Don’t Apologize for Democrats

For the new year, let’s resolve: Don’t defend Democrats when they don’t deserve defending. And that certainly includes President Obama.

Let’s further resolve: Put principles above party and never lose our voice on human rights and social justice.

When we mute ourselves as a Democratic president pursues corporatist or militarist policies, we only encourage such policies.

If it was wrong for Bush to bail out Wall Street with virtually no controls, then it’s wrong for Obama.  If indefinite “preventative detention” was wrong under Bush, then it’s wrong under Obam.  If military occupation and deepening troop deployments were wrong under Bush, then they’re wrong under Obama.

Imagine if McCain had defeated Obama in 2008 and soon tripled the number of U.S.  troops in Afghanistan.  I have little doubt that activists would have
mobilized major opposition, denouncing the reality of more U.S. soldiers in
Afghanistan and Iraq combined than even Bush had deployed.

But as Obama goes about tripling the troops in Afghanistan, with more U.S.
soldiers in war zones that Bush ever had – and proposes the biggest military
budget in world history – many activists have lost their voices.

When Obama’s West Point speech on Afghanistan paid lip service to benchmarks and a timeline (as even Bush learned to do on Iraq), how did the once independent MoveOn react?  Its leaders sent out a muted petition urging – benchmarks and a timeline.  The email might as well have been written by Rahm Emanuel in the West Wing.

Taking cues from the Obama White House, liberal groups went quiet on Wall Street bailouts and bonuses – thus helping rightwing teabaggers and corporate-fronts to pose as populist saviors of the middle class.

By going soft on the White House or Democratic Congressional leaders, most netroots groups have undermined genuine progressives in Congress – on issues from Iraq and Afghanistan to Wall Street and healthcare.

Instead of launching their healthcare reform efforts behind an easily-explained, cost-effective “Enhanced Medicare for All” bill co-sponsored by dozens of progressive Congress members, netroots leaders meekly made a “public option” their starting demand and pretended not to notice when Rahm Emanuel began signaling last spring that the White House had no intention of pushing for it.

Predictably, we’ve ended up with corporate-enrichment legislation that forcibly delivers tens of millions of customers to big insurers and big pharma – with almost no cost controls because of private deals cut in the White House.  In the New York Times before Christmas, beneath an accurate header “Corporate Glee,” a news article asserted:  “The insurance companies were probably among the merriest of industries last week . . . But the drug companies were certainly joyful, too.”  Insurance stocks are soaring on Wall Street.

It’s tragically ironic that netroots forces joined Democratic leaders in killing Medicare for All as an unrealistic starting demand and now are belatedly urging “kill the bill.”

I’m old enough to remember that when Democrats are in majority power – controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue – they are capable of horrific policies.  With Lyndon Johnson in the White House, most Democrats in
Congress went along with Vietnam escalation.  And with President Clinton,
some leading Congressional Democrats joined mostly Republicans in backing the anti-worker, anti-environmental NAFTA.

The good news – during the eras of Vietnam and NAFTA – is that large numbers of progressive activists stood fast to their principles and vocally opposed those wrong-headed Democratic policies.  They didn’t follow Democratic leaders over the cliff or pretend that Democratic presidents are automatically “on our side” or well-intentioned.

And back then we lacked the most awesome tool ever invented for independent grassroots mobilization: the Internet.

The Net has helped unleash a golden age for independent media – and for journalists unafraid to challenge leaders of both parties: folks like Glenn
Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Arianna Huffington, Matt Taibbi and Amy Goodman, to name a few.

Thanks to the Internet and independent media, progressive activists are more fully and more quickly informed about national and global issues than ever. Yet many activists are poorly represented by national netroots groups that often function as appendages of the Democratic leadership.

While independent progressive media are booming on the Internet, the largest netroots political-action groups are sorely lacking in independence.

Be it resolved: In 2010, we will not apologize for indefensible Democratic policies, and we will no longer support netroots groups that fail to resist such policies.

JEFF COHEN is an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. He can be reached through his website.



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Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.

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