What’s At Stake
Democrats have three distinct opportunities to make history this year. Unfortunately, we have to choose between them. We could make history by electing the first woman President. We could elect the first black President. Or, we win the election by securing a mandate for truly progressive politics. Any of these would be phenomenal achievements, and they are each worth every ounce of sweat we can muster. It’s the third one, though, that is the most necessary and the most urgent. For this reason, my hopes and prayers are for John Edwards to win the Iowa caucuses tonight and continue his campaign for the nomination.
Breaking the white male monopoly on the world’s most powerful political position is not superficial. The social-psychological impact of redefining the Presidency to be more expansive and inclusive would have a measurable if not immediate effect on real access to real power by real people. This is on top of the material gains of beating any of the Republican hopefuls. A victory by either Clinton or (especially) Obama would help slow the backward march that threatens the very survival of this country. Either new Administration would usher in crucial policy improvements that would be benefit millions of people worldwide.
But neither of the front-running candidates is seeking a mandate for a progressive vision of what the United States has become in the post-Reagan era, or what it could become if there were a decisive shift in power and privilege. That’s not a subjective critique on my part. Clinton is quite clear that her strength is in cutting deals, in “getting things done” through compromise and strategic calculation. She is the hard-nosed pragmatist, unshackled by ideology. Similarly, Obama’s call is to “transcend” the divisive politics of Washington, to put the simplistic conflicts of both the 1960’s and the 1990’s behind us, and to end unruly partisanship, “re-uniting” a falsely divided country. Both of these are compelling narratives which resonate with many people. However, they aren’t progressive, at least not in the same way that the Republicans’ narrative is conservative.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he championed a movement conservative story of national moral decline, government intrusiveness and Communist encirclement. That narrative shaped his policies as well as the national agenda. The Reagan revolution was an assertion about the way the world works, a coherent explanation of the reasons for a damaged economy, a global political stalemate and cultural shifts which left many feeling threatened and uncomfortable. Thus, even though his initial victory was only moderate, the resulting era was seen as a broad mandate for his overarching narrative. It was so effective that the majority of Democratic leaders, the Clintonistas chief among them, accepted most of it’s basic assertions.
We need a counter-narrative, one that fundamentally explains the world and the situation in this country in a clear and understandable way. From the 1930’s to the 1970’s, the era of greatest strength for American liberalism, Northern Democrats and Western populists actively broadcast just such an explanation, and their policies and priorities reinforced it at all levels. The concentration of economic power in the hands of a few must be actively and aggressively challenged, from below and from above. Every citizen has the right to a share of the wealth their work produces. The tools to achieve this vision are social movement mobilization, public investment, social provision, macroeconomic policy and democratic participation.
The Reagan era was a direct assault on this basic foundational creed. It replaced it with cultural nationalism and atomized individualism. Of the mainstream candidates for the Democratic nomination, only John Edwards is framing his campaign as a direct and straight-forward counter-attack. Not everyone who supports Edwards does so because they agree with him, just as Reagan benefited from Carter-era foreign policy disasters and an uncanny personal charisma. In the end, however, because Reagan was clear and honest about what he was about, he was able to claim a mandate for his worldview.
Contesting The Terrain
John Edwards is the anti-Ronald Reagan.
And that, more than anything else, is what this country needs right now. We don’t need a truce. We don’t need to reach across the aisle to find what we have in common. The Reagan revolution built a coalition that re-entrenched corporate power by convincing people that it was in their own interests. Edwards is out to convince people that it is in their interests to confront, and, at least partially dismantle it. By running on that narrative, he sets himself up to actually accomplish this difficult task. Like Reagan (or Roosevelt) this mandate will shift the terrain for years to come. That’s huge. It’s worth supporting.
Does this mean that, on some larger theoretical level, I believe that class trumps race or gender? Not on your life. Politically, however, I believe strongly that it is on questions of how our economy should be structured that we have lost the most ground over the past generation. It is in the field of economic power that world-wide the Left has sacrificed most fundamentally. I don’t think I need to remind any reader of how these sacrifices have impacted the prospects of freedom for women and people of color. It was not under the rhetorical mantle of white supremacy that the people of New Orleans were sacrificed. It was on the altar of small government.
It is on this point that the Edwards campaign is so amazingly exciting. There are those, particularly in the traditional bastions of the labor movement, who believe that progressive politics is a zero-sum game. They lament the increased commitment by the Democratic Party to protect a woman’s right to chose, or to defend Affirmative Action or advance LGBT rights as the necessary corollary to the party’s retreat on economic justice. Edwards is as staunchly pro-choice, more vocally anti-racist and at least as strong on gay rights as his major opponents. We do not need to sacrifice one part of the coalition to bolster another. Indeed, our destinies are intertwined. Obama has gorgeous things to say about these connections, but Edwards’ campaign crystallizes it into a political program. Program matters, which is why Jesse Jackson (an Obama endorser) infamously stated that Edwards was the only candidate who isn’t ignoring the plight of black America.
Why Not Obama?
I would challenge anyone to find a person in the United States with more of a personal stake in Barack Obama’s political success than I have. Growing up, despite pop culture propaganda to the contrary, I never believed that anyone like me could run for and win the Presidency. And yet, here’s another bi-racial, well-educated guy with a white Midwestern mother and a black immigrant father, born after the baby boom, who is out there doing it for real. I don’t mean to flatter myself with the comparison: from the moment I first met Obama, in college, I have been in awe of his character, demeanor and skill. He is on a short list of my heroes. My point is simply that I would never have imagined that anyone I could actually relate to on a personal level would be in the running for President. People like us just don’t make it that far. So, it’s gut-wrenchingly uncomfortable to find myself supporting someone else. It’s just not in my nature to vote for the man. I vote for the campaign.
Obama is running to win the Presidency by appealing to a deeply held belief that there are “better angels” in all of us, and that the right kind of leadership can unlock them. If Edwards is the anti-Reagan, Obama is the black Kennedy. Don’t believe anyone who argues that Obama is in any way naïve in his approach. He knows exactly what he is doing.
In an interesting and thoughtful piece for the American Prospect, Mark Schmitt made the most compelling case for Obama’s transcendental politics I have read to date. He concedes that Edwards is right that politics is an adversarial art, but asserts that
“…perhaps we are being too literal in believing that "hope" and bipartisanship are things that Obama naively believes are present and possible, when in fact they are a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure. Claiming the mantle of bipartisanship and national unity, and defining the problem to be solved (e.g. universal health care) puts one in a position of strength, and Republicans would defect from that position at their own risk.”
All of that is profoundly true. The Obama feint is an artful dodge that takes the moral high ground and is winning the hearts and minds of millions across the country, even without the Oprah bonus. Others, of course, are worried that Obama is another Bill Clinton, using a “pox on both houses” argument about the hard Right and the “hard” Left to steer a path that wins some battles but forfeits the war. Markos Moulitsas has had nary a kind word to say about “Obama (who) has made a cottage industry out of attacking the dirty fucking hippies on the left, from labor unions, to Paul Krugman, to Gore and Kerry, to social security, and so on.”
There is reason for such a worry. Obama’s recent attack on Edwards for enjoying the support of “special interests” because of an SEIU-led independent campaign focusing on health care was patently disgusting. He has made privatization noises regarding social security and other public benefits, and has cast some bad votes in favor of corporate interests (but Edwards isn’t perfect here, either). Most problematic, however, is Obama’s arguments that the Left goes “too far” on a range of issues, and that the fights of the 1960’s and their re-emergence in the 1990’s are stale or outdated. That plays well with middle class voters and people too young to remember politics before Ronald Reagan, but it’s hardly transformational.
The most important thing for me, therefore, is that Obama’s master narrative is just weak and uncompelling in comparison with Edwards’. Kennedy’s new frontier was exciting because it existed in the context of a muscular New Dealism. Public provision, union rights and an interventionist macro economic policy were givens. They aren’t anymore. Before we can talk about going to the moon or uniting around common purpose or moving beyond partisan gridlock, we need to move the debate away from the anti-government, market-dominated war of all against all that currently holds sway. Obama may want that in his heart of hearts, but Edwards is running on it.
What sort of mandate will President Obama have? It will be one that emphasizes innovation even where the old answers are the right ones. It will be one that assuages but does not challenge. It will be one that closes books instead of rewriting scripts. It will not be one that corrects the right-wing triumph of the post-New Deal era. It will not be held as an ideological shift in our favor. And that’s what we need. A groundswell. A paradigm shift. A mandate. We need John Edwards.
Etiketter: Presidential Politics