As leftists, we welcome the election results. We got most everything we could realistically hope for that was on a ballot. We are glad that the most blatant attempts at voter suppression failed. Backs to the wall, we prefer that a Democrat control the entirely unchecked apparatus of American state terror, and we prefer that the executive committee of the ruling class remain in the hands of its relatively farther-sighted and less nihilistic members. And of course we’re happy that Mitt Romney has suffered defeat.
But relieved as we are, we are distressed that all we can feel is relief. The feeling of having dodged a bullet is not democratic hope.
Obama’s first term showed that the most we can expect of a Democratic president in the twenty-first century is a streamlined delivery of Heritage Foundation proposals from the twentieth century. The picture of American democracy dims further if we remember the reactions of the Democrats to democratic social movements in the last four years. Occupy Wall Street was met with a nationwide crackdown by largely Democratic mayors. Obama’s former chief-of-staff, Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel, launched a neoliberal assault on public education, against a teachers union popular with rank-and-file members and Chicagoans at large. California Governor Jerry Brown (D) rejected a bill of rights for domestic workers, whose organization through channels like the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) has been one of the most encouraging grassroots developments of recent years.
The record is dismal and should leave leftists with no illusions about the fundamental commitments of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama will not, as he promised the working class in 2007, “put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself [and] walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.” And not because no one needs his help.
Weak opponents are a mixed blessing, and perhaps ultimately a curse. The incoherence of the Republican Party, which can’t even agree on why rape isn’t so bad (either all pregnancies are a gift from God, or else rape can’t really get you pregnant), might have made it possible for Obama to win as an incumbent in a rough economy, but it allowed the Democrats to score points on news-cycle ephemera while avoiding crucial issues.
On the challenge of our time—the global warming that threatens the lives of millions—Obama had worse than nothing to say, choosing to grapple with Romney over which candidate would drill more oil. About his secret drone war—which has reduced entire regions of Pakistan to paralyzing fear of death from above—he said nothing that might suggest he is the president of a democracy, with some responsibility to explain and justify his actions, rather than a military dictator. For the tens of millions of Americans who will remain without health insurance, for the tens of millions living in poverty, Obama offers no expansion of social democracy but only calmer, more precise austerity. Regarding the mass incarceration of American citizens for nonviolent crimes, he has of course said nothing. It is small wonder that so many poor people chose not to vote on Tuesday.
Most likely we’re looking at four more years of violence at home and abroad, complemented by the hand off of these and other responsibilities to the private sector in the name of austerity, and a continued slide toward the economic abyss accelerated annually by a bogus struggle over the debt ceiling.
When you get right down to it, the things we want are not on the ballot. Electoral politics currently highlight the weakness of the left rather than providing terrain on which it can fight. The real crime of all this election night hoopla is that its melodrama and “one night only democracy special!” attitude implies that this is where politics happens, and if you care about hope, change, or fiscal responsibility, you will throw yourself into the electoral cycle.
This is silly. We’re too far from “great man” history to believe that Obama’s failure to produce some kind of Swedish social-democratic utopia is a reflection of his desires rather than of the power of business and the disarray of labor and other left institutions. So the answer, naturally, is to do the work, both organizational and theoretical, to fix the problem.
To that end, here at Dissent, we’ll be focusing in the coming months on more interesting fronts. Next week we will begin working through the potential of the Strike Debt campaign through a dialogue between a leader and a skeptic. This is an Occupy spin-off (and a reminder to ignore those “death of Occupy” stories that have become so trendy). It takes as its premise that debt is the most unifying factor among the 99 percent. It reflects the widespread attitude that made David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years so popular and the 99 percent Tumblr a catalog of loans and unpaid mortgages. The idea that debt can serve a mobilizing function is an exciting prospect, but it’s an idea with a lot of critics and it still needs a great deal of strategic development. It’s worth noting now, however, that relief on this front will not come from Washington, D.C. In 2005, for example, Congress made it impossible to discharge student debt (now at $1 trillion) even in bankruptcy. The lack of movement on home-foreclosure relief during the Obama years points to the same fact.
Walmart workers and OUR Walmart have also launched an exciting strike. This is the sort of picket we wish Obama would don sneakers for. OUR Walmart isn’t a union exactly, but it’s supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers and has taken on organizing the most famously labor-hostile corporation in the states. Now workers are threatening to strike on Black Friday, the most popular shopping day of the year. Post-Occupy activists have gotten involved here, potentially presaging an alliance between a young generation of activists inspired by Occupy and the growing number of underpaid, undocumented, and contingent laborers in the service sector. As Nelson Lichtenstein pointed out at the time in Dissent, “There is no such thing as a spontaneous strike, protest, or any other kind of social irruption. Spontaneity is just another word for ignorance on the part of those in power who are the object of subaltern scorn and protest.” This was the result of long planning and growing strength.
This spring, we’ll be publishing a report on cross-border organizing and the growing potential of the Guestworker Alliance to mobilize the most vulnerable workers of all—those without American citizenship. And this winter we’re publishing a long report on the DWU, another ascendant para-union dedicated to uniting a highly fractured sector.
Our job at Dissent is not to cheerlead these developments per se, but to explore what these movements can do and think critically about their strategies and goals. This is the terrain on which we have to build before the things we want—health care for all, full employment, an end to paleolithic attitudes toward gender and race—will grace John King’s magic screen at CNN. And luckily, it’s much more interesting than presidential politics. We’re grateful, above all, that campaign season is over. And we look forward to spending our time covering work that doesn’t need giant iPads, Peggy Noonan, and a thousand shaded maps to make it feel world-historic.
Tim Barker is an assistant editor at Dissent. Sarah Leonard is an associate editor at Dissent.