In the aftermath of Senator Barack Obama’s capitulation to the Bush Administration’s new FISA bill and in the face of continuing evidence that Obama is more of a triangulating than transformative politician, many of his “progressive” defenders are doing their own triangulating tango in order to remain loyal followers. More than mere loyal legions, a number of these progressive pundits remain active advocates for the Obama campaign. In the process, they have articulated arguments that cry out for rebuttal, especially from those of us who still have some glimmer of a hope that real, if not radical, change is possible in the near future.
Among the most crude rationalizations for Obama’s recent political posturing is BuzzFlash’s P.M. Carpenter. Writing from the implicit perspective that the “ends justify the means,” Carpenter insists that electoral reality requires any candidate to first get elected. From this simple-minded proposition, Carpenter makes an incredible leap to asserting that “Barack Obama…could go goose-stepping down Constitution Avenue while whistling “White House uber Alles” – if that’s what it takes to secure even one more purple-state vote.” Since his vote to eviscerate the 4th Amendment in the Bush FISA bill, Obama may have certainly helped some goose-step over the Constitution itself.
Beyond Carpenter’s gross instrumentalism, we find the more subtle, but no less questionable, opinions of Norman Solomon. In a piece published recently on CommonDreams called “Obama and the Progressive Base,” Solomon correctly identifies Obama as a centrist chameleon. Urging that the “best way to avoid being disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place,” he, nonetheless, postulates a number of fundamental illusions about the Obama candidacy. Maintaining that progressives “can help the Obama for President effort where we hold him to his good positions and move to buck him up when he wavers,” Solomon completely neglects the massive and failing effort to get Obama to hold to his original intention to support Feingold and others in protecting against any further erosion of habeas corpus in the FISA legislation. When Solomon isn’t overlooking grassroot attempts to pull Obama in a progressive direction, he creates a mythical progressive movement attached to and valued by the Obama campaign. Talk about illusions!
On the other hand, there were a number of us (Dave Lindorf, Dan LaBotz, myself, and others) who did argue, and may still believe with Solomon, that “putting Obama in the White House would not by any means ensure progressive change, but under his presidency the grassroots would have an opportunity to create it.” I now have profound doubts that what will emerge from an Obama presidency, which I believe has become more problematic because of his triangulations, is any social space to create progressive change. While I would not foreclose the possibility of the coalescing of new social movements, especially given what followed from FDR’s timid 1932 campaign and JFK’s mach cold war run in 1960, I think all of us must confront certain other illusions about change in this historical era and this political culture.
One of the most far-reaching critiques of our political situation is found in Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. The authors contend that the “modern state…has come to need weak citizenship. It depends more and more on maintaining an impoverished and hygienized public realm, in which only the ghosts of an older more idiosyncratic civil society live on” (21). The fact that the electoral arena dominates this impoverished public realm during an election year only reinforces the desperate activities of weak citizens. Touting the invigorated role of young people and African-Americans (maybe less invigorated now as a consequence of disillusionment with Obama) assumes that their electoral mobilization will easily translate into on-going movements for social change. Given the difficulty of translating any mobilization into a dedicated movement, investing hopes in any electoral campaign, let alone one with the deficiencies of the Obama candidacy, seems extremely illusory.
Some time ago the historian Gabriel Kolko posited the persistence in US political culture of what he called “mechanistic optimism,” a belief that things would always change for the better. Hence, invoking “change we can believe in,” becomes an empty slogan for the perpetuation of that mechanistic optimism. Perhaps, we need to assert a more realistic pessimism of the intelligence, particularly in the face of the end of US hegemony and increasing environmental catastrophe. While not wanting to perpetuate the worst instincts of the reactionary ravages of the right, perfectly still embodied, if not embalmed, in the candidacy of John McCain, we can certainly agree with Robert Savio, founder of the left Inter Press Service, when he claims that he doubts whether “as President Barack Obama would be able to motivate the formation of an opposition as vast” as that unleashed by George W. Bush. Such an argument should not be seen, however, as an endorsement of putting McCain in the White House. It should, however, be kept in mind when assessing the fulcrum of fundamental change in our world, both local and global.
If fundamental change can no longer emanate from within the US, it does not follow that there are no opportunities to provide some relief for those suffering from the worst predations of the Bush years and the continuing, if even more desperate, policies of neo-conservatism. Perhaps Obama in the White House will be more than a color cover-up for the perpetuation of empire and the failed Beltway politics of the past or the revised politics of neo-liberalism. Yet, there is no evidence that Obama, his entourage, or his loyal legions are the repository of real change, or even “change that we can believe in.”
The sooner we confront the pervasive failings of electoralism and our present predicaments, the better positioned we may be to aid in the transformative politics we see beyond our borders, both mental and physical.
FRAN SHOR teaches in the History Department at Wayne State University. He is an activist with numerous groups for peace and social justice.