Primary Lessons

The Congressional Black Caucus’ Chairman Congressman Emanuel Cleaver called the “debt-ceiling” deal a “sugar-coated Satan Sandwich.” Effectively the deal allows for $2.4 trillion in spending cuts, and $0 in new revenues via taxation of the wealthy and the corporations. An increasingly angry Paul Krugman calls the deal a “surrender” which “will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.” The Tea Party can crow that it has changed the nature of the debate. It made President Obama settle for an “agreement” made with obduracy. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and the guard (Obama) willingly speaks to them in their language.

On July 30, while this “agreement” was being discussed, the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party (CDP) passed a resolution in support of a primary challenge to Obama. The meeting of the Executive Board of the CDP took place in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland, and it was in one corner of that larger meeting that the Progressives took their stand. As far as I know, this is the first officialindication of a part of the Democratic Party calling for a primary challenge to Obama. Right after the vote, the same hall was to host an event by Organizing for America (OFA), the election arm of the Obama re-election campaign. It was a tense moment, as the OFA crowd and some members of the African American Caucus came to challenge the Progressives’ decision. One person who stood beside Assemblyman Mike Davis called the Progressives’ resolution “stupid.” A better word is brave.

Tension filled the room when Caucus Chair Karen Bernal read out the resolution. It included sharp criticism of Obama’s willingness to sell out the liberal agenda, including the “unilateral closed-door budget offer to slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, thus endangering the New Deal and War on Poverty safety nets,” and his “willingness to extend the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and bail out big banks withoutending the foreclosure crisis that displaces American working families.” Obama’s signature policy initiatives were not spared in the resolution, including the “health insurance bill that enriches private insurance companies while ignoring growing support for single-payer health care or robust public options.” Anger at the foreign policy of the Obama administration (including “illegal secret CIA drone attacks and unauthorized wars”) came alongside frustration at the continued assault on civil liberties (Patriot Act, FBI raids of anti-war progressives). The list goes on and on. No daylight separates these criticisms and those that are published at Counterpunch.

About seventy-five members of the Caucus were in the room. They came from a variety of social backgrounds, many of them veteran organizers in social struggles and in election campaigns. Most recognized that the social fabric for a progressive movement is simply not available. Atomized lives and the “privatization of the public sphere” has made social activism and mass struggle all the more difficult. A recent study in the American Sociological Review (“Unions, Norms and Wage Inequality,” 2011) looks at Current Population Survey data to find that increased wage inequality since 1973 can be explained statistically by the decline in union membership rates. In other words, one of the principal levers to fight against wage inequality, and so against the capture of power by the plutocrats is unionization. Candidate Obama supported the Employee FreeChoice Act (“I will make it the law of the land when I’m President of the United States,” he said in April 2008), but as President has offered only anemic verbal support for it. If Obama had fought for this one issue, and had he prevailed, he would have provided the social basis for the revitalization of a progressive movement in the United States. But he did not.

Instead, the Obama administration went the way of finance capital. The signal for this was his choice of a cabinet, with old scoundrels like Larry Summers at the helm. Obama threw himself into the camp of Money. That was clear in the bailouts of financial firms, and in the way that the administration poured tax-payer money into the housing market – not to provide a floor for those who had been bilked by the banks, but to help the banks stay afloat. There was no consideration given to an important bill from Representative John Conyers, HR 870 The Humphrey Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act, which would push a jobs agenda using taxes on financial transactions. The tax was to be at a 0.25% rate, and thebill hoped to raise $500 billion toward the creation of five million jobs. This is very modest, but even this did not find a champion in Obama. Taxes are the suppository for the constipation of finance capital. Obama was unwilling towrite this prescription.

In the Progressive Caucus there was unanimity in the critique, but some hesitation over the way ahead. A few people felt that the far right was dangerous, and it seemed unsafe to unhinge whatappeared to be Obama’s walkover in 2012. It is true that the Republican Party has largely given itself over to the hallucinations of greed, and that it incubates a hateful racist substratum that provides a populist disguise for the plutocracy’s advantages. It has been a long-standing ruse by the increasingly rightward leaning Democratic Party that it is the barrier between Reason and Unreason, the Lesser Evil. These arguments appeal to a large number of people, even if they are misleading. It is under cover of being the Lesser Evil that Bill Clinton battered down the doors of social democratic policies, and it is with this same ruse that Jimmy Carter pushed for a Middle East agenda that hastened the failure of peace in the region (the Carter Doctrine yoked US policy to Saudi Arabia, and the Egypt-Israel peace deal emboldened Israel into asymmetric adventures against the Palestinians and Lebanon). The rightward stroll over the cliff of Civilization is conducted at a jog by the Democrats and at a sprint by the Republicans – neither is willing or able to move in a different direction. The Obama administration is temperamentally more amenable to reasonable statements, but it is otherwise not so very different from the mainstream Republicans in its disdain for the social agenda of progressivism.

The bellicose racism of the Right brings many in the camp of liberalism to offer Obama an additional defense: one must rally around the first African American president of the United States. The virulent racism that manifested itself in the absurd questions about Obama’s place of birth and his loyalty are certainly omnipresent in the Right. The more moderate elements code their perilous views behind the wink and nudge of sophisticated xenophobia. Obama must certainly be defended against attacks to his person. But that defense does not extend to factual and serious criticisms of Obama’s policies. The protection of Obama should not mimic the bizarre line of argument that accuses all criticism of Israel as being motivated by anti-Semitism. There is room to both attack racism, and to question Obama’s record, just as one must combat anti-Semitism alongside a robust criticism of Israel’s record.

A week ago, Senator Bernie Sanders said of the current political mess, “Discouragement is not an option. I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.” In some circles there is hope that Sanders will put on the Democratic suit that he keeps in his office and do the honors with a primary challenge. Inklings ofhope lie in progressive Democratic circles that Russell Feingold might reach for the ring. The person who takes up the primary challenge is not as relevant as that there be a challenge in the first place. A primary challenge is an invitation to a dialogue. The Democratic Party is in dire need of such a debate, mired as it is in the false illusion that it is the standard bearer of progressivism when its own leadership has no problem casting aspersions at the “whiners” on the Left and has no problem crafting bills to please Money. Absent a dialogue within the party, the illusions will remain and such specious arguments of the Lesser Evil will manifest themselves over and over again.

The Democratic Party has moved far from even the modest social democracy of the 1930s, when it was held to its principles by a mass movement beating its drums up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. The squalid project of McCarthyism broke the tradition of mass protest that allowed the people to thrust themselves at their political class. It was left to the electoral process to indicate our preferences, and it was left to the establishment parties to select our leaders for whom we had to cast ourballot. Politics is claustrophobic. The tradition of mass protest for progressive values will not return easily. It has to be cultivated. The primary work for those in the United States should be to build alternative political structures. That’s over the long term.

The California Progressives have taken a strong stand for the immediate period. I hope that others in the Democratic Party will take a similar position and push their colleagues into a public political discussion on the future of progressivism in America. Come the day when progressives in the Party such as Raúl Grijalva and Keith Ellison, Bernie Sanders and Donna Edwards, Emanuel Cleaver and John Conyers, Barney Frank and Bobby Rush, Maxine Waters and Jose Serrano consider how best to fight against the lunatic Right and the neo-liberal Right, to articulate a clear path to a progressive future that is not hampered by the Democratic Party’s progressive mirage.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).