Like many progressives, I am disappointed in President Obama. But there is a perilous course being proposed by ?progressives? that, if successful, will contribute to a Republican government?both houses of Congress and the White House?in 2012. That course is to nominate a ?progressive? to run against Obama in the primaries and, implicitly, sit out the election if Obama is the nominee. There are also calls for ?direct action? against the president, such as picketing or sitting-in at the White House, or for a third party candidate to run.
These calls are issued by people without a broad base of support in the American electorate, but they can contribute to voter turn-off and a depressed turnout in 2012 or make important differences in electoral outcomes in states (as with Bush and Gore in Florida in 2000). Obama is contributing enough to voter turn-off already.
In a recent column, Chris Hedges calls for a challenger to the Democratic Party. He writes as if to illustrate what Obama meant when he called his left critics ?sanctimonious.? He is arrogant in his disdain for everyday people who work for a living or now desperately seek work, worry about their monthly mortgage or face foreclosure, struggle between paychecks, are without health insurance, fear a world in which their children face a declining standard of living and moral uncertainty, and hate the banks and corporate rip-offs, but hear no believable option of what to do.
The real world? Not for Hedges. Those who worry about it (who choose the lesser of two evils, if you want to look at it that way) are ?submissive,? ?cowards,? who ?lack nerve.? What we need is ?defiance? and ?fierce moral autonomy.?
Ironically, he relies on Ralph Nader to give substance to his column?the same Nader who, after receiving less than 1 percent of the popular vote in 2008, relies on billionaires to save the country. (See his new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us). Nader tells Hedges that ?Every major movement starts with field organizers, the farmers, the unions, and the civil rights movement…We need to start learning from what was done in the past…?
At the peak of his moral authority in the 1970s, Nader had a chance to do that. I know; I was in one of the meetings he had with organizers. But he squandered the opportunity. Now he is a crank off in the margins of society. It?s sad. Yet his and Hedges?s are the same ideas that, for example, led some Brazilian radicals to oppose former President Lula?s reelection and the election of his Workers? Party successor Dilma Rousseff. The spokesman for Brazil?s landless movement (MST), Joao Pedro Stedile, argued against this self-styled radicalism: ?A worker in the face of a reactionary boss does not mobilize?With Dilma, our social base realizes that it is worthwhile to mobilize, that we can move forward, doing more [land] occupations and [labor] strikes.? MST?s agricultural policy is clearly different from Lula?s and hers (sustainable, diverse, coop-based, and for local markets, versus mono-crop, unsustainable, corporate-based, and for export). MST continues its direct action, economic development initiatives, education, and lobbying whoever is in office. It builds from the bottom up and relies on people power to pursue its program. It prefers the Workers? Party to its left alternatives.
I don?t fault Hedges or Nader for not having a base. But they should learn something from people who do.
Obama?s presidency is not going to bring major structural reform to the U.S. economy. Despite his rhetoric of ?transformation,? it is naïve to expect it. But the problem lies elsewhere: the electorate is not transformational. And the obligation to change that rests with people working at the base, not with the president. Furthermore, the defeat of the country?s first African-American president by a Republican who will surely be worse should give pause to people who care about social, environmental, and economic justice. Who would argue that there would be greater progress toward our ideals with a conservative in the White House? Hedges does:
There is no major difference between a McCain administration, a Bush and an Obama administration. Obama, in fact, is in many ways worse. McCain, like Bush, exposes the naked face of corporate power. Obama, who professes to support core liberal values while carrying out policies that mock these values, mutes and disempowers liberals, progressives and leftists. Environmental and anti-war groups, who plead with Obama to address their issues, are little more than ineffectual supplicants.
The ineffectual supplicants weren?t organizing seriously in the first place, which led to their reliance on Obama. MST doesn?t do that; we shouldn?t either.
Earlier this year, Nicholas von Hoffman wrote a piece titled, ?7 Lessons Saul Alinsky Would Give Progressives Today.? I urge you to give careful consideration to his second point:
Enough complaining, criticizing and attacking Obama, Alinsky would say?not out of besotted loyalty to the president but out of hard-nosed political analysis. He would ask, do you have another person who would be better for the job who has any remote possibility of being elected two years from now? Unless you?re nuts, the answer has to be no. Then why, Alinsky would ask, are you moaning, groaning and attacking him? All you?re doing is encouraging people who might vote for him to have second thoughts.
Just because you play an important part in electing a politician, it doesn?t mean you own him. It doesn?t mean he will be grateful. Saul would tell you there is no such thing as crying in baseball or gratitude in politics. When you help elect someone to office, you get a person who is prone to do what you want instead of someone who would die in order to carry out a progressive agenda. But leaning in your favor is not the same thing as delivering the goods. To get the office-holder to deliver the goods, Alinsky would say, you have to be able to give him or her something he or she wants or needs?or get rid of something he or she fears.
Saul used to tell a story about Robert F. Wagner, Jr., a Democratic mayor of New York City 50 years ago. The mayor was liberally inclined but too much of a politician to take chances. When progressive delegations came looking for his support on one thing or another, Wagner would lean back in his chair with a jovial look on his face, tell them he agreed with them, and that if they wanted it done, they should ?march out of here and go make me do it.? [The same story is told about FDR and A. Philip Randolph, and FDR and John L. Lewis.]
The same with Obama. If you want him to get us out of Afghanistan you have to make him do it, which means make it politically possible for him. Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until he had the right political cover. If hightailing it out of the Hindu Kush is going to cost the president re-election and the defeat of his party, he is going to continue to try to finesse it and the U.S. Army will stay put. Run two or three antiwar candidates in red-leaning districts and win with them and you will have paved the way out of those mountains.
Simple, but part of Alinsky?s genius was knowing how to keep it simple when all around him were tangled up in complications.
Von Hoffman can be challenged on his argument that ?If hightailing it out of the Hindu Kush is going to cost the president re-election and the defeat of his party, he is going to continue to try to finesse it and the U.S. Army will stay put.? It is possible that staying in Afghanistan, and tying up billions of dollars in military spending in the Middle East, cost the Democrats votes. But where are the elected justice and peace candidates to prove that assertion?
Progressive critics of Obama like to cite polls on their favorite issues?Afghanistan, the public option or single-payer, the break-up financial institutions ?too big to fail??you name it. These polls do not tell us how important an issue is to the respondent in comparison to other issues; they also don?t tell us the intensity of support for the issue. Nor do they tell us what the respondent will think after the other side spends millions on advertising for its side. Arguments based on issue polls do not tell us how people behave when they get into a voting booth?the only poll that counts.
Another progressive argument is that Obama isn?t turning the screws on members of Congress, as if he could magically offer or withhold something that would change Senator Ben Nelson?s or Senator Max Baucus?s vote. There is little evidence that the relationship between the White House and Congress regularly works that way. The president?s whip can be cracked only a few times before creating a congressional reaction and backlash. Many Democratic moderates and conservatives are afraid their constituencies will go Republican in the next election.
Obama critics decry his failure to use the presidential bully pulpit, compared to its use by Franklin Roosevelt. Apart from it not being Obama?s style, there are two additional problems with this idea. It would be very easy for the Right to portray him as a militant black?making him a black president rather than a president who is black. Obama has assiduously cultivated the latter persona. But more important, FDR had rivals who filled the bully pulpit role and claimed the allegiance of significant constituencies, or could at least threaten to gain them: CIO President John L. Lewis, whose industrial union movement had mushroomed in the 1930s to over three million members; conservative populist radio priest Father Charles Coughlin; African-American leader A. Philip Randolph; senior citizen hero Dr. Francis Townsend; Louisiana populist Governor Huey Long; and perennial socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. Each of them could mobilize millions of people.
When FDR had to be pressured from his left, there was someone there to do it. That?s a key element of Von Hoffman?s point: if Roosevelt said to John L. Lewis, ?go out and make me do it,? Lewis and the industrial union movement could do it?just as the Deep South civil rights movement could keep the heat on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. President Lincoln met with African-American former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Radical Republicans of his own party. With whom would Obama meet today? Who can deliver Democratic constituencies today? The heart of the progressive problem is that the answer is, ?no one.?
Blaming the money that is spent to defeat peace and justice candidates who run on progressive issues isn?t an adequate response. We know that kind of money is going to be spent against progressives. That?s a given. Water is wet and rocks are hard. If there isn?t enough grassroots organization behind a peace and justice candidacy to counter the money, then the campaign shouldn?t be run in the first place.
As we know, the Republican sweep knocked both progressives and Blue Dogs out of Congress, including Russ Feingold in what is often a progressive state. Did any third-party, progressive candidates win? Not that I?m aware of. Did any anti-incumbent Blue Dog nominees win Democratic primaries in June, then get elected in November? Not that I?m aware of. Did any new peace and justice congressional candidate get elected? Not that I?m aware of. And even if there are one or two, the likelihood is that the candidate was running against a Tea Party crazy?against whom any Democrat would have won.
We are in a period in which we have to build toward national victories. That building takes place primarily in local campaigns. It?s a long process, not a short one.
Organizers and leaders deeply rooted in the constituencies that are hurting from the current economic and political malaise are the key. Alinsky-tradition community organizing is making its contribution in this area, active on home foreclosures, credit card usury, predatory lending, health care, and immigration reform campaigns.
Unions need to reconnect with their small ?d? democratic tradition, both to revitalize their organizations and to begin organizing unorganized workers. Few unions are doing the former. The common phrase among rank-and-filers is ?What?s the union going to do about ?x??? as if ?the union? is a third party separate from them. Union leaders and staff contribute to that understanding by the way they conduct the union?s business.
That organizing unorganized workers is possible is demonstrated by the recent victory in a sixteen-year-long campaign at Smithfield Poultry plant by the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. But to get to the scale required to ?organized the unorganized? and to mobilize hundreds of thousands for effective direct action, boycotts, strikes, mutual aid, and electoral participation will require transformation within the labor movement itself. Obama?s not going to do that for you.
External effectiveness and internal renewal are two sides of the same coin: building people power. You can?t have one without the other.
Identity and issue-based organizations need to pursue a dual agenda: pursuing their particular interests, and fostering relationships with the broad base required to have majority-constituency politics. The latter might require modification of the former.
Prophets have a role as well. Society needs prophets who name and shame hypocrisy and arrogance. This role is most often performed today by public intellectuals. But prophets need to beware. The sin of prophesy is presumptuousness, and its cousin self-righteousness. When prophets are self-righteous, they invite Obama?s label of ?sanctimonious.? The rage of some prophetic critics is an expression of powerlessness that comes from not being rooted in a constituency. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power, but they were deeply connected to Israel.
The lack of connection is masked by the internet, which offers the illusion of millions of followers. It amplifies dissident voices, but it is an echo chamber, not a mass movement or mass organization.
It is the latter that we need.