as the ethos of materialism and selfishness becomes more deeply ingrained in the behavior and assumptions of people living in this society, in which capitalism has faced the least constraints on its power. I founded Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives in part to raise awareness about the ideas and research done by the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. One element of that research demonstrated that the world of work encourages a meritocratic fantasy -- the notion that each of us is responsible for our own life situation, so if we are failing or insecure economically we have no one to blame but ourselves, and that we have probably not been doing a good enough job of "looking out for number one." People come home from work believing that they are inadequate and that is why they don't have more, own more, and feel more successful and fulfilled in their work. They come home believing that everyone is out for themselves and nobody cares about anyone else, except to the extent that people can use each other to benefit themselves. But when people bring this kind of consciousness home into their personal lives, as they inevitably do they end up weakening friendships, loving relationships, and family life. It is deeply damaging to bring home the market-generated notion that advancing one's own self-interests is the real criterion for being a rational person, and that in "the real world" power and self-interest are all that counts, whereas love, generosity, and caring are merely utopian values that have little application to reality.
The result: people feel alone and scared, uncertain if their friends or neighbors or even their spouse and children care for them beyond a valuation of what they can do for them. These dynamics become all the more exacerbated during an economic downturn, and all the more so if the Democrats -- the people who claimed to be our loyal representatives in the public sphere -- turn on us and make bailing out Wall Street, the banks and investment companies, and the major industrial and profit-making institutions a higher priority than bailing out middle-income workers and those who are unable to make their mortgage payments. The Democrats never even tried to pass legislation to prohibit the banks and loan companies from charging exorbitant interest rates. No wonder people are scared!
How the Extremist Right Thrives in Such Conditions
Put all this together and you get the ideal climate for the rise of an extremist Right, drawing support from a corporate-biased media. The Right covertly (and sometimes overtly) draws upon pre-existing racist themes, and upon the resentment toward failed government policies. They ridicule the spinelessness of Democrats (which leads many to doubt that those Democrats could be trusted with national security) and play to the fears of people scarred by life in this capitalist world.
So you can't undercut the growth of the Right by winning legislative battles for severely compromised pieces of legislation that are backed not by a coherent ideological alternative to the Right but rather by pleas that "we must pass something in order to look like we've accomplished something." This is a losing strategy that reinforces the distrust that many people have developed toward government and toward liberals.
It's Standing Strongly For Something, Not Winning Everything, That Gains Respect
What would help is if the Democrats and Obama were to adopt the theme of a Caring Society and then only back those pieces of legislation that could be justified in terms of that worldview. And what if they were to say that they are the pro-family force in the country, and that the best way to support families is to replace the competitive "look out for number one" ethos of the marketplace with a New Bottom Line of love, kindness, compassion, and generosity? As a first step in that direction, they could insist that schools be judged successful not only to the degree that they teach reading and arithmetic but also to the degree that they generate in students a real caring for others and for the well-being of the planet? What if they were to explicitly announce that the "war on terror" is over, embrace Tikkun/NSP's Strategy of Generosity and advocate a shift in spending from wars to a Global Marshall Plan (a first step being to bring to vote House Resolution 1016 introduced by Keith Ellison)? What if they were to embrace the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA)? Though the same media that praised Obama for his centrist and nonideological approach would certainly attack these kinds of moves, the rest of the country might suddenly become reenergized by the notion that Democrats had a vision and a direction that was a real alternative!
We admit that progressives are in a difficult position. There is a real danger that corporate forces, aided by their de facto allies in the Sarah Palin-style Tea Party or some successor to them, will manage to win power and dramatically escalate the undermining of civil liberties, democratic processes, and human rights, thereby returning the world to some form of a contemporary feudalism. That speaks for progressives standing in solidarity with the Obama administration against the racist and irrational attacks on it.
The threats from the Right are too important to indulge in self-righteous critique of Obama unless it is accompanied by a plausible strategy for what those in power now could actually do. That alternative strategy is the focus for our conference in D.C., and we really need you to be there (or at least to donate to help others offset the costs of coming to D.C. -- a cost that is a significant issue for many who are still suffering from the Bush-era economic meltdown). Please click on the conference icon (Obama's picture) at www.spiritualprogressives.org, where you'll find the sliding-scale rates and the tentative agenda. Register there or by calling 510-644-1200 during normal work hours Pacific Time, Monday through Friday. And don't miss our demonstration outside the White House on June 13 -- our effort to strongly but respectfully bring these ideas to the attention of the current administration.
Healing Our Own Psyches
We do not blame anyone who remains angry and alienated in face of the betrayals that they've experienced from Obama and the Democrats in the past year and a half. But to be politically effective, we need to get beyond those feelings. That "getting beyond" can't happen unless we first allow ourselves to experience our feelings fully. So we recommend that you give yourself a week or two to be fully enraged at the ways that we have all been let down or betrayed. Get yourself to a safe space and yell out your anger and frustration. Let your tears and sadness get fully expressed. Don't let anybody tell you that you have no right to feel that way. Go into the feelings fully. We do not for a moment believe that people who are outraged at the continued murdering of Afghani and Pakistani civilians by drones commissioned by the Obama administration (to take one example among many) are somehow mistaken. So please don't misunderstand -- we too have had to go through these feelings to get to the other side.
But the goal must be to get to the other side of those feelings, so that we can do our best together to develop a rational and successful strategy. And the world needs YOU to get to that point with us, and then work with us to renew our own energies and those of millions of others who know that America needs a deep healing, repair, and transformation (tikkun) and at the moment doesn't have any leadership that can help us organize in a sensible direction. So please join us in D.C. or donate to help others to get there!
Lerner, Michael. 2010. Liberals and Progressives Need a New Strategy in the Obama Years. Tikkun 25(3): 7