Obama and the Prospects for a Renewal of the Left

If Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, and goes on to win the presidency, and the Democrats hold onto (and probably gain seats) in the House and Senate, it will be the first time in 16 years that the Democrats hold the White House and both houses of congress. To better understand what will be necessary to make ‘change’ a reality, it is worth briefly looking back to that earlier period. There are some striking parallels.

Clinton came to power in good part because of a recession; now, as well, the economy appears to be in trouble. Then too, the US was locked into a war-like posture towards Iraq, after a ‘mission accomplished’ attack several years earlier. But the disparities are also striking. There is a widespread feeling that we may now be entering something that is not simply a standard recession. No longer implementing sanctions that could be ignored by the American public, the US is now in a quagmire of an occupation of Iraq. Clinton came to power by in part by appealing to racism, Obama has little choice but to appeal to the electorate’s better instincts.

And long term trends are also striking. Clinton entered office when the US was riding high on the a wave of popularity after the demise of the Soviet Union; if he wins, Obama will take power with the US at a low. Class inequality has widened in the US to such an extent that alarm and handwringing over this are common even in the mainstream media. And global neoliberalism, nearing its peak in 1992, is a spent force in 2008. In 1992 the labor movement was just starting to stir from its slumber, still led by conservatives. Without glorifying them too much, both John Sweeney and Andy Stern have come to power as a result of a deeply felt need in the labor movement for change.The antiwar movement (awake during the 80s when it was in solidarity with Central American revolutionaries) was moribund by the time Clinton entered office; although it is not in great shape today, it is recognizably livelier. Last, and certainly not least, while Clinton was the safe candidate of choice of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Obama campaign has turned into a movement. It has generated remarkable support among students in particular, bringing new people into politics. Clinton expended considerable political capital (already compromised by his support for NAFTA) on the unsuccessful health care battle; soon after the Republicans won the congress back and Clinton retreated to basically supporting a Republican agenda. Given all the differences noted above, there is some prospect for a different outcome this time.

Many writing on the left have attempted to assess Obama in terms of his political record. This is not altogether without value, but I think it is more useful to consider who he is likely to bring into a coalition of support. Before this campaign started, it was fairly clear that he made his home among highly educated, relatively wealthy liberals for whom economic populist ideas don’t typically resonate. This crowd is alarmed by George W. Bush’s fiscal irresponsibility and his undermining of US status in the world through reckless interventions. On the latter issue they want more diplomacy but are by no means anti-imperialist, much like Obama himself (Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, represents a certain type of traditional establishment Democratic hawk, only belatedly discovering that the constituency for this position in the Democratic party is vanishing). Had he not won votes beyond this constituency, he would have faded like Gary Hart or Howard Dean. Instead, he won the overwhelming majority of African American votes in South Carolina (not something everyone took for granted before his campaign began), and has since made incursions into the white working class and Latinos. If he wins the nomination, these constituencies are likely to embrace his candidacy, and his movement will swell. In contrast to Dean, he is an inspirational politician–and by inspirational, we mean that he borrows phrases (‘Yes, we can’) and cadences from the civil rights movement and other struggles. This has made him a far more potent politican, with a larger coalition behind him, than Howard Dean or Gary Hart could ever imagine.

The key issue is what kind of change Obama and his movement will try to make. Although the candidate has been vague, so far it appears that he is appealing to two rather implausible types of ‘change’. Many of his working class supporters hope a reversal of NAFTA might bring their manufacturing jobs back. It is a little late to lock the barn door on that front. Simply writing in protection of labor rights into NAFTA or new trade agreements won’t begin to create the kind of integrated production complex that has made China so competitive. On the other hand many of his middle class supporters hope a wiser and more fiscally prudent approach can restore US standing in the world, and the fresh start he represents might help spring the economy out of its doldrums and bring back the good old days when they could count on 10% annual returns on either their stocks or real estate. Until very recently, a sizable chunk of the population (perhaps 20%) was doing well with their investments (and much of the ‘netroots’ is drawn from this class). This helps explain why populism of the ‘only 1% is doing well’ sort has not found a national electoral constituency. But their well being depended on a steady inflow of foreign capital to the US, and the conditions for that are deteriorating. It isn’t obvious what president Obama could do to change that.

Obama will be faced with a working class and middle class with not particularly dishonorable ideals (securing a decent livelihood for themselves and their families) but unrealistic ideas about how to do so (the return of manufacturing jobs, the return of good investment returns).

The most plausible way to achieve the goals would be to take steps that dramatically break with the policies of the last twenty five years–rather direct efforts to both unleash the wealth that has been clotted up at the top 1% for the general betterment of society (tax wealth, as well as income, for starters), and improvements of those at the lowest end through sharp increases in the minimum wage and public spending. A renewed discussion of the US role in the world, what size military we need, and how much of the economy we wish to pour into the military industrial complex will also be needed. This is far more than Obama anticipates doing, but events in the next four years may overtake the moderate, partial measures he has staked out. As noted above, 2008 is not 1992. A real movement would be needed to push him farther to the left in the course of such a crisis, and to push back the opposition that would undoubtedly be unleashed.

To overcome that opposition, we would require a more organized and unified working class. The working class is presently deeply divided. One division is between organized and unorganized workers. The Democrats have promised to pass EFCA, which should help to expand union membership (it makes ‘card check off’ organizing campaigns possible), particularly if the unions come up with good reasons for people to join them. A second division is along racial lines within the working class. This is not simply because of prejudiced views, although there is plenty of that. It is also because working class blacks, latinos and whites are differentially integrated into labor markets and the political system. Blacks in inner cities are to a large extent excluded from the private labor market, and face prison in staggering numbers for minor offenses. Another large chunk of the working class consists of people who are not US citizens (mostly Latino), and have been increasingly criminalized, particularly since 1996. They work for extremely low wages and have consumption patterns that bear little resemblance to those of most Americans. Whites face an easier legal environment (although they work in fiercely anti-union conditions, and are among the most oversupervised workers in the world), and greater prospects of entering the middle class through marriage. Finally, even the most liberal sections of the predominantly white middle class (the people who turned out in large numbers for anti-war protests, for example) continue to be largely indifferent to the political and economic challenges faced by the working class, and uneasy about developing coalitions with Blacks and Latinos.

If the left can shape a narrative in which the interests of these groups come to seem dependent on the advancement of one another, the prospects for progressive change over the next fifteen to twenty years will be immensely strengthened. One avenue to explore might be a more expansive sense of civil liberties than those which currently interest the white liberal/left–i.e. curtailment of the executive branch, alarm at the embrace of torture by the Bush administration, and fear of the growing incursions on civil liberties more generally among peaceful protesters. An expanded notion might include de-incarceration for non-violent offenses, decriminalization of immigration regulation (and an easy path to citizenship), and expanded union rights (including collective bargaining for public employees where that is not presently allowed, and the revocation of Taft Hartley). An economic plan involving remaking our urban spaces through public transport and public space, and technologically upgrading our rural areas (all funded through taxes on wealth and reductions in the military budget) might also be a start.

The question is whether the left can transform itself from a grouping of ideas into a movement that can meaningfully intervene in the emergent political environment, likely to be one of heightened class struggle and nationalist frustration.

Obama’s candidacy has demonstrated that fairly well-to-do liberals can come together with African Americans around the mantra of ‘change’. If he is elected, the challenge of the left will be to broaden that alliance, and deepen it so that change might become a reality.

STEVEN SHERMAN can be reached at threehegemons at hotmail.com. He maintains the website lefteyeonbooks.org.