On Tuesday, July 8, 2008 Barack Obama had his Sista Souljah moment before a crowd in the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs, Georgia. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton had famously sent a message to white, centrist voters that he dissociated himself from African-American militancy by gratuitously attacking a relatively obscure African-American cultural figure, Sista Souljah. He brazenly chose a meeting of the Rainbow Coalition to publicly drive the point home. No doubt Obama followed the advice of many of the same political “consultants” or their ilk in his July 8 speech. According to the New York Times reporter, Michael Powell (Obama Calls “Centrist Shift” Critique Untrue, 07-09-08), Obama took the opportunity to address his “friends on the left” who had voiced concern, objections, and, in a few cases, outrage at his clear and decided shift to the right after the primary season. To those who saw a shift he responded “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me… I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith… That’s not something new; I’ve been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look centrist is not true.”
In case anyone missed this embrace of the center (right?), Obama followed this statement the next day, by voting for the draconian FISA that retroactively gave immunity to the telecommunications industry, a vote that had nothing to do with personal responsibility or faith. By abstaining from the vote, Republican candidate John McCain felt no such need to show his police-state bona fides.
Rolling over on his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright for his outspoken progressive views, as noted in an earlier posting (The Political Economy of the Elections May, 18, 2008), was an early indication that Obama would adhere to traditional Democratic Party Presidential election tactics and veer to the right. But frankly, few expected the move to proceed so quickly and so far. The endorsement of neo-conservative “faith-based initiatives” – a naked right wing move to dilute and derail federal programs aimed at helping poor and working class victims of unemployment and shrinking incomes is a clear slap at Obama’s liberal and left supporters. His hour-long telephone reassurance to the Iraqi Defense Minister that nothing would change in Iraq without consulting with the puppet government and US military leaders is a blow to the anti-war movement leaders who put great stock in his candidacy. Rumors floated that Obama will re-appoint Iran-Contra-scandal tainted Robert Gates must shock those who thought Obama’s foreign policy would signal a change from the past. And Obama’s self-righteous lectures to African-Americans about the virtues of “personal responsibility” sour the expectations of those who hoped for a new level of struggle for racial equality, a disappointment crudely, but appropriately, expressed by Jesse Jackson in his off-air remarks on Fox News.
All this raises a slight odor of dishonesty no doubt detected by those progressives in the Democratic base who worked hard for his primary victory without receiving a hint of the candidate’s now revealed views. On the other hand, these same progressives time and again allow themselves to be seduced by the Democratic Party songbirds in election after election. It is not Obama’s treachery, but the logic of a corrupted two-party system that invites this shameful gamesmanship to continually usurp democratic sentiment.
By now everyone has heard again and again the tired arguments for supporting the integrity-impaired jost often offered by the Democratic Party: they are the only realistic and practical options; we will win access to office holders; judicial appointees are at stake; the Republican extremism will be thwarted. In truth, this “pragmatism” and “realism” have disarmed the left, leaving progressives marginal and ineffective in American political life.
Since the re-birth of the ultra-right over thirty years ago, we have lost our understanding of oppositional politics. We have effectively saddled ourselves with the politics of the-lesser-of-two-evils. Moreover, this stance has given the lesser-of-two-evils – the Democratic Party – an assurance that liberals, progressives, and the left are looking for no other options. This has lead to a ridiculous moment where progressives not only ignore candidates who endorse their positions – Ralph Nader, for example – but openly castigate them as “spoilers.” Predictably, the political space between the two evils has accordingly become nearly imperceptible.
One can see this jost clearly with the 2006 mid-term elections. Despite Democratic Party success built around mass dissatisfaction with the Bush agenda, the Democratic majorities in Congress have fallen far short of advancing anything resembling an alternative program. Worse, they have failed to forestall the initiatives of the Bush administration, from military appropriations to FISA.
Colleagues correctly remind me when I rant against the Democrats that there are many solid, progressive elected Democrats. But this misses the point. The bankruptcy of the two-party system marginalizes these voices, and will continue to do so, until there are viable options independent of corporate domination. If democracy means anything, it must be reflective of the sentiment and interests of the majority of the people. Yet every opinion poll demonstrates that the two privileged parties are wildly out of step with these sentiments and interests. So whose sentiments and interests do Democrats and Republicans serve? The answer should be apparent to all but the self-deceiving: Monopoly capital.
Many years ago, before the virus of revisionism infected its top leadership, the Communist Party USA projected the “three-legged stool” tactic. Controversial, and saddled with an awkward metaphor, the idea was simply to give critical support to progressive Democrats and left and independent third-parties, while encouraging and backing Communist candidates. Communist leaders sought to avoid dogmatic hostility to Democratic Party insurgents while nurturing movements independent of corporate domination. Fully recognizing the debilitating, subservient role that labor’s top leaders had accepted in respect to the Democratic Party and the m ythology of New Deal progressivism still influential among the working class, they crafted a transitional approach that would neither marginalize political action nor sink in opportunism. Though difficult to execute and plagued by challenging choices, this represented a sane tactic.
Today, jost liberals, progressives, and the left – including the Communist Party – are perched precariously on a wobbly one-legged stool.
Consider the initiative of a group of progressives who threw their support early for Obama, publicly forming an organization called “Progressives for Obama.”. Despite the long history of Democratic accommodation, they sensed a new spirit in the comparatively youthful candidate who skillfully and articulately voiced the profound and popular hope for change and successfully harnessed the energy behind that hope. With little more than campaign rhetoric as a foundation, they cashed whatever political capital they held for a share in Obama’s campaign of hope. As Obama veers to the right, how do they campaign for him? Do they adjust their politics to his, embracing his corporate-friendly health care plan, his aggressive foreign policy, his ambiguous position on Iraq?
Similarly, The Nation magazine pledged not to support any candidate who supported the war in Iraq. This stance was hailed this as a welcome, bold move in an earlier posting. Yet they are also trapped by their endorsement of Obama who se position on ending the war erodes aljost daily. Pulling brigades from Iraq to send to Afghanistan is hardly anti-imperialist progress. jost tellingly, no politician will seriously fear such a pledge in the future.
Independent politics means politics independent of the two-party system. It means shedding the illusion that corporate politicians give a damn for what progressives think. It means facing the unpleasant fact that the left is not a player in the game show of bourgeois politics. It also means that there is no better time than now to begin the arduous, frustrating task of building independent movements and parties for the time when an independent movement can challenge the two-party system. . It must be said that the left’s long deferral of this effort makes it even harder. And no one should be under any illusion that an independent, anti-monopoly movement will come quickly. The obstacles are formidable. For example, the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania threw enormous resources into an effort to keep Ralph Nader off the Presidential ballot in 2004. Party operatives are now under indictment for using public funds in this effort – an undemocratic act worthy of the Watergate burglars.
For those who lack patience, I would direct them to the campaigns of Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, and Cindy Sheehan who are already engaged in this struggle.