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A Taste Of Denver: Thank God It’s Over (5)

September 4, 2008

Obama and the Left – or, Don’t Ask What Obama Can Do For You But What You Can Do For Obama.

Don’t Whine, Organize

There is a left in the United States today – social forces and movements organizing and agitating for deep going social change at home and a more peaceful foreign policy abroad – in both cases challenging the basic precepts of the `cowboy’ capitalist society in which we find ourselves, tossed by the winds of history. It is vibrant, flexible, dedicated and to use a word I can’t stand `creative’. Its social and political chemistry is also `evolving’ in that it is a far cry today from what it was in the past and continues to evolve and change forms, occasionally actually to learn from its past and to adjust to an ever and quickly changing global political landscape. Often unappreciated is the fact that it exists both beyond and within the Democratic Party.

But mostly it is small in size and weak in overall political influence, currently with its fair share of charlatans and other forms of low life. Why should the left not have the sacred right to its own forms of incompetency and oppurtunism any less than other political trends? Despite these oft overlooked facts, in sickness and in health, in altered states or sober, oftentimes in rage and frustration, until death do I part, I would like to believe that I am, in my own modest way, a part of it – although what that entails practically means less and less by the hour.

But for the past 20-5 years (maybe longer) – in large measure through no fault of their own- the social movements have been rather narrow in their base and modest in influence. While there have been upsurges, especially in the 1980s (Latin American solidarity especially with Nicaragua and El Salvador, the anti-nuclear movement of the same decade), not even these periods of intensified activity compare with the 1960s or the 1930s, the latter being the most profound social movement in the past 100 years. The challenge now as it has been for decades is to broaden and strengthen these movements – and as Martin Luther King Jr. tried to do, to find the ways to unify them into a more coherent force in American life.

Wanted: A Bigger Social Movement

When the social movement has been broad, militant and low stupidity index, it has been able to pressure the Democrats (and some Republicans) in power to implement social change. Such were the series of radical reforms undertaken by Roosevelt – the implementation of Social Security, government jobs programs, limiting the speculation in the finance and banking sector – and in the 1960s (Voting Rights Act, War on Poverty, forcing the government to end its immoral and genocidal war in Vietnam – 3,000,000 Vietnamese killed ). Since the 1960s for a variety of reasons, although the objective conditions of the American people have deteriorated over time, and the international situation has become more unstable and US foreign policy taken on what can only be considered criminal dimensions, the movement has been smaller.

These are not merely academic reflections.

Without a strong social movement `encouraging’ him on, there are rather severe limits as to what an Obama presidency can accomplish once in office. Given that he will have to face a series of obstacles – the power of the military industrial complex, the ravenous ever expanding appetite of the financial sector even as that sector is declining, narrow bigoted lobbies like the NRA and AIPAC and a still ideologically driven, politically experienced and well financed right wing. The majority of the American people might support Obama and his vision for change, but the weight of the political class pickled with corruption and greed will probably gain more access. And now we’re living in a country where the erosion of civil rights – spearheaded by Republicans but strongly backed by most Democrats in Congress – only makes matters worse.

Not Since McGovern in 1972

At present, the weakness of the social movements makes it unlikely to sustain a serious national candidate for the presidency from the left, Obama is, probably as good as it gets (and we’ll see what he can achieve if elected). To find the last openly left – or left liberal Democratic candidate for the presidency – one has to go back to the 1972 George McGovern campaign with its clear and unambiguous anti-Vietnam war message. Much of the Democratic Party did not support McGovern then, actively sabotaged his campaign (as Lieberman is trying to do to Obama today). Indeed since 1972 the Democratic Party leadership has gone out of its way not to let anyone like McGovern get near the presidency if they could help it.

When – responding to the deepening all round crisis in American society, liberal, left of center candidate did sneak through (Gore, Kerry) – they were pressured to `tone down’ their message to such a degree that it was lost on the electorate. This strategy – the main line of thinking of the Democratic Leadership Council – has largely succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the last two presidential elections before this one. Obama has had – to a certain degree anyhow – make similar compromises in the name of `party unity’.

Maybe They’ll Get Bigger?

Perhaps in the coming period these social movements will grow again. Hard to tell. It seems that after a forty year hiatus, the labor movement is beginning to increase its numbers. Most radicals today don’t think much about labor, but frankly, without a strong and progressive labor movement, social movements are severe hampered in what they can accomplish. When labor (finally!) raises its head (and fist) the ruling class takes note – thus the hysterical reaction of Colorado Republicans and the Denver Post at the success of an organizing campaign that brought 32,000 public employees into the ranks of public sector unions. Likewise, the activities of main civil rights movements have been somewhat dormant on the whole, living on past accomplishments but now there is the beginning of what might be the most profound civil rights movement in half a century – the immigrants rights movement.

The best thing progressives – really any one who cares about the future of this nation – can do is to build these movements into more of a political force than they are currently, so that they will play more of a role in the future.

Some one like Barack Obama – negotiating between powerful and conservative political and economic forces with only weak social movements pushing him to the left – have to pick and chose a couple of issues on which to make their social agenda. Without stronger social movements to nudge Obama’s progressive agenda ahead, his options for changing the current political climate in the USA are limited. It appears that there are three themes that an Obama administration will try to address and implement: legislation to make union organizing both legal and easier (which will not only strengthen the labor movement but also the political clout of the Democratic Party), a comprehensive medical care program (again it does not appear that it will be universal coverage outside the framework of insurance companies – the best solution – but still, more extensive coverage) and ending the war in Iraq. None of these would be easily accomplished.

Great American Presidents: Few and Far Between

Think back on the few great liberal reformers who became presidents. They are few and far between and their `moment in the sun’ precisely short. Two of them, Lincoln and Kennedy, were assassinated in office. Roosevelt survived such a dark fate, but he had the encouragement of one of the most extraordinary first ladies in American history pushing him left, Eleanor Roosevelt, and perhaps more importantly the most powerful, labor-led social movement in modern American history, led in large measure (or at least influenced) by socialists and communists, now largely either forgotten or disparaged for their role. Obama is operating in an entirely different historical atmosphere, one in which the great social movements of today are largely outside of the United States and in large measure in opposition to US economic and political policies, while the social movements at home are weaker.

So we all have a lot of work to do don’t we? And we can’t place all the responsibility on Barack Obama.

(to be continued)

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