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.