The enthusiasm among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for Barack Obama, a compelling writer, an inspiring speaker with a story that seems to define the American experience, is understandable. Indeed, the symbolic significance of an African-American so close to the presidency in a country whose politics is so fundamentally scarred by racism cannot be underestimated. This enthusiasm seems to have upturned the usual justification on the part of progressives and leftists for voting Democratic. No longer is the zeal for the DP based primarily on the abhorrence for the Republican administration; no longer is the justification offered defined largely in the negative, by the nature of the reactionary opposition.
Sadly, this grassroots ardour is also based on a studied ignorance of Obama’s political record. And where the wilful suspension of disbelief cannot be reasonably invoked, neither can coherence.
The Nation magazine, the premier outlet for progressive American opinion, enthusiastically endorsed Obama in terms more consistent with a rejection. “This magazine has been critical of the senator from Illinois for his closeness to Wall Street; his unwillingness to lay out an ambitious progressive agenda on healthcare, housing and other domestic policy issues; and for post-partisan rhetoric that seems to ignore the manifest failure of conservatism over the past seven years.”
MoveOn, the liberal pressure group, has jumped on the Obama bandwagon without making a single demand upon his campaign.
On the Iraq war, which presumably motivates a good deal of youthful support, Obama — while opposing the vote that justified the war, a vote taken before he was in the Senate — supports in effect, if not in word, a lengthy occupation. He declared his intention to pull out combat troops by 2009, but vowed to keep a residual presence, estimated at 60,000-100,000 troops, in the region to carry out counter-terrorism activity and to safeguard “American,” that is elite, vital interests in the region.
He is unwilling to withdraw the sizeable force of armed American “contractors,” but favours having them subject to American law.
He stated his intention of beefing up the American military by 100,000 recruits.
In 2005, Obama voted to reauthorise the Patriot Act, allowing for the wholesale eavesdropping on the American public under the guise of fighting terrorism.
While declaring his admirable intention of changing the mindset that got the US into Iraq, his foreign policy advisors are part of the familiar roster of careerists from whom “new thinking” basically means a return to pro-war multilateralism.
Obama opposes single-payer health care, which cuts duplicative, overhead administrative costs and applies those savings to cover the uninsured, for one which maintains the centrality of the private insurance industry. He seeks to mollify the right by making health care more affordable without creating a government mandate, the very mention of which is an anathema to Conservatives.
On the issue of free trade, Obama is on record opposing the amendment to the 2005 Commerce Appropriations Bill that would have prohibited US trade negotiators from weakening US laws that provide American workers with safeguards from unfair foreign trade practices. Obama, (like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in general), is utterly incoherent on trade issues.
On the other hand, a party incapable of fostering working class solidarity and power domestically could hardly be faulted for being unable to seek and advance international agreements on that basis as well. They simply answer to a different set of class priorities.
Obama supports the death penalty, despite its disproportionate impact on black people and the poor. In 2006, he voted with Republicans to build 700 miles of double fencing along the Mexican border, although today he states his willingness to find a different solution.
The larger problem is a permanent mindset of political accommodation, if not outright capitulation to the right, so that the country can “move forward.”’ It does not matter whether this is called “triangulation” or “redefining the centre.” These are all buzzwords justifying cross-ideological political unity, in which the left is supposedly strengthened by that candidate who can forge the stronger progressive coalition required to tip the scales incrementally in its direction.
That, at least, is one strategy for the left. This is the strategy that is touted as realistic, starting where the masses of people actually are, not where socialists would wish them to be.
the history of “realignment”
Michael Harrington, the great propagandist for re-alignment, defended the vote for Carter on this basis in 1976. There was an “infinite possibility” that great strides could be made, he argued, “on full employment, national health and issues like that.” The conditions for a Carter victory, he asserted, were “the conditions for working class militancy, and the militancy of minority groups, and the militancy of women, and the militancy of the democratic reform movement.” In fact a stunning Democratic victory did occur. Carter’s party took the White House, the Senate and the Congress.
What transpired? Not national health insurance. Not a repeal of Taft Hartley. (Carter attempted to break the 1978 coal miners strike by invoking Taft Hartley.) Not a meaningful full employment bill. (The Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill that finally passed was so riddled with provisos and exceptions as to be meaningless.) We did get airline and natural gas deregulation. We did get government imposed real wage cuts in the guise of fighting inflation. We did get tax relief for the wealthy. Corporate PACs and business trade association PACs for the first time began to outspend labor in the Democratic Party and did so by four to one. As observers at the time put it, Corporate America became the majority stockholder in the Democratic Party.
Disaffection with the Democratic Party led to a new phenomenon — what was later to be know as the Reagan Democrats. If the class interests of the white working class males could not be defended by the Democrats in full control of the federal government, the Republicans could and did make the not so subtle appeal to defend and advance their caste privileges at the expense of Blacks and women. Holding the line against social progress became the bywords of Republican populism; not class war, but caste war in the service of defending capitalism by fracturing the unity of the exploited and oppressed.
The Republicans captured a good portion of the white working class who turned their backs on the Democratic Party, including the organised section, on this basis and put into practice a little bit of their own re-alignment strategy, one that proved immensely more successful than the Harrington version. That identity politics evolved in the teeth of this resurgent racism and sexism was the altogether predictable, if equally ineffectual, response of those whose hard fought victories remain even today in jeopardy by the continuous barrage of right-wing political and ideological assaults.
The rise of the populist right is not a political application of the law of unintended consequences. The Democratic Party is a slow death for those who wish to check the growth of the right in this country. Class struggle is the core of socialism, and history is rich with demonstrations for those who are willing to learn as to how perilous it is for the working class and the oppressed to remain tied to a capitalist political apparatus. Left wing alternatives cannot come from the Democratic Party, which as a defender of the power structure either capitulates to the right or creates the type of half-measures which add to the public frustration at problems that remain festering. Progressive alternatives can only come from those mass movements who have no stake in the preservation of the status quo and are therefore free to fight it.
Socialists exist today as a political propaganda group in the United States. We are not and have no immediate prospects of offering a political alternative in terms of getting elected to office on a national political level and satisfying the political needs of the oppressed and exploited. Any campaigns which socialists might participate in, such as the Greens and a potential Nader run, are for the purpose of propagandising our point of view and of raising a militantly anti-corporate program in a broader milieu and on a national level to demonstrate the ineffectual and self-defeating nature of working class support for the Democrats.
The Democratic party still remains a symbol of popular appeal to mass sections of the American population, even more so after the particularly disastrous years of the Bush administration. It is obvious that the working class cannot transition from a capitalist party to a socialist ideology overnight. Yet the abysmal approval ratings given to the ineffective Democratic congress is indicative as to how fast that appeal might sour should the Democrats capture the White House and fail to deliver, as we have every right to expect, on the promises and heightened expectations that their victory would raise.
The potential for oppositional politics will not materialise immediately or spontaneously. It must ultimately be sustained by the experiences of the working class and the oppressed fighting outside the electoral arena. But that does not mean that we must build our movement first and thereby acquiesce to the argument that the masses are not ready to break with the Democratic Party. No realignment socialist would in principal object to that. But the time to break, for them, never comes.
In answer to that logic it must be pointed out that trade unionists of the past were not ready to sit-down and strike, before they sat down and struck. The civil rights movement was not ready to boycott and sit-down, until it boycotted and sat down. The anti-war movement and the feminist movements were not ready to march until they marched. The only way to build an electoral movement that breaks with the Democratic Party is to break with the Democratic Party.
The Greens and the Nader movement will not be the final shape of the new party that needs to evolve if our aspirations are to be met. Their purpose for us as socialists is as a vehicle to begin to chip away at the ingrain habits of electoral submission, to overcome the psychology of oppression by raising the demand that we can liberate ourselves. The fight to organise against the corporate dominated state, to redirect national resources to fight against poverty and to curb the cycle of perpetual war that enriches the military-industrial complex and the two major parties — in short — the fight to break the cycle of dislocations and distortions which have beset millions of working class Americans in the global economy requires an electoral vehicle of a new type.
Left unchecked the logic of continued support for the Democrats will continue to drive the working class either away from politics altogether or into the sorts of political rage and frustrations which can be more readily harvested by the right.