Dissent is a magazine for people who worry. So here is something to worry about, highlighted by Barack Obama’s inaugural address. I am certainly glad that it was his inauguration, but what he said or, better, didn’t say, illustrates one of the central problems of left politics today. We are committed to the struggle for economic equality and to the role of unions in that struggle, and right now that commitment is not a source of political strength, as we once thought it would be.
The high point of Obama’s speech was the “Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall” moment. He was widely praised for his commitment to gender, racial, and sexual equality. But there was, from our standpoint, a startling omission: where was Flint, Michigan, on the list or any other place marking the struggles of the labor movement? I am sure the omission was deliberate, as was Obama’s failure in the State of the Union address to condemn the lavishly funded campaign against public unions, especially the teachers’ union, or to praise the union members who worked so hard for him in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not a word.
Of course, we are committed to the politics represented by Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Socialists and social democrats have been deeply involved in the movements for gender, racial, and sexual equality, and there is still much to do. But what Obama signaled is that those movements are going to win (though only in a certain sense of “winning”). It is already politically risky for anyone with national political ambitions to take a clear-cut stand against them. This is what winning means: middle- and upper-class African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians are finally going to join American society as equals or almost-equals. It is going to happen, and when it happens, many activists in those movements will go home.
But we won’t go home, because there will still be many Americans living in or near poverty, which is the most persistent and pervasive of all oppressions. Many of them will be women and African Americans, but many will be white men, too. The needs of the working and the unemployed poor are not recognized today as a central political issue. Blacks are beautiful, and women are strong, and gays and lesbians have become, or are becoming, mainstream. The poor, by contrast, are not beautiful or strong, and they are frighteningly marginal in America today. An egalitarian politics focused not on gender, race, or sex, but on wealth and poverty is barely visible. But that is our politics. There are many other causes that engage our energies, but we have no center without that. There is no socialism or social democracy without a movement for economic equality. That movement is not on the president’s list, which we have to worry about, since it’s at the very top of ours.