By Eli Zaretsky
To appreciate the historical importance of the election of Barack Obama in 2008, one has to understand how central slavery and racism are to American history. The belief that a black man can redeem America’s sins can be found in the spirituals, in other forms of American Christianity, in American communism, and in such works as W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. This idea was partly realized during the Civil Rights movement. Nothing can ever take away from the significance of electing the first African-American president.
At the same time one does have to recognize the disappointment felt by many of Obama’s 2008 supporters, the keys to which are historical. The Democratic presidents of the 1960s, such as J. F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, were the children of the New Deal. Similarly, the conservative Republicans who came to power in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan were opponents of the New Deal. Faced with a strong challenge from the right during the Seventies and Eighties, Democrats could have forthrightly defended progressive principles, albeit revised for changing times. After all, these principles had defeated fascism, created the modern middle class, ushered in forty years of prosperity and sparked the civil rights and feminist revolutions. However, the Democrats mounted no such defence.
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, first as head of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and then as president, they advocated and enacted a ‘third way’. This meant that they became pro-business, promising to shrink government, deregulate the economy, and attack ‘dependency’. Most importantly, they accepted the Republican idea that balancing the budget had to be at the centre of the national agenda, abandoning their earlier view of the budget as a tool of national planning. The result was an effective fund-raising and election-winning strategy, but one that had two disastrous consequences from the point of view of a national debate.
Firstly, Democratic politicians like Clinton marginalized the left in their party, even though the more progressive Democrats tended to be activists and advocates. The effect was a slow but steady descent into political banality as talk of ‘pragmatism’, ‘compromise’, and the conflict between ‘the good’ and ‘the perfect’, became Democratic commonplaces, and as Democratic politicians presented themselves as more ‘mature’ than their opponents. Secondly, by taking over so much of the conservative agenda, DLC Democrats opened a path for right-wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, who found themselves threatened by the blurring of political boundaries and insisted that their party adopt more and more extreme and uncompromising positions to define itself.
The result was that we never had a genuine argument between progressives and conservatives. Instead, the terms of the national debate shifted to one between an absorptive centre and an ever more extreme right. When Obama sought the Democratic party nomination in 2008 he signalled to rank-and-file Democrats that he understood the problems the Clinton strategy had caused. He argued, for example, that the problems the country faced did not begin with the George W. Bush presidency, but rather during the Clinton years and that what the country needed was not simply a change in policies but also a change in mindset. Such messages won Obama the support of the anti-war and anti-Clinton wing of the Democratic party, which he needed to gain the nomination. This strategy succeeded brilliantly. Obama won the third-largest electoral victory in the history of the Democratic party, provoking widespread expectations of a new progressive era, a ‘new New Deal’, a sea-change in the US role in the world – expectations that were augmented, not diverted, by the deepening economic crisis. At the very least, Obama’s election demonstrated that the DLC insistence (echoing the Republicans) that ours is essentially a conservative country, was untested, if not simply false.
Once he became president, however, Obama followed Clinton’s strategy in every particular. He ignored the Democratic party base and addressed himself to the far right in pursuit of a risible ‘bipartisanship’. The further right the Republicans moved, the further Obama followed them, knowing he would have no challenge from the left, and knowing that he would always be the embodiment of progressivism so long as the parameters of the national debate stretched from him rightward. Most importantly, he accepted the long-standing Republican mantra that cutting the deficit was an immediate national priority. Even more than Clinton, Obama took up a post-revolutionary rhetoric, supposedly leaving both the New Deal and the 1960s behind. In their place he offered an emphasis on expertise, evidence-based decision-making, ‘pragmatism’, and ‘maturity’.
In effect, the new Democrats ceded the moral high ground to the Republicans. The result was a crisis, with a two-fold character: of structure and of identity.
Structurally, since the Seventies the United States has turned into a two-tier society. About one third of the society lives in a completely different way than the other two thirds: private schools and private healthcare, full-time employment with benefits, gated communities and security guards, in contrast to the precarious employment and degraded services available to the rest. This no longer works economically for reasons that Keynes identified long ago, such as the need for effective demand, and the increasing obsolescence of the rentier class.
Inseparable from the economic crisis is the political crisis, reflected in a dysfunctional and unrealistic view of the world as ‘dangerous’, requiring a continual military alert. The United States has now missed three historic opportunities to move toward the horizons first opened up by the victory over fascism in 1945, and then sidelined by the Cold War: 1989, 2001 and 2008. After the fall of communism in 1989, the Clinton administration encouraged a shallow theory of globalization, equated with Americanization and consumer culture. After 11 September, 2001, the US launched the invasions of first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Obama was elected to correct for Bush’s disastrous misstep, but failed to change a worldview based on fear and military power, and in some ways worsened the disregard for civil liberties. Nor has he acted on the epochal social and cultural opportunities opening up in Asia, Africa and the global South.
What role has the American left played in this history? The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations that began in September 2011 demonstrated both the left’s strength and weaknesses. On the one hand, they transformed public discourse by resurrecting buried questions of class and of social and economic inequality, as epitomized by the brilliant figure of the ninety-nine per cent vs the one per cent. After the demonstrations, President Obama slowly but decisively changed his rhetoric to address the problem of inequality. It was only then that he proposed a jobs programme. This shift, which followed the lead of OWS, put him in a strong electoral position before the first debate. On the other hand, the activist core of Occupy Wall Street consists of young people with little knowledge of America’s radical political traditions. Of those who hold to any ideology, the majority are anarchists who fear leadership and organization in their own ranks, even more than they fear corporate power or the state. No wonder, then, that the movement is currently shaky at best.
Nevertheless, along with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, Romney’s choice of a hardline Tea Party ideologue as his running mate has made this election into a real choice. Romney’s extraordinary description of forty-seven per cent of the American people as dependent takers and parasites had a very deep and emotional effect. What had been a seemingly technical econometric argument over budgets and deficits was transformed into a question of the solidarity of the American people, and respect for one another as human beings. In addition, the demographic changes in the country – the growth in the Hispanic and Asian-American populations, the rise in women working outside the home, the emancipation of gays and lesbians – have given the Democratic party a huge advantage. A victory for the Democrats in this election would be a great victory for progressive forces everywhere in the world, but there is no reason to think that Obama will act to realize its promise. That is why we will need an independent left – to give a long-term meaning to what otherwise will appear as a merely personal victory.
Eli Zaretsky is the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument