With the sight of Jessie Jackson weeping in Grant Park Tuesday night (can’t a brother get a Backstage Pass?), as Barack Obama gave his first speech as President-elect, we witnessed the proverbial generational baton being passed for the progressive movement in the United States. Obama’s victorious campaign delineates a break with the political and social movements of the previous generation because although Obama rhetorically embraced the versions of the civil rights, labor, anti-war, LGBT and environmental movements that emerged from the 1960’s his campaign was primarily based on a liberal candidate, that happened to be mixed race, as opposed to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition approach to change that had at its center an African-American Civil Rights leader in alliance with the progressive movements of the day.
In Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency merit and the American Dream were front and center, not an oppositional identity that was fighting for justice. This shift from a collective of identity/grievance/class to individualism and merit represents both promise and pitfalls for the left. For liberals it is in many ways the culmination of the American and French revolutions; all men truly equal before the law with equal opportunity. For those left of the liberals, class and social movements have always been the vehicle that pushed the liberal revolution from a system of liberty to a system of equality and justice. Working within the system they allied with labor or civil rights activists and tried to expose liberalism for what it is; an economic system of exploitation and a political system that gives the wealthy more access to the levers of power by design. This becomes more difficult when the leader of the system is an “oppressed” minority.
This moment is akin to the collapse of Stalinism when democratic leftists were freed from the ties to “actually existing socialism”. It allowed a new model to be created but it also left a void of an existing model. With Obama’s presidency leftists lose their critique of the liberal facade of equal opportunity but they also can now openly claim that liberalism is not enough. The moment creates an moment then for those of us who want more than public schools, a progressive income tax and a water utility owned by the city.
In this day after the election Obama has already put forward the name of Rahm Emmanuel as his Chief of Staff and floated Paul Volcker and Lawrence Summers as key economic advisors. To say these are cautious steps and is an understatement. Emmanuel’s major accomplishments are helping pass welfare reform and NAFTA for the Clinton’s: Volcker’s, the shock therapy of the early 1980’s depression that helped destroy the industrial base of the upper Midwest and Summers a past World Bank President who once argued for the facility of dumping toxic waste in poor countries to maximize their comparative advantage. This cast of rogues is a harbinger of the extremely modest liberal platform of the new President.
If the left is to be at all relevant, a clear message must be agreed upon and stuck to. Universal health-care, pensions and union organizing are three that are winners and within the realm of accomplishment but will need to be fought for given the cautious centrism of the new President. Beyond this, a democratically controlled economy-socialism, building social movements are the proven tonic. And given that capitalism is in true crisis at this moment, and both US political parties have come up with no answer except for throwing money at banks, the left’s opportunity is now more than at any time in the last 40 years.