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Transcending Progressive Discord
“Barack Obama was NEVER a progressive or anything other than a closet Republican. This was true in ’08 and continues to be true. He successfully hoodwinked millions of people who chose not to listen to what he actually said in his interviews (not in his rally speeches; one-on-one interviews). I tried to warn people about this monster but it fell on deaf ears.”
“I think President Obama is doing a fine job with the cards he has been dealt — the worst oppositional party in history, a lame constituency in his own party, a fragmented base, and a raging ‘left’ who have no concept of the reality of our government or our American mindset, much less any constructive ideas on how to change them.”
These two quotes give a fair idea of the range of responses I got when I wrote last week, echoing an idea by Rabbi Michael Lerner, that maybe the best thing that could happen to President Obama — no, I mean to the country — would be for him to face a challenge by a serious progressive candidate in the 2012 primaries. The gravitational pull of such a challenge would, theoretically, force the president to speak to and more overtly pursue an agenda that ignites his base and rekindles democracy in the United States by making the stakes in 2012 intensely, heart-poundingly real.
But I still picture Obama as the standard bearer for progressives — for all who want us to begin creating, as Lerner put it, a “caring society,” both domestically and internationally — not because he’s uncompromised, not because I trust him fully, but because he actually has a base that he has proven he can ignite. His appeal is, or was, both broad and deep. He inspired the entire planet, with his rhetoric if not with his politics. His team built a coalition that toppled the Bush era from its pedestal as though it were a statue of Saddam Hussein.
Frustrated as I’ve been with the president these past two years, particularly with his escalation of the Af-Pak war, his unwillingness to challenge the politics of empire and his failure to draw a clear line in the sand against the Republican obstructionists, I can’t forget this. It strikes me as an easier task to move Obama than to rebuild a broad, winning political coalition from scratch. Indeed, I feel very much a part of the Obama base, entitled to push at the president not as an outsider but as a believer who voted for him, celebrated his election and passionately added my voice to his mandate to change the course of this country.
But my loyalty is not to Obama. It is to the core values he espoused and embodied; it is to the progressive vision he stood for. And if the politics of pragmatism and compromise — and far too much accommodation of a power-crazed opposition party with the sole agenda of belittling and defeating every Democrat on the planet — seem to be supplanting the Obama mandate, the transformational vision of what this country is to become, then we who believe in it must act to place it closer to the center of the president’s political agenda.
How to do this is the question, which brings me back to the two viewpoints expressed at the beginning of this column, and all the strain and tension among progressives they expose. Here’s the thing. Both writers, as far as I can tell, espouse the same vision.
The anti-Obama writer said: “I care about getting a real progressive majority in our sick disgusting immoral country.”
The Obama supporter said: “But just imagine what could be done and what could have been done if all these disparate ‘progressive’ groups united behind this president, encouraged him and the Congress to be far more liberal than they are, and presented a united front against the opposition.”
Their differences of opinion on most things that matter would, I sense, be very slight, even though their opinion on Obama himself, but more significantly, on the strategy and tactics of creating a caring society, are widely divergent. My cry today is that strategic differences should not destroy a coalition. Indeed, these differences should be valued, savored, respectfully examined — or at the very least, discussed without dismissive rancor. MAYBE WE CAN LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER! Is that possible?
Indeed, maybe our differences can make us stronger. Maybe we can fuse this straining, internal conflict into a powerful strategy for victory no one has thought of yet.
I’m thinking now of the 2000 election and the divisive split that arose between the Gore and Nader coalitions. Gore and the Democrats vented more spleen on Nader and his supporters than they did on Bush. Indeed, they fought tooth and nail to keep Nader off the ballot wherever they could, shamelessly abandoning basic democratic principles. Nader and the Greens, for their part, mockingly dismissed diehard Dems as no different from Republicans — a foolish, animosity-generating falsehood.
The result was a damaged base, which required eight years of Bush and a charismatic young Democratic candidate named Barack Obama to weld back into a force for social change.
Let’s not wreck it again. Let’s honor our differences, however wide they seem, and come together to figure out how we can transcend the present paradox: We’re caught in the gap between vision and reality, losing huge numbers of voters to disillusionment, while the fear-based, military-corporate status quo silently awaits the return of Republicans to power.