Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
Sometime in mid-September 2010, President Obama suddenly discovered that twenty months of governing by capitulation to the very mainstream ideas he campaigned against in 2008 was a losing strategy. But instead of acknowledging his errors, he acted as though his liberal and progressive base were betraying him.
Like most progressive activists who supported Barack Obama's campaign, I understood that a president is limited in what she or he can accomplish in reducing the power of America's economic and political elites. But what a president can do is challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware both that the system is destructive to the future of the planet and that there is an alternative -- a possibility of constructing lives with a sense of meaning beyond the accumulation of money and things.
In a frantic activity before the November 2010 midterm election, President Obama traveled the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, but he seemed clueless as to why it was not there. The Democrats in Congress who followed his lead seemed similarly clueless: they tried to blame our lack of enthusiasm on their inability to pass the legislation that we (their political base) wanted -- a desire that they dismissed as unreasonable. Even a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could not, they suggested, overcome the resistance of the Republican Party and the powerful institutional constraints that have been built up over many decades. Then they reminded us that a Republican Congress would certainly make things worse.
The reason progressives are upset with Obama and the Dems is not that we held a naive belief about how much he or the Democratic Congress could accomplish, given the fact that the Democratic majority in Congress was in fact filled with corporate-oriented "centrists." We knew the limitations of this reality -- a reality that was created by Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, whose supposedly brilliant strategy in 2006 of backing the most conservative possible candidates in Democratic primaries in "swing districts" worked in the sense of giving the Democrats formal control of the House. Emanuel and Pelosi were more interested in securing political power than in changing the direction of the country. Not trusting the growing anti-war sentiment in 2006, they supported candidates who were ideologically pro-business and pro-war, constructing a Democratic majority in Congress that would back neither anti-war efforts nor the pro-working-and-middle-class measures that Democrats had promised.
By late 2007, liberals and progressives were deeply disturbed that, after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition. So when Obama entered the primaries, he created his base of support in part by fostering the impression that he would challenge the warmakers and in part by speaking against the pro-corporate and pro-Wall Street ethos of the Bush administration. His famous speech on racism, in which he distinguished himself from his lefty preacher in Chicago, was understood by most progressives to mean he'd champion the interests of Blacks but also of whites, and he'd do that by avoiding the destructive "political correctness" rhetoric that has isolated so many progressives in the past thirty years, while still maintaining a progressive core to his policies. So when he challenged the selfishness and materialism on Wall Street and explicitly raised everyone's hopes by making "change" the theme of his campaign, progressives reasonably felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.
So what happened? First, he appointed Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and surrounded himself with a White House crew that lacked representatives from the social change movements that brought him electoral success (and this remains true even with the departure of Emanuel and Summers). Then came the sad reversals of direction: He bailed out Wall Street but gave almost nothing to the millions of unemployed or to those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders. He escalated the war in Afghanistan and left 50,000 troops as "advisers" in Iraq, publicly justifying his reliance on preemptive military force upon receiving an ill-conceived Nobel Peace Prize. He refused to push for a public option for health care and instead supported a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies' continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay. Moreover he agreed to oppose methods to reduce the costs of prescription drugs in return for a promise to slightly reduce the level of drug profits by big pharma. Indeed, the list of reversals seems unending: he pursued repression against illegal immigrants; allowed continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf of Mexico disaster and substituted the empty promise of "cap and trade" for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refused to punish those in the U.S. intelligence community who engaged in torture; invoked a "state secrets" rationale to allow U.S. executive branch leaders to unilaterally assassinate any American citizen they want without redress or due process (the al-Aulaqi case), while giving free rein to private security companies like Blackwater to kill for hire; escalated the use of drones that often kill more civilians than suspected terrorists; and appointed friends of the worst big agricultural firms to run his Department of Agriculture. The list goes on.
Many progressives will vote or have already (through absentee ballots) voted Democratic in November, despite all this. But don't expect liberals and progressives to be able to rally others when the best they can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are less bad than the plausible alternatives. Many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to believe in the hope Obama elicited, find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Politics is partly about the alternation between hope and despair. Obama's twenty-month abandonment of the ideals that enthused us in 2008 -- combined with the failure of his Wall Street-oriented economic policies and his capitulation to the military-industrial complex -- has generated more despair than hope, and blaming his base for that is stupid and self-destructive. The Democratic Party strategists console themselves by looking at poll data that tells them that most liberals and progressives will vote for the Dems in any case, so their attention has to be on what they conceive to be the concerns of "centrists" and young people who are disaffected. What the poll data doesn't reveal is what everyone who worked in 2008 understands: that it was the mass enthusiasm of progressives that persuaded centrists to overcome their skepticism and students to overcome their political passivity, allowing themselves to believe that a change-oriented president could make a huge difference. Demographically, the progressives may not be so important, but in terms of the psychodynamics of an election, they are often crucial. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.
In October 2010, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested a new third party for the "radical center." A third party, yes, but another party with centrist politics will spew toothless high-mindedness of the Tom Friedman variety, which will only further weaken the Democrats, without coming close to speaking to what really bothers most of those disaffected from the two establishment parties. What is actually needed is a third party that combines the kind of vision articulated in the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution, the policy directions of our Spiritual Covenant with America, the foreign policy direction shown in the Global Marshall Plan, and the love, compassion, generosity, and non-religiophobic discourse we've sought to develop in Tikkun. Lacking such a party, many progressives will find no other option for themselves but to grudgingly support the Democratic Party. Obama may be able to slip into office a second time in 2012 if the Republicans nominate one of their more horrendous leaders, but until the Democrats and Obama really atone for the directions they've taken, and embrace a spiritual progressive worldview, they are unintentionally but powerfully helping to build the kind of resentment and humiliation that has in the past become the psychological underpinning for the emergence of powerful fascistic movements from the right.