Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama and the Left

Two Great articles for anyone who wants to further understand this dynamic and what the future holds for progressive politics in the Obama administration.

End The Honeymoon By John Judis:

The labor movement, for instance, has not recovered from the split between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win. To make matters worse, the unions themselves--in particularly, SEIU and Unite Here--are rent by division. As a result, the unions have either been on the sidelines during the debate over the stimulus and bank bailout or uncritically backing Obama and Reid. One labor group, Americans United for Change, which is backed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), even ran ads thanking Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, and Arlen Specter for agreeing to back the stimulus bill that they had significantly weakened.

A member of one liberal group, Campaign for America's Future, pronounced the stimulus bill "a darn good first step." MoveOn--as far as I can tell--has attacked conservative Republicans for opposing the bill, while lamely urging Democrats to back it. Of course, all these groups may have thought the stimulus bill and the bailout were ideal, but I doubt it. I bet they had the same criticisms of these measures that Krugman or The American Prospect's Ezra Klein or my own colleagues had, but they made the mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician.

What, you might ask, would have been the result if these groups had gone after Obama and Reid--and in the case of the so-called Americans United for Change--the self-appointed centrists? They would have certainly incurred the wrath of the Obama administration. I know this myself. One Obama press person recently asked a mutual acquaintance, "Why does John Judis hate us?"

But they would have also moved the political debate to the left, so that the center no longer resided somewhere in Susan Collins or Ben Nelson's heads, but considerably to their left. Suddenly, a $900 billion bill without the AMT and with expanded health insurance for the unemployed would have looked like a compromise. These angry leftists would have actually done the Obama administration an enormous favor.

What's the basis for my saying this? Look at the last two periods in Americans history where dramatic reforms were adopted--the 1930s and the 1960s (up to 1972). These were periods when the presence of a popular left moved the center away from the laissez-faire, pro-big business right. The experience of the 1930s is particularly relevant now. During the initial years of the Great Depression, there were demonstrations and marches--notably those by the Bonus Army in 1932--but there was also great despair and disunion. The AFL was paralyzed. Communists were battling Socialists. And the absence of leftwing pressure was reflected in the legislation that passed.

Obama and liberals: a counter-productive relationship By Glenn Greenwald:

But Krugman's larger point is correct: Republican groups demand from politicians support for their beliefs. By contrast, as Judis describes, Democratic groups -- including (perhaps especially) liberal activist groups -- now (with some exceptions) lend their allegiance to the party and its leader regardless of how faithful the party leadership is to their beliefs. That disparity means that there is often great popular agitation and political pressure exerted from the Right, but almost none from the Left (I'm using the terms "Left" and "Right" here in their conventional sense: "Right" being the core of the GOP and "Left" being those who most consistently and vigorously opposed Bush's foreign and domestic policies).

During the 2008 election, Obama co-opted huge portions of the Left and its infrastructure so that their allegiance became devoted to him and not to any ideas. Many online political and "news" outlets -- including some liberal political blogs -- discovered that the most reliable way to massively increase traffic was to capitalize on the pro-Obama fervor by turning themselves into pro-Obama cheerleading squads. Grass-roots activist groups watched their dues-paying membership rolls explode the more they tapped into that same sentiment and turned themselves into Obama-supporting appendages. Even labor unions and long-standing Beltway advocacy groups reaped substantial benefits by identifying themselves as loyal foot soldiers in the Obama movement.

The major problem now is that these entities -- the ones that ought to be applying pressure on Obama from the Left and opposing him when he moves too far Right -- are now completely boxed in. They've lost -- or, more accurately, voluntarily relinquished -- their independence. They know that criticizing -- let alone opposing -- Obama will mean that all those new readers they won last year will leave; that all those new dues-paying members will go join some other, more Obama-supportive organization; that they will prompt intense backlash and anger among the very people -- their members, supporters and readers -- on whom they have come to rely as the source of their support, strength, and numbers.

As a result, there is very little political or media structure to Obama's Left that can or will criticize him, even when he moves far to what the Beltway calls the "center" or even the Right (i.e., when he adopts large chunks of the GOP position). That situation is extremely bad -- both for the Left and for Obama. It makes impossible what very well might be the apocryphal though still illuminating FDR anecdote:

FDR was, of course, a consummate political leader. In one situation, a group came to him urging specific actions in support of a cause in which they deeply believed. He replied: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

As Judis points out, Obama, on some issues, might move to the Right because he wants to. In other cases, he will do so because he perceives that he has to, because the combination of the GOP/Blue-Dog-following-caucus/Beltway-media-mob might force him to. Regardless of Obama's motives, the lack of a meaningful, potent movement on the Left to oppose that behavior ensures that it will continue without any resistance. The lack of any independent political pressure from the Left ensures that Obama will be either content to ignore their views or will be forced to do so even when he doesn't want to.

Two fascinating articles and if you're interested in this relationship at all I'd recommend reading both. And if you still want more, check out Chris Bowers' response to both of their points:

In their articles today on how "the left" is failing under the Obama administration John Judis and Glenn Greenwald decry the lack of a mass popular movement agitating all political actors, including President Obama, to enact a specific policy agenda. However, the decentralized, self-producing, public sphere multiplying reorganization of our society brought on by the self-publishing, network neutral Internet is in direct contradiction with the vision of a discrete, hierarchical organization working to enact specific policy agenda. We are well past the point of being able to create new, large, hierarchical organizations to agitate the government on behalf of a specific, left-wing policy agenda. That just isn't going to happen anymore.

The relationships between individuals and the larger institutions in which they participate are now highly decentralized and fluid. The trend in that direction will only continue. As such, even mass membership institutions themselves will be variable in how, and why, they continue to operate. Their goals will be vague, and even those vague goals will not be fixed. This is less comment on the state of the American Left than it is a comment on broader changes in our largest cultural institutions. There is simply no way for the sort of left-wing movement implied by Judis and Greenwald to come into existing given our larger societal trends.

It is a new world, more in line with The Uprising that David describes or the Taking On the System that Markos describes. Any new American Left will reflect these larger trends. It should be judged not by the standards of a type of societal organization that is no longer possible.

Interesting stuff to think about as we move forward.


  1. wait, so you think that obama should be open to policy arguments from within his own group of supporters?

    *destroys train of thought account, deletes bookmark, turns off computer, smashes hard drive with hammer, burns down house, commits suicide*

  2. @JN: After your other post, I've had a change of heart. Rather than having him listen criticism from his own supporters, I think it would be more effective to add a creepy FDR bust looking at him in the oval office.