This election is a call to progressives to strengthen their own identity, as separate from the identity of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. The worst outcome of the debacle of the Obama presidency is that it will be used to discredit the Left. In fact, the only way the country can begin to move from the terrible course it is now on is if progressives develop an independent voice, free from both Obama and the Clintons. The beginning of a path toward an independent Left is to remind ourselves why we supported Obama in 2008 and to face the fact that his disappointing performance since then is his responsibility, not ours.
Few things are more telling about the vacuity of the American public sphere today than the liberal mantra that leftists and progressives were naïve to get their hopes up in 2008. On the contrary our realization that the country was moving in a very bad direction and needed a radical turn in a new direction led to the enthusiasm for Obama and the initial hopes for his presidency. We have to look into the hopes we felt at that moment and own them as part of our identity. Three aspects of 2008 are particularly important.
First, we were right to look to the presidency, though obviously we vastly overestimated Obama as a person. The American presidency is a unique institution, which has evolved precisely to meet the kinds of crises that 2008 represented. To see this, we have to see how conservative the American Constitution is. The Supreme Court was devised to protect property rights, especially after John Marshall’s reign. The Court has always been a force for extreme conservatism, with the exception of the Warren Court, which was essentially the product of the New Deal. The second branch of government, Congress, has also always been as we see it today: a “club of millionaires,” special interests, narrow thinkers, opportunists, businessmen, sharpies, confidence men, and lawyers. By contrast, from Jefferson on, the presidency evolved into a special kind of democratic institution, one that gave the country the opportunity to bet on an individual periodically — to say, in effect, lead us somewhere new. It was for this reason that Hannah Arendt could offer the US as a real alternative to the European revolutionary tradition; in a sense it contained the possibility of permanent revolution. Sometimes the institution lent itself to right wing populism, as with Andrew Jackson, but mostly the great presidents were forces for progress. Obama failed, but that does not mean that we were wrong to hope that a first-rate individual would fill the office. This brings me to my second point, the role of the Left in American history.
The American radical tradition is one of the glories of the world. In its diversity and breadth,it includes abolitionism, trade unionism, socialist feminism, gay radicals and, of course, the African-American freedom struggle. It is one reason that Leftists, facing the disasters of the twentieth century, can persist. The American Left will always be a minority, but a very special one, one that comes to the fore in moments of crisis and helps define the long-term meaning of structural reforms, like health care and financial reform. It was the current incarnation of the American Left — the antiwar Left of the Democratic Party — that gave the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, and it did so because Hillary Clinton continued to defend her support for the Iraq intervention. We did that not only (though partly) for the symbolic value of electing the first Black President, but also because Obama (or at least Axelrod) explained that the problems did not start with Bush; they started with Clinton and Reagan and that we need not just a new policy but a new mindset. Obama’s failure to honor the words with which he defeated Hillary Clinton is the basic cause of his failed Presidency.
Finally, we were right to turn to the African-American freedom struggle in our search for a usable past and present. Since this is a country founded for centuries on slavery, a country for which the term genocide can be considered (the slave population having gone from eleven million to six million in the course of a colonial century), for such reasons African-Americans have played a unique role in American politics. While the African-American community has produced many conservative figures, Booker T. Washington most preeminently, every African-American politician that achieved national leadership, in the sense of having followers and supporters from both races, has been on the Left. I am thinking of people like Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. When Obama ran in 2008 he signaled that his candidacy should be looked at in this context by the very shrewd tactic of describing his background as that of “community organizer,” instead of what he really was:a Harvard lawyer and second-level Chicago politician. Community organizer is a buzzword for the collective unconscious, one that took us back to the Sixties, and even the Thirties. Obama’s failure to keep faith with this tradition does not mean that we were wrong to look to it.
These points need to be kept in our minds as we move forward into a new presidential election. To be sure, no one will make the same mistake about Hillary Clinton that we made about Obama. She is running far to the right, and anyone can see that. But the hopes that inspired us in 2008 should still guide us. We need to be far more tempered in our hopes for what the presidency can accomplish, but more importantly we have to see that the country needs a Left more than ever.
Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left