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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Note to my fellow leftists: Put up or pipe down (alternative title: Don't Moan, Organize)

I'm shocked--shocked!--to find out that Barack Obama is not a radical leftist. Why didn't someone tell me this before I voted for him? I feel so betrayed, so used. No sooner have the ballots been counted than Obama is thinking about appointing Democrats and possibly even some Republicans to important cabinet positions, instead of calling in Marxist-Leninist sages like Revolutionary Communist Party chairman Bob Avakian to help run the country.

Pardon the sarcasm, but I think certain segments of the American left need some tough love. It's no surprise that the far right has taken no time outs in its relentless attacks on Obama, but some far leftists view those progressives who supported Obama as dupes who have been "intoxicated" by the "change you can believe in" mantra. And many leftists are wasting no time going on the offensive against the President-elect, or, to put it more accurately, urging others to go on the offensive from the comfort of their computer chairs. Whenever you read or hear a leftist say "we need to build a mass movement," you can be reasonably sure that they are doing little or nothing to make this worn out cliché a reality other than preaching to the choir of other leftists and progressives. More on this in a minute.

This blog has not hesitated to criticize Obama in the past, nor do I expect progressives to stifle their concerns about the possible appointment of Lawrence Summers as treasury secretary (even if Summers is not really as guilty of sexism and racism as some claim) or the very pro-Israel Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. No one outside Obama's inner circle really knows how likely a choice Summers really is, and if it is a serious possibility, the outcry may well help prevent it from happening. Emanuel, on the other hand, is a done deal. But what deal has been done? The primary significance of this appointment, it seems to me, is that Obama wanted a good friend he could trust in charge of the daily workings of his presidency. What else it turns out to mean, in terms of the Middle East peace process or other matters, remains to be seen.

Before I go on, let's take a look at just how influential those progressives who rejected Obama turned out to be. One measure might be how well third party candidates did in this election. The answer: pathetically. Ralph Nader managed 0.5% of the vote, and Cynthia McKinney a paltry 0.1%. Oh, I know, the system was stacked against them, they couldn't raise anywhere near the kind of money that Obama and McCain did, the media didn't pay any attention, they weren't included in the debates--the usual excuses for leftists who have not yet understood that organizing means convincing people who do not yet agree with you to join your movement.

Perhaps this is the best moment to get something out of my system: Leftwing as I am and expect to always be, my gut feeling is that Americans should get down on their knees and thank the stars that at long last they have elected as their president someone who is as smart as Barack Obama. Why? Because in terms of the person, this is as good as it gets in today's America. As for the policies Obama will pursue, that will be determined by three primary factors: The demands of the constituency that elected him, the kind of grassroots movement those who want to push him to the left can muster, and his own inner lights. And I do think that Obama has the potential to be one of our greatest presidents, if for no other reason than that the crises we are facing call for a great leader of Lincolnian or Rooseveltian proportions.

Let's talk about who really elected Obama. There is no question that progressives and left-leaning liberals had a lot to do with helping Obama get on the electoral map, and in particular with beating Hillary Clinton. Yet Obama only won the nomination after months of hard-fought struggle, and he only barely squeaked by, despite Clinton's many, many errors, her refusal to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war, and her blatant opportunism (not to mention explicit and implicit appeals to racism.)

Once the general election campaign began, the role of the left took a smaller proportion still. The real credit goes not primarily to those progressives who gave "critical support" to Obama (a group I count myself part of), but to the tens of thousands of campaign workers who actually gave their time and energy and knocked on doors and staffed phone banks and registered voters and carried out the hundred and other organizational tasks it took to get him elected. In other words, the credit goes most importantly to those who really changed peoples' minds--and to the people whose minds were changed.

And folks, minds were changed like never before. Conservative pundits may want to convince themselves that Obama has no mandate to move the country even an inch to the left, but the reality is that his victory is a sure sign of a new political alignment. We always knew that California and New York and Massachusetts and Illinois would go for Obama. But Indiana and North Carolina? Colorado and Nevada? New Mexico? Minnesota? Florida? Pennsylvania and Ohio? Maybe even Missouri? Rednecks for Obama! If you haven't already done so, read Michael Sokolove's article in today's New York Times, "The Transformation," about how Obama won over white, blue-collar Levittown, Pennsylvania. Here is an excerpt from the piece:

Tina Davis is the council president in Bristol Township, which has the highest concentration of Levittown voters. She said she had endless conversations with constituents who said they would not vote for Obama. “Most of them couldn’t give me a real answer why,” she said. “I had some of them reciting those stupid e-mails saying he was a Muslim. I’m pretty blunt. I would just say to them, ‘You’re against him because he’s black.’ ”

She thinks some of those who argued with her and insisted till the bitter end that they would vote for Mr. McCain just stubbornly did not want to acknowledge they had changed their minds. In the end, she believes they ended up voting out of a different kind of fear — fear for their own economic survival. Self-interest trumped racism. “They had to ask themselves if they wanted a really smart young black guy, or a stodgy old white guy from the same crowd who put us in this hole,” she said.

The American people elected Obama, including millions who might never before in their lives have considered voting for a Black man--or even a Democrat. That's already a sea change, even if it doesn't mean that socialism is around the corner (although, thanks to McCain's inaccurate use of the term in his clumsy attempt to smear Obama, it might now be possible for leftists to talk about what the concept really means, or could mean.)

But the new political alignment is a mandate for Obama and his ideas, not for the American left and its ideas. Obama won his victory the hard way: He fought for it, organized for it, and inspired tens of thousands to go to work for him and millions to send him money. Meanwhile, the American left has little to show for all its rhetoric. A huge majority of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, yet there is no mass anti-war movement; there is a near consensus among Americans that the health-care system needs radical reform, but there is no mass movement for a single-payer plan; and while many progressives are unhappy with Obama's pro-Israel stance and the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, there is nothing in the United States that even remotely resembles a movement for justice for the Palestinians and an end to the Israeli occupation.

What will it take for such movements, which could indeed alter the course that Obama takes, to materialize? It will require leftists to do just a little less talking, writing, and blogging (and yes, that includes yours truly) and a lot more organizing and trying to convince people who do not now agree with them to change their minds--just like Obama and his supporters did.

During the 1960s, I belonged to a far left group, which published a newspaper. We were all required to sell that newspaper every weekend, at factories, schools, and shopping malls, as a requirement of membership (it was one of those "democratic centralist" organizations you may have heard about, all centralism and no democracy.) No one really liked doing it, even though it was our best way of making contact with the kind of people we were trying to influence. In fact, the leader of our organization managed to convince us that he should be exempt from selling the paper for "security reasons." Real organizing and winning people over are hard tasks, thankless on a day to day basis, and it's understandable why so many leftists prefer to talk to each other. But unless the American left breaks out of its self-imposed isolation, a president like Barack Obama is the best we can do--and as I said above, that's not really so bad.

So go ahead, comrades, talk it up, scrutinize every appointment and every policy move that Obama makes. Let him have the benefit of all your left consciousness and your proletarian wisdom. If you can manage to organize a march, I will come along. But in the meantime, forgive me if I spend a lot of my time cheering on the man the American people elected--"critically," of course.

Photo: Lawrence Summers/Flickr /World Economic Forum

Great minds think alike department: My blogger-journalist-journalism prof pal Marc Cooper is kind enough not only to link to my post above but to provide a lot of important perspective of his own, particularly about the union movement, its participation in the election, and the challenges workers face in the immediate now.

Afterthought: There is one cabinet appointment I am particularly eager to hear about: Who Obama will appoint as Attorney General. That will tell us what he might do about Guantanamo and whether the United States will put the torture regime behind it.

What would a progressive cabinet look like? The left publication In These Times took a stab at it, a perfectly reasonable thing to do--even if progressives have little influence at the moment to bring to bear on the final decisions.

The rebirth of social activism? Progressives who supported Obama think it might be possible, according to an article in today's New York Times.

Bush still on the warpath against the environment. Despite all the kissy-face between Bush and Obama, the former is still apparently planning to leave the latter with a pile of bad last-minute regulations. Now that's something that progressives should get kicking about.

8 comments:

ahmed said...

Hmmm, off topic but Im curious as to whether you belonged to the US SWP or the international socialists. I sold paper as a "worker vanguard" man those were some dreary days

Anne Gilbert said...

I'm in complete agreement with you here on these "leftists" who constantly complain about political candidates who are not "good enough" or "pure" enough. They are always in "critic" mode, which gets very boring after a while. I have my "leftist" sympathies, to be sure, but I've been an Obama leaner practically since the beginning. I know at least one person who was very "leery" of him(and would rather have voted for someone like Edwards). All I could say to this person was, that Obama seemed to have "something special" about him. IOW, I "went with my gut" on this one. And my gut was right. I also happen to know that in 2000 this person was "absolutely disgusted" with both candidates and refused to vote for Gore. Instead, they protest voted for Ralph Nader! And we all know the results of 2000. The American electoral and political system is far from perfect, but it's the best we've got for the moment, and we should all make use of it. Like you, I'm thanking all the powers that be, that the American people actually came out and voted, in massive numbers, apparently, because even the stupidest of us get fed up. As for what Obama may or may not do in the future, all I can say is, I'm going to wait and see.
Anne G

Michael Balter said...

Ahmed, contact me privately (I'm not hard to find) and I will fill you in.

best, Michael

Andrew Hunt said...

This was a great Blog entry, Michael. I share your views 100 percent. I posted on Marc Cooper's Blog, too, just to say that the far, far radical left is such a tiny force in American society that it is better to just ignore them. Yet I also think the broader left -- which includes thoughtful moderates, liberals, social democrats, etc. -- needs to rethink some strategies. The Left has lost its way (I admit that sometimes, I don't even like to think of myself as a Leftist anymore -- more a Democratic Party liberal). What I think the Left needs is a more positive vision so they're not all just being grim-sounding contrarians. There is too much negativity on the Left and there always has been. It's sad that we have to go all the way back to Eugene V. Debs to find a bold and positive vision that really excited ordinary men and women. People in Kansas aren't reading CounterPunch because, let's be honest, it's so damned depressing. And predictable. I applaud you Michael -- and Marc -- for kicking some ass and getting the Left into shape. It's long overdue. The Left needs to adopt Obama's optimism and positive message. Sure there are a lot of problems in society -- problems that should not be ignored -- but Ella Baker was right. Listening to ordinary people -- even those who loved Sarah Palin -- and figuring out ways of channeling their energy and our energy into some sort of positive change, is the way to go.

Let the debate continue. And let's hope the Left can chart a more positive course, one that speaks "American" and resonates with ordinary men and women across the nation.

Anonymous said...

You may be surprised but I completely agree with you here. When trying to figure out how to lobby (i.e. organize) to get things done politically in the USA, look at the people who do it the best: AIPAC and the NRA. They don't march, they vote and give money to candidates.

A White Cornerback

Michael Balter said...

Thanks for all these comments. This post is heading towards becoming the most widely read in the history of this blog...

Zwarich said...

Mr. Balter:

Liked your piece. I read it when it was forwarded to a Progressives for Obama list-serve. Thought maybe you and/or your readers would be interested in an idea I am circulating. (I'm in Boston, btw. maybe we'll run into each other somewhere, My Contact info under my name).

A Picture Plus 1000 Words - The True Democracy Project

To My Fellow Progressives:

Amidst the post-election 'what next?' discussions that we hear on every side, I would like to make a brief presentation of a complex idea. Being brief is something I'm not very good at, as many may very well already know. (People who are at all familiar with my writing know that I am always far too 'wordy', a fault that I am trying to work on, but with only limited success).

I will try to present this concept in 'a picture', (an organizational chart), plus 'a thousand words', (I'll try my best). The picture is the easy part. (Please see attached). The thousand words will be a challenge. (In a more thorough presentation that I am trying to finish, I have already written 13,000 words, and am just getting into 'the meat' of the idea).

I will try here, in these one thousand words, to simply present the basic idea, and not argue in favor of it, or present the level of detail to which I have already developed it. I hope that any who read this might consider circulating it among friends and associates. Plato posited that ideas exist apart from us, and that we do not create them, we only encounter them. Many others, including right here on P4O, (there have been comments wishing for a 'people's congress'), [note to balters Blog: this was sent to the Progressives for Obama group, among many others], have had this same basic idea spring up in their own minds. I believe that it is an idea whose time has hopefully come.

Anyway…….here goes, (and starting the 1000 word count from here).

I think we need to expand our thinking dramatically. We need to think in a far larger and broader paradigm than we have yet allowed ourselves. Simply put: we need to build a democracy of our own, by taking advantage of the full degree of power inherent in interactive digital communications, (whose potential we have exploited somewhat, but whose full power we have barely begun to tap). We need to build a 'fully featured' and robust democratic organization, whose purpose will be to pool our resources in order to communicate our powerful message of 'Democracy' and 'The Common Good', to 'the masses' of the American citizenry, (recognizing that in a democracy, 'communication' is THE most basic element in acquiring political power).

This democracy we need to build, to which I refer at this point as the True Democracy Project, will practice what it preaches. Its message will be manifest in its methods. Being assiduously and scrupulously democratic, to the greatest degree that we can devise, will be the most important policy of this democratic organization. Whatever agenda this organization might democratically establish, "our process (democracy) will be our most important policy". Democracy, as extended to its inherent purpose, the promotion of the Common Good, will also provide the framework of our most Basic Message.

The long range concept will be to grow into a 'party'. With that in mind, this organization should call itself the True Democrats, and advance the motto, (to encapsulate its basic credo), "If you don't believe in True Democracy, DON'T call yourself a True Democrat".

This name will allow this group to both identify itself with the existing Democratic Party, and at the same time challenge this existing party for legitimacy as the ONE party, (of the two major parties, as our system defines), that represents the interests of The People, against the interests of The Rich, (amalgamated capital, whose interests are legitimately represented by the Republican Party, but who have captured control of both parties, in a clear 'taxation without representation' system in which the Common Good is NOT currently represented). Thus the long range goal is NOT to build a 'third party', but rather to supplant the existing Democratic Party, and to become (or take over) one of the two 'major parties'.

This democratic organization shall focus on the full development and exploitation of the power of interactive Internet communications capacity. It will require the development of considerably advanced new software. It will use this technology, (such as email list-serve type groups and forums, coupled with web-based networking capacity), to root the entire decision making apparatus of the organization in 'The Will of The People'.

This organization will include a 'Judicial Branch' to guard the rights of The People. The forums through which the business of the group is conducted will be 'moderated', but all 'moderation' will take place after the fact, using the tool of 'censure' to punish behavior that does not conform to democratically established standards, rather than 'censorship', which governs behavior, (and destroys free speech, the most basic building block of True Democracy), before the fact. The insidious democracy-destroying power of censorship lies in the fact that The People are prevented from being aware of the behavior of the censors, and they have no recourse from their autocratic decisions.

All moderators will be officers of the Judicial Branch, and their decisions will be subject to appeal up the line of authority in this branch. (See organizational chart)

The 'Legislative Branch' will be directly connected to the citizen-membership through the capacity of the interactive digitally networked connection. Citizen-members, at the most basic 'neighborhood' level, will have the direct power to vote on all major decisions. Authority and responsibility will be delegated through a representational system, (for practical reasons), but all decisions of import will be voted on by referendum, through the software that will be developed, (and using practical quorum requirements as are established, perhaps through a proxy system; quorum rules must recognize that many people may not want to have the responsibility of maintaining highly detailed daily attention).

The 'Executive Branch' will also be rooted in The People, not only by selection of officers by direct election, but through a system of interactive communications 'councils', that reach all the way down to the neighborhood level of the organization, where 'local councils' will send roots out into the general community.

These three branches, reflecting the three basic functions of governance, will be defined by a robust system of checks and balances that will be established, through the definition and assignation of various powers, in the group's constitution.

There perhaps should be two classifications of membership, 'supporting members', and 'governing members'.

Supporting members would be asked to make a modest initial donation, and would periodically be asked to make additional voluntary contributions. Supporting members will be welcomed to exercise limited privileges to participate in the group's discussions, hoping that their interest will lead them to 'upgrade' their membership. Supporting members will comprise the group's basic communications base.

Governing members, those who will have the right to vote, will pay regular dues, at a modest and affordable level. Dues money will be split, by statutory formula as democratically established, between the various levels of organization.

We must realize that 'politics' is a numbers game, and that the numbers are VERY large. The object of the 'game' is to get the most people on our side, and to do that we must communicate with them. We must develop the capacity to communicate with tens, and hundreds, of millions of people.

We must set the goal of building an organization that is completely scalable, that is fluidly capable of starting small, but is designed to build a membership of millions. If dues are set at merely $5 per month, an organization with 100k dues-paying citizen-members would (obviously) have an operating budget of $500k per month. But we must extend these projected numbers into the millions. An organization of a million members could do a LOT of communicating with $5 million per month. (And so on). Any who doubt that massive numbers of people would be willing to pay regular dues to an organization that benefits them directly, (by direct empowerment through True Democracy), please consider that AARP currently has 35 million dues paying members, (and all it offers is some sham discounts on motel rooms and insurance policies).

If we pool our resources in this way, the 'whole' will be far greater than 'the sum of its parts'. Many polls indicate that at least 7% of the current voting population, (a percentage that translates to 14 million American citizens), strongly identify themselves as progressives. If we could organize even half that number, we would have an organization with a budget of $420 million per year to use for constant and ongoing communication of our simple and powerful message of Democracy and the Common Good.

(My one thousand word limit looms. Only a few words left to sum up)

I hope that any who read this will be interested in discussing this further. I would love to share the extended material I am working on, (hoping to finish in the next few days). A project of this magnitude would require the efforts and energies of a significant number of people of diverse skills and talents, (political scholars, veteran organizers, software developers, fund raisers, etc, as well as, of course, citizens who are eager to be empowered).

I hope that anyone interested will feel free to contact me, or else take this idea and develop it yourselves. To have any chance at all to be successful, NO one can 'own' it. (And if anyone tried to do so, if anyone tried to maintain control by building in 'back channel' levers of power, the very integrity on which this idea wholly depends would be destroyed, and whatever organization was built would fail (miserably) to reach this potential). To succeed, this idea, and whatever we build from it, must be democratically owned by ALL of us.

(I went a few words over. Sorry. I could edit but I'll hope folks will forgive the transgression. I came fairly close)

Please see attached 'picture', an organizational chart, presented in both MS Word, and Adobe .pdf format.

Thank you,

R Zwarich
rzwarich@gmail.com

media said...

politically i agree with many of the ideas of the 'radical left' (starting with, say, nader/mkinney/greens through chomsky/zinn and on over the rainbow and into the sunset) but i dislike the 'tactics' (protesting of peaceful or militant form).

but i think moderate radical groups like code pink did a fair amount of prep work, as did groups like ujfp and even answer, and pacifica radio/amy goodman, in de-legitimizing bush over years. black talk radio which usually is not militant but has its own concerns also contributed to the victory (since more whites votes mcain than obama.)

they helped set up the mindset for 'change', which of course bloassomed in a less than rad fashion. i'm not sure how more militant things like rnc/dnc contributed to the mindset, but possibly there was even some sympathy expressed for the sentiments of those protests, even if the 'masses' were not going to support either the tactics or buy wholeheartedly into the rhetoric or ideology.

i'm seen as a right winger by many 'militants' (as are people like chomsky) and i dislike the rhetoric and tactics, but some credit may be due. ity wasn't just howard deanies.