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Unchanged: Progressive Disillusionment in the Age of Obama

category north america / mexico | community struggles | news report author Saturday November 24, 2012 13:44author by Zakk Flash - Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBR0A Report this post to the editors

Now that President Obama is “safely” ensconced in the White House for another four years and “disaster Supreme Court decisions” are averted, liberal and progressive voters need to join radical activists in the fight against endless war, ecological destruction, and austerity. Obama no longer has an incentive to make any pretense of throwing a single crumb to liberals – resignation and acquiescence on “pragmatic grounds” will allow bargains that are hostile to the interests of the working class.

Unchanged: Progressive Disillusionment in the Age of Obama

– Dr. Zakk Flash, 15 November 2012

Four years ago, tens of millions of people of all backgrounds came together to elect the first African American president. Women, youth, LGBTQI people, and people of color went out in historic numbers to vote for Barack Obama. His election was heralded as tremendous symbolic blow against entrenched political and ideological racism in the United States. The campaigns and the election of 2012, however, have been far different: President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney failed to get an estimated 94 million voters to the polls. Mainstream pundits were left scratching their heads.

Distorted and deceitful campaigns, voter suppression and intimidation, and a massive infusion of post-Citizen’s United cash from both major parties contributed to a lackluster showing, but disillusionment with the political process itself may be secondary to the candidates themselves.

Smoke-and-mirrors political posturing from Team Romney, the last vestiges of Tea Party element expressed in what Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott called the “rape philosophers” of the Republican Party, and the threat of homophobic, sexist, racist, and anti-intellectual Supreme Court justice appointees kept Mitt Romney from taking the White House or ceding the Senate to the Republicans. There was fear of Romney's hawkish notions on Iran, of women's rights being restricted in the name of “religious liberty,” and having a president who simultaneously promised massive tax cuts for the richest Americans and huge defense spending increases. Supporters of Representative Ron Paul’s candidacy were outraged at last-minute GOP establishment rule changes meant to disenfranchise them and many boycotted the election altogether. The Republican establishment had much going against it.

Many who voted for Obama, however, did so to keep Romney and the Republicans out, not because they were enthusiastic about a second Obama term.

Barack Obama’s appalling foreign policy, especially the expansion of illegal and often covert military operations in Iran, Pakistan,Libya, and Yemen, as well as extrajudicial drone killings and assassinations of American citizens, kept Democrats from making major gains and left the status quo largely untouched. Democrats only increased their presence by two in the Senate and five in the House of Representatives, although that chamber remains in Republican hands. Popular sentiment likely had less to do many elections than recently gerrymandered congressional districts. Obama’s ghastly strategy in the Middle East may have kept civil libertarians and peace advocates away from the ballot box, but domestic affairs under his administration left even more liberals and “progressives” feeling like they had no choice when it came to presidential politicking.

Obama’s domestic policies since becoming president have shifted the official political spectrum further to the right. With an overdose of rhetoric about shared sacrifice and the virtues of bipartisanship, Obama has continued to expand the surveillance and domestic detention powers in the Patriot Act, spied on the communications of US citizens without legally required warrants, waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou using chilling and repressive legislation like the Espionage Act of 1917, and embedded indefinite detention and policies against dissent into America’s political framework. Despite promises that his administration would interpret the National Defense Authorization Act to include habeas corpus, questions remain of how later regimes will chose to enforce their vision of the law, even as Guantanamo remains open.

Abhorrent civil liberties policies under Obama are matched by encouragement of educational apartheid in Chicago’s struggling schools and privatization-minded “education reform” efforts nationwide. Public workers were effectively abandoned by Obama and the Democrats when Big Business united to strip hard-fought workers' rights in Wisconsin. Instead of the Employee Free Choice Act and minimum wage pegged to inflation that Obama pledged during his first campaign, we ended up with a pro-corporate health care reform, bipartisan consensus on bailouts for bankers, massive budget cuts to education and social services, and more “free trade” agreements.

Julian Castro, chosen by Obama as the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention, said the election was “a mandate for compromise,” a grand bargain that will make everyone happy. But while Obama talks about bipartisan give and take, the decisions being made will end up a grand betrayal, cutting jobs, wages, pensions, housing and public services for the poor and working class – people that Mitt Romney disparaged as the “47 percent.” The GOP will agree to some very modest tax increases on the rich in exchange for substantial cuts to cherished social programs and an upward redistribution of income. Whatever compromise is met between the two major parties, it will begin with implementing trillions of dollars in cuts to social spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, ex-Princeton professor and frequent Obama critic Dr. Cornel West said that while he’s happy that Mitt Romney didn’t win the presidential election, the military-industrial complex is still running rampant, politicians should be ashamed of spending billions on campaigns while people live in poverty domestically and abroad, and that President Barack Obama is nothing but a “Republican in blackface.”

Despite all this, Obama's victory is still symbolic in a good way, though not from any meaningful contribution by the man himself. In much of the public mind, Obama symbolizes the poor and the middle class. Regardless of glossy election campaigns financed by Wall Street, produced by Madison Avenue, and distributed by an electorate that will be hurt by their reactionary policies, the Democrats simply represent a different vision of America for most Americans than the Republicans do.

If Romney had won in November, he would have gleefully continued the policies of Obama, just as the current president has taken Bush’s lead. But Right’s blatant racism, its anti-immigrant policies, and its assault on women’s rights drove voters away from the Republican vision. That is good news.

The bad news is that the Democrats fail to defend, and in reality undermine, poor and working-class interests. There are well-meaning people in the Democratic Party who truly want to carry out a progressive agenda, sure: Dennis Kucinich is a great example. However, if you belong to a party whose elite is in bed with corporations, you’re not likely to have great impact. The global electioneering industry, with its dark money and political spin doctors, are content to keep the system as it is.

Complaints about a rigged system and pragmatic decisions aside, the reality is that policy outcomes matter. Barack Obama may say that he supports the rights of dissenting protestors, or that he seeks an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or that he “personally” supports marriage equality, but he must act and his efforts must bring results. “Personal" statements entirely divorced from the power of the federal government's executive branch, which he heads, are meaningless without action. Try getting in to see your dying soulmate by saying, "But the president's personal opinion is that we should have been married, so that should negate the constitutional amendment in this state... right?" See how far that gets you. Talk is cheap and good intentions aren’t enough.

Now that President Obama is “safely” ensconced in the White House for another four years and “disaster Supreme Court decisions” are averted, liberal and progressive voters need to join radical activists in the fight against endless war, ecological destruction, and austerity. Obama no longer has an incentive to make any pretense of throwing a single crumb to liberals – resignation and acquiescence on “pragmatic grounds” will allow bargains that are hostile to the interests of the working class.

Grassroots activity and coalition building are essential in bringing about any hope for change.

The incentive structure for politicians is simple: if you’re going to vote for them no matter what they do, they have no reason to do something for you. The institutional left – mainstream unions, political organizations and advocacy groups – always turn out thousands of volunteers for the Democratic Party. Unquestioningly. Unchallengingly. Uncritically. A vote for Obama simply because he was the lesser of two evils isn’t pragmatism. It’s delusion. A victory for the lesser of two evils is still a victory for evil.

Third-party candidates got more coverage this year, thanks to the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Democracy Now!, but issues still remain: the Commission on Presidential Debates still exerts a stranglehold on our ability to select a president; the winner-take-all method of choosing electors in all states but two has resulted in the two major parties not mounting a presidential campaign in two-thirds of the states; ballot access laws restrict the full spectrum of ballot choices that exist in any given election; and liberals still attack third parties and their supporters as “spoilers,” despite candidates that fall more closely to their ideological preferences. Changes are needed. But those changes come from the people, not politicians.

It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers of the 1930s that pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal. It was a vibrant civil rights and student movement that led to George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaigns. And, despite those who use electoral blackmail to keep a Democrat in office “for women’s and environmental rights,” it was radical activist demonstrations that brought Nixon – a true scoundrel and no friend of the working-class – to bring about the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, the expansion of food stamps, the nomination of a Supreme Court that gave us Roe v. Wade, and finally, a wind-down of the Vietnam War.

Appealing to our representatives’ better nature isn’t going to get a damn thing done. If we going to put a stop to the pillage of the environment (next stop: the Arctic) and restart the development of renewable energy, we have to act now. If we are going to put a stop to the erosion of civil liberties, the decimation of unions, the attacks to the social safety net, the efforts to curtail reproductive choice, and an end to brutal raids and deportations of immigrants, we have to act now.

Our movements must either force politicians to take up the issues of all of the oppressed, from people of color and women to the LGBT community or address them ourselves. Liberals and progressives in the Democratic Party must recognize that their constituencies have locked out by an ascendant right-wing faction. Radical activists have to continue to build dual-power structures and coalitions that meet the needs of the marginalized. We have to demonstrate the necessity of replacing capitalism with a truly democratic and environmentally sound society locally, in communities that need it most.

Dr. West echoes this, saying that a true progressive is willing to take risks, something Obama has failed to do. He ends the Democracy Now! interview with a call to hold the president accountable for Shock Doctrine-style policies that have ended up making the poor the first off the fiscal cliff.

“…Lincoln isn’t Lincoln if Frederick Douglass isn’t pushing him. FDR isn’t FDR if A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt aren’t pushing him. LBJ isn’t LBJ if MLK isn’t pushing him.

We don’t believe in making excuses. We believe that if [Obama] is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president. And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. But that doesn’t happen unless you’re pushed.”

The reelection of Barack Obama was a fantastic symbolic rejection of corporate and imperial policies to most Americans. Now we decide if that symbol means what they say it does.

Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

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