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Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?

Photograph Source: D.C.Atty – CC By 2.0

Kamala Harris is out. This makes me almost sad; she was a snarky debater and, for a “moderate,” she wasn’t all that bad. Perhaps her managers ought to have stressed that point: “Better Than Booker” would have been a fine slogan for her to run on. Now, with Harris gone, it falls to that dreadful Obama wannabe to take the lead in keeping talk of “reviving the Obama coalition” on the front burner.

“Better Than Biden” would have been an apt slogan for her too, despite the plain fact that the message it conveys goes without saying. It is glaringly obvious, except perhaps to those older African Americans who are still keeping that doofus’s poll numbers up.

“Better Than Buttigieg” would have also been apt; and it too hardly needs saying, except, it seems, in Iowa, where, as we know from “The Music Man,” people are stubborn and strange. Will Mayor Pete, the Boy Wonder, now become the Great Moderate Hope? Corporate media are hard at work trying to make that the case. Better him than Booker or Biden, but he too doesn’t do the job nearly as much justice as Harris would have.

Not that there is all that much that could be said in her favor beyond pointing out the obvious: that her rivals are even worse. There might have been, had she not positioned herself as a moderate. Had she stuck by Medicare for All and pandered less blatantly to “the donor class” and to AIPAC, there would be more to regret in her departure from the race, but there would still be no reason to support her candidacy. She is, after all, more suited to lead the FBI than to preside over the nation’s destiny.

In this election cycle, there is always reason to cheer when a moderate hits the dust. Still, in Harris’s case, it is a little sad – not so much because of the blow to prevailing notions of “diversity,” and certainly not because her efforts to revive the Obama coalition serve some worthwhile purpose, but because she was among the very best of a sorry lot.

The herd they comprise needs culling – not immediately, though fairly soon – leaving supporters of the only candidates worth being taken seriously, Sanders and Warren, to settle the matter among themselves. Spoiler alert: Sanders is the right choice, but either one would do.

Moderates with worthwhile things to say – Tulsi Gabbard, for example, and Andrew Yang – have had a hell of a time getting their voices heard, but they have always been non-starters, and that is not about to change. Julian Castro has had a hard time too; I regret this most of all because it would be a delight to have a Castro in the White House. But he too never made it onto the A-list.

The A-list candidates, the ones the “liberal” cable networks are pleased to promote, are, at best, unnecessary distractions from the work of reconstruction that needs to be done if the Democratic Party is ever to become more than a lesser evil; at worst, they are lackluster Trojan Horses for the forces behind the status quo.

Harris was better than the others — but only in degree, not in kind. On the merits, she should have been among the last, not among the first, to go.

***

The 2020 presidential election season began within days of the conclusion of the 2018 midterms, sucking up political energy that could have been put to better use.

Even so, thanks to Sanders and Warren there was some real politics mixed in with the corporate media’s horserace reporting, and with their efforts to make the electoral circus entertaining.

Nothing, however, could compensate for the unrelenting inanity of the fare on MSNBC and CNN and in the ostensibly liberal press. The Cold War revivalism they promote is shameless; so, with a few exceptions, is their indifference to global warming and inequality.

Nevertheless, they are all models of intellectual probity and journalistic excellence compared to Fox News and the like. Those fixtures of America’s far Right propaganda system function not so much to persuade as to misinform and dumb down. They also demoralize those who pay attention to their nonsense, and who still have the brains and the goodness they were born with.

By now, though, we are almost at a point when, in less insane political circumstances, focusing on potential nominees would actually start making sense.

Because Donald Trump has turned the GOP into a Trump cult, full of base and servile buffoons, he is bound to be its standard-bearer. There is therefore not much to discuss on the Republican side – unless, of course, Trump is impeached and removed from office first, or unless, as I hope, his diet and his sedentary lifestyle do him in.

On the other hand, the contest for the Democratic nomination offers plenty of material for the 24/7 cable channels to mull over. This will likely continue into the Spring and beyond.

Because defeating Trump is the main and sometimes the only thing that Democratic candidates and their media flacks talk about, accounts of the merits and shortcomings of their several contenders flow into another more momentous discussion: about how much sensible people should now be worried that Democrats will once again blow a sure thing.

We won’t really know until the election actually happens, and the results become known, but, as events proceed, we should soon be able to gain a better handle on that question.

As of now, there are basically two schools of thought: there are those who think that ineptitude could well cause Democrats to lose again, and there are those who think that, with the public having endured more than three years of his presidency, his sheer awfulness is so widely appreciated that even Democrats cannot fail.

As proponents of these views contend with one another, there is a debate ahead that people ought also to be thinking about now; it concerns the likelihood that Trump will leave office voluntarily, even if he is not impeached, but instead loses the next election fair and square.

It is unlikely that he would launch a coup d’état, but this is not out of the question. It is more likely that he will encourage his diehard supporters to create all the mayhem they can muster. He certainly has it in him to do that. One of the few things Trump is good at is breaking norms. Why not the ones that govern peaceful transitions of power?

Democrats seeking their party’s nomination ought to be asked about that; voters should be apprised of what they think and of what they would commit to do should a need to do something arise.

They should also be asked about what they plan do to hold Trump and his minions legally accountable for the actionable crimes they have committed. In the long run, not holding them accountable would be nearly as harmful as electing Trump again.

These issues are interrelated. If Democrats win by a landslide, Trump will be less likely to try to hold onto power by any means necessary; he will be more likely to do precisely that if Democrats merely squeak by, either in the popular vote or the Electoral College.

And, of course, if Democrats somehow manage to lose again, it will be time either to abandon all hope or else to set aside all the kinder-gentler jibber-jabber about “resistance,” and to start organizing the real thing.

***

Could the election really be Trump’s to lose?

Most people who think so realize that his presidency is a sick joke that would not survive for a minute in a more democratic political system; one that, for example, upheld the principle of majority rule or that had easier ways than the one now being pursued in Congress to reverse mistakes as grave as the one voters made in 2016.

However, they also know that, thanks to the Electoral College and the way that likely Republican and Democratic voters are distributed across the fifty states, that Trump could win the 2020 election even if the Democrat he runs against gets many more votes than he. The number five million has been mentioned. In 2016, Trump won by losing the popular vote by barely more than half that amount.

Somehow, this possibility doesn’t cause Democrats and “independents” to wonder why “Putin” would want to interfere with our elections the way that the United States interferes with elections in Russia and other former Soviet republics, and indeed all over the world.

If his reason is, as the talking heads on TV and the scribblers in the quality press tell us, to “undermine” our democracy, an obvious question is: “what democracy?”

Our political institutions are not especially democratic, even compared to those of most other developed capitalist countries nowadays. What we have are generally robust liberal institutional arrangements and periodic elections that are more or less free and fair – for Democrats and Republicans, but not for upstarts seeking to bypass what amounts to a semi established duopoly party system. There is not much else that would make a real democrat proud.

We do, however, have plenty of powerful economic and political forces that degrade our liberal institutions and that neuter what little democracy we have. This has been going on for a long time — since long before Trump came onto the scene. In this as in nearly everything else, Trump doesn’t break new ground; he just makes everything worse.

Therefore, even if there are forces of darkness out there that really do want to undermine American democracy, they hardly need the demonic “Putin’s” help. We Americans are doing a fine job on our own, making things worse in ways that he could only dream of.

Needless to say, Vladimir Putin, the man, is no friend of liberalism or democracy. He, and others like him, are authoritarians. Authoritarian politicians have lately become a scourge all over the world.

Trump is an authoritarian too. But Putin is what Trump is not: capable, intelligent, and well-informed. Trump’s authoritarian inclinations serve a base and vulgar nationalistic agenda. Putin, for all his faults, is a political realist eager to defend Russia’s national interests. Thus, even if only for prudential reasons, he is generally cognizant of the importance of abiding by international law and internationally accepted norms. Nobody could ever accuse Trump of that.

Also, as Cold War revivalists seem to forget, any semblance of a clash of political economic systems ended more than a quarter of a century ago. The clash now is between rival capitalisms, and it is hardly an equal fight; Russia’s GDP is roughly the size of Italy’s.

Nevertheless, unlike other capitalist countries, Russia, under Putin’s rule, resists American dominance. Perhaps it resists too much for its own good. But there is no reason in principle why, as it were, we can’t all get along; there is certainly no ideological reason. Putin, the man, surely understand this.

But, of course, Putin, the man, is not the issue. I have written his name in scare quotes to underscore this point; to indicate that the reference is not to the man, but to the Russian state or rather to a view of that state that the pillars of our political class and of our military-industrial-national security state complex are hellbent on promoting.

Their eagerness stems from the fact that they would very much like to have that state for an enemy again, now that the never-ending Bush-Obama wars on the Muslim world aren’t cutting it anymore. The Soviet Union was a credible and worthy adversary; our political elites want nothing less for the USA now.

And, in addition to their very dangerous bellicosity, they also want efforts to extend or deepen what little democracy we have nipped in the bud.

They hate Trump, except for the ones that think they can get something out of his presidency, but they are content with Trump-style minority rule. For them, Russian or, if they are Republicans, Ukrainian interference in American elections, even when inconsequential, is a far greater problem than the fact that Trump, like George W. Bush before him, lost the election that put him in office.

Currently, both Democrats and Republicans are promoting the idea that this could happen again in 2020 — the former to scare their base, the latter to secure theirs. Thus, whatever party leaders may actually believe, both parties adhere to the view that a Trumpian victory next year is eminently possible.

Within the larger public, this sense of things strikes a chord. Unlike in 2016, no one is writing Trump off for the obvious reason that he is unfit for the job. Inasmuch as hardly anyone, not even Trump himself, thought that he would win in 2016, everyone has become hyper-cautious about the election that lies ahead. No one wants to get burned again.

But common sense and faith in the human race are owed their due, and so there is that other school of thought which holds that just about anyone running against Trump next year on a major party line would defeat him handily.

We who think this way have too much respect for the American electorate to think that voters would make the same mistake again — especially now that no one has the excuse that Trump is a new kid on the block, a businessman no less, who is worth taking a chance on. For reasons that I find impossible to fathom, being a rich businessman is supposed to be a plus.

Now, unlike in 2016, he has had a chance. Anyone not willfully blind can see what he has made of it.

This is why I support the second school of thought. Along with nearly everyone else, I was wrong in 2016, for reasons that only became clear in retrospect. But that was then. We are living in a different world now.

Now, hyper-caution is at least as great a danger as not taking Trump seriously. It can lead otherwise sensible people to take a “moderate” turn – right back into the conditions that made Trump and Trumpism all but inevitable.

The difference is not just that the extent of Trump’s awfulness has become better understood by more people. It is also that the Democratic Party is no longer quite as hopeless as it used to be.

Since the 2018 midterm elections, a process of reconstruction has begun within its ranks. Moderates, working in tandem with the party’s leaders, could stifle it still, but seeds of change have taken root. It isn’t just “the squad” and those who think like them. There is now a mobilized base that is more than willing not just to be brought along, but actually to lead.

In these circumstances, hyper-cautiousness is nearly as great a danger as apathy or acquiescence. Trump will likely lose no matter whom he runs against, but, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the chances of that go up, not down, if Democrats run away from their base.

And the chances that Trumpism will survive, and perhaps someday be resurrected by a villainous miscreant far more clever than Trump himself, will increase many times over.

***

There are two schools of thought on Trump’s chances of being reelected, but everyone agrees about the urgency of reviving “the Obama coalition.” Kamala Harris talked about it the most, but there has never been even a hint of disagreement from any of the others.

What this would involve seems clear enough, and the rationale behind it is apparently indisputable. Nevertheless, the situation is more complicated than it seems.

To be sure, Democrats should do all they can to get African Americans of all ages and genders to vote. This would involve staffing and funding get-out-the-vote field operations, and, of course, fielding candidates worth voting for.

Unlike the Biden campaign today, the Clinton did very little of that. Hillary and her husband had spent decades currying favor with black political machines in the South and in big cities with large black populations, where they worked assiduously with leading figures in African American communities, cultivating “icons” pleased by the attention, but not actually doing much to improve the lot of the people they supposedly represented.

By 2016, she was ready to call in her chips; she felt entitled. The machines came through as best they could; along with the Democratic National Committee, they did enough to deal Bernie Sanders a fatal blow. But that wasn’t nearly enough to get Clinton the Electoral College votes she needed to win.

Because she didn’t come close to matching the enthusiasm Obama generated in both 2008 and 2012, many African Americans sat the 2016 election out. In the so-called battleground states, this was enough to put Trump over the top.

No doubt, Obama generated a great deal of enthusiasm because it seemed, almost from Day One, that he really could become America’s first black president.

This possibility registered in the hearts and minds of persons of all hues, notwithstanding the fact that, for decades now, black cops and black politicians have been routinely dashing hopes for progress in making “black lives matter” or indeed for substantively improving the conditions African Americans face in any other way.

But psychologically, the White House is in a class by itself. If this were not the case it would be hard to account for all the bruhaha about the glass ceiling for women that Clinton would have crashed through had she not flubbed so badly.

In both cases, it seems that the first one through gets a lot of points just for being there.

Why else would Obama still be held in such high regard in African American communities? His Attorney General, Eric Holder, did do a creditable job enforcing civil rights laws, even as he, to his everlasting shame, let Bush era war criminals and all but the most egregious banksters off scot-free. But what else did Obama do to improve the lot of African Americans in his two terms in office? The short answer is: not much.

He didn’t do much for the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2016 either. Under his leadership, the party became even more in thrall to its donor class than it had been before. How deleterious this was became painfully clear during Obama’s first term — in Wisconsin, a state that was thought to be solidly “blue,” but that went for Trump nevertheless three years ago. The conventional wisdom now is that, looking forward to next November, Wisconsin will be perhaps the most precarious battleground state of all.

The Clinton campaign has a lot to answer for on this; in 2016, they couldn’t even be bothered to have their candidate campaign there. Obama has a lot to answer for too.

In 2010, mainly in response to widespread disappointment with his presidency, Republicans swept into Congress and into the State Houses. In Wisconsin, this catapulted the newly elected Governor, Scott Walker, a politician whom even the Koch brothers eventually found too mediocre to promote, into national prominence.

Among Walker’s very first acts, was a sustained attack on public employee unions. Republican governors and state legislators elsewhere would go on to emulate his machinations wherever they could.

This led to worker-led uprisings around the state, but especially in Madison, where there was enthusiastic support from university and high school students and from the larger community. The Capitol building was occupied for more than two weeks, and there was talk of a general strike.

What ultimately did the uprising in was a provision in the state constitution, according to which elected officials had to serve for at least a year before a recall election could be held. The state constitution, though more democratic in this respect than the federal one, was not quite democratic enough.

And so, while there was ample activity around petitioning for a recall election to be held as soon as possible, there was ample time for the political energy behind the recall effort to dissipate.

When the time finally came, the good guys lost. This would almost certainly not have happened had African American communities in and around Milwaukee and elsewhere, places where Obama was still wildly popular, been adequately mobilized.

But the national party couldn’t be bothered, and Obama himself did nothing more than send a tweet a night or two before the vote. He didn’t come campaign even when he was nearby, in Illinois or Minnesota, hobnobbing with donors.

This says all that need be said about the Obama part of the Obama coalition, except that calling it a “coalition” at all is misleading. It was not much like Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalitions in the eighties. It was more a matter of unrelated political developments occurring at roughly the same time.

There were African Americans proud to support one of their own, and there were persons of all backgrounds and hues, for whom, in 2008, Obama was a Rorschach inkblot upon whom they could project their hopes for change. And there was Wall Street or, at least, its less retrograde components.

Only Wall Street knew what it was getting. Obama had been well vetted there, and he never gave those who checked him out any reason to regret their support.

Today’s “moderates,” from Biden on down (or is it up?) want to revive what Obama had. Why would they not? They are all, to a woman or man, old school Democrats, bourgeois politicians to the core, just like the ones that made Trumpism possible.

A part of the “billionaire class” is with them on that; Tom Steyer is, of course, and, God help us, Michael Bloomberg is too. The very thought of serious taxes on obscene levels of wealth concentrates their minds.

And so, for Democrats, “reviving the Obama coalition” has become the order of the day.

This could be taken to mean doing what Jackson tried to do – bringing progressives and workers and oppressed persons of all “identities” together to fight for a better world.

But, regardless what even some of its proponents may have in mind, in the real world of “moderate” Democratic politics, it means doing what Obama did – putting peoples’ hopes for change at the service of the major beneficiaries of the status quo.

So instead of going on about reviving the Obama coalition, how much better it would be to talk about reviving that strain of New Deal liberal politics that billionaires and near billionaires loathe; the kind that disparaged “economic royalists” and welcomed their hatred.

This is what Sanders and Warren, but not the others, are doing; it is why they are the only ones worth being taken seriously.

Of the others, Harris was arguably the least bad. When viewed in retrospect, it will likely turn out that she was also the most admirable, because she got out before her support for the kind of coalition that Obama’s candidacy actually put in place, the kind that makes Wall Street a partner in the struggles of the very people it makes worse off, could again do the kind of harm that it did when Obama himself brought it together more than a decade ago.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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