Friday, August 22, 2008

Thoughtful piece on progressives and Obama

Obama: Transformational President or Another Disappointment?

'Whether he wins or loses, the vast movement
inspired by Obama will become the next generation
of American social activists'

By Tom Hayden
18 August 2008

Barack Obama, it is true, is a transformational leader.
But he needs a transformational movement to become a
transformational president.

He is transformational not only by his charisma and
brilliance, but by embodying the possibility of an
African-American being chosen president in the
generation following the civil-rights movement. Whether
he wins or loses, the vast movement inspired by Obama
will become the next generation of American social

For many Americans, the possibility of Obama is a
deeply personal one. I mean here the mythic Obama who
exists in our imaginations, not the literal Obama whose
centrist positions will disappoint many progressives.

My wife and I have an adopted eight-year old "biracial"
boy whose roots are African-American. My adult son is
married to an African-American woman with roots in
Jamaica and Costa Rica. Our family is part of the
globalized generation Obama represents. What is at
stake for our kids' future is real, palpable, not only
political. Their future will very much be shaped by the
outcome of this election. Millions of people in this
country-and around the world-feel similarly affected.

Myths are all-important, as Obama writes in his Dreams
from My Father. Fifty years ago, the mythic Obama
existed only as an aspiration, an ideal, in a country
where interracial love was taboo and interracial
marriage was largely banned. In 1960, in my liberal
community of Ann Arbor, Michigan, our student newspaper
exposed the University of Michigan's dean of women for
secretly spying on white coeds seen having coffee with
black men in the campus Union and notifying their
parents. In those days, too, the vision of an African-
American as president was preserved only in a dream
state. As Obama himself declared on the night of the
Iowa primary, "Some said this night would never come."

The early civil-rights movement, the jazz musicians,
and the Beat poets dreamed up this mythic Obama before
the literal Obama could materialize. His African father
and white countercultural mother dared to dream and
love him into existence, incarnate him, at the creative
moment of the historic march on Washington. Only the
overthrow of Jim Crow segregation then opened space for
the dream to rise politically.

This collapse was not an engineering feat, like a
bridge falling, but the consequence of suffering and
martyrdom along with countless invisible feats of
organization in the American South.

If this sounds unscientific or, as some would say,
cultish, think about it. None of the supposedly expert
people in the political, media or intellectual
establishments saw this day coming. I didn't expect it
myself, the news was carried to me by a new generation,
including my own grown-up children. It was dreamed up
and built "beyond the radar" or "outside the box" by
experienced dreamers with long histories in community
organizing, social movements, and not a few lost
causes. They were sustained by the stones the builders
left out, the movement, "calloused hand by calloused
hand," that Obama refers to.

In one of his best oratorical moments, Obama summons
the spirit of social movements that were built from the
bottom up, from the Revolutionary War to the
abolitionist crusade to the women's suffrage cause to
the eight-hour day and the rights of labour, ending
with the time of his birth when the walls came down in
Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and Delano, California.

As he repeats this mantra of movements thousands of
times to millions of Americans, a new cultural
understanding becomes possible. This is the foundation
of a new American story that is badly needed, one that
attributes whatever is great about this country to the
ghosts of those who came before, in social movements
from the margins.

Although Howard Zinn may not agree, Obama to a large
degree has appropriated Zinn's "people's history" model
of America as against the conservative narrative that
glorifies wars against alien savages as necessary to
forge a new democracy in the wilderness, the unbroken
story of American exceptionalism, from the colonial
forests to the Iraqi deserts, from Custer to McCain.
Obama's emerging narrative also includes but supercedes
the other major explanation of American specialness,
the narrative of the "melting pot," by noting that
whatever "melting" did occur was always in the face of
massive and entrenched opposition from the privileged.

I have met John McCain, and I happen to like him as an
earthy sort of guy. But I am constantly aware that he
bombed Vietnam at least 25 times before being shot down
in a war that never should have been fought, in a
defeat that still cannot say its name. He wants to
continue the unwinnable Iraq war, costing 10 billion
dollars per month, until every suspect Iraqi is dead,
wounded or detained, even though our military tactics
keep causing more young Iraqis to hate us than ever

As if fighting the war on terrorism until the end of
terrorism isn't enough for him, McCain wants to
reignite the Cold War until the Russians are forever
broken and humiliated. The vanguard for the anti-
Russian offensive has been Georgia, a stronghold of the
neoconservative lobby and, incidentally, a cash cow for
McCain's own foreign-policy adviser Randy Scheunemann,
who made hundreds of thousands of dollars working as a
lobbyist for the country before joining McCain's
campaign team. By supporting Georgia's impractical
attempts to seize the breakaway areas of South Ossetia
and Abkhazia, McCain has abetted another unnecessary
war he cannot win.

This inability to limit the adventurist appetite for
war is the most dangerous element of the McCain and
Republican world view. It is paralleled, of course, by
their inability to limit the corporate appetite for an
unregulated market economy. In combination, the brew is
an economy directed to the needs of the country-club
rich, the oil companies, and military contractors.

A form of crony capitalism slouches forward in place of
either competitive markets or state regulation. The
McCain future will be one of circling the wagons around
the five percent who own 40 percent of the planet's
resources against the 95 percent who live vulnerable
lives under our web of empire. To nail down this
future, McCain has pledged to nominate Supreme Court
candidates approved by the far right.

And yet McCain has a good chance, the best chance among
Republicans, of winning in November. He has Gen.
Eisenhower's war-hero persona. It is a dangerous world
out there. He appeals to those whose idea of the future
is more of the past, buying time against the
inevitable. And McCain is running against Barack Obama,
who threatens our institutions and culture simply by
representing the unexpected and unauthorized future.

My prediction: If he continues on course, Obama will
win the popular vote by a few percentage points in
November, but is at serious risk in the Electoral
College. The institution rooted in the original slavery
compromise may be a barrier too great to overcome.

The priority for Obama supporters has to be
mobilization of new, undecided, and independent voters
in up-for- grabs states like Pennsylvania, Ohio,
Michigan, while expanding the Electoral College
delegates in places like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada
and possibly Virginia. Unlike the nadir of 2000, when
Al Gore and the institutional Democrats seemed unable
to mount a resistance, another Electoral College loss
should trigger an unrelenting and forceful democracy
movement against the Electoral College and other
institutional chains on the right to know, vote, and

There are many outside the Obama movement who assert
that the candidate is "not progressive enough", that
Obama will be co-opted as a new face for American
interventionism, that in any event real change cannot
be achieved from the top down.

These criticisms are correct. But in the end, they miss
the larger point.

The network is
the site to visit for those who want to share and
explore these concerns in depth, while still wanting to
help the Obama movement win. Most of us want President
Obama to withdraw troops from Iraq more rapidly than in
16 months. But it is important that Obama's position is
shared by Iraq's prime minister and the vast majority
of both our people. The Iraqi regime, pressured by its
own people, has rejected the White House and McCain's
refusal to adopt a timetable.

The real problem with Obama's position on Iraq is his
adherence to the outmoded Baker-Hamilton proposal to
leave thousands of American troops behind for training,
advising and ill-defined "counterterrorism" operations.
Obama should be pressured to reconsider this recipe for
a low-visibility counterinsurgency quagmire.

On Iran, Obama has usefully emphasized diplomacy as the
only path to manage the bilateral crisis and assure the
possibility of orderly withdrawal from Iraq. He should
be pressed to resist any escalation. On Afghanistan,
Obama has proposed transferring 10,000 American combat
troops from Iraq, which means out of the frying pan,
into the fire. A July 28 Time magazine cover story by
Rory Stewart rejects such thinking: "A troop increase
is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans
are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the
support for our presence in the insurgency areas is
declining." Obama should accept this advice.

Pakistan, and the possibility of a ground invasion by
Afghan and U.S. troops, could be Obama's Bay of Pigs, a
debacle. On Israel-Palestine, he will pursue diplomacy
more aggressively, but little more. Altogether, the
counterinsurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
are likely to become a spreading global quagmire and a
human-rights nightmare, nullifying the funding
prospects for health-care reform or other domestic

In Latin America, Obama supports the Colombian
military, riddled with drug lords, against the Columbia
guerrillas, with ties of their own to narco
trafficking. Beyond that, he has been out of step and
out of touch with the winds of democratic change
sweeping Latin America. His commitment to fulfilling
the United Nations anti-poverty goals, or to
eradicating sweatshops through a global living wage, is
underwhelming and-given his anti-terrorism wars-will be

And so on. The man will disappoint as well as inspire.

Once again, then, why support him by knocking on doors,
sending money, monitoring polling places, getting our
hopes up? There are three reasons that stand out in my
mind. First, American progressives, radicals, and
populists need to be part of the vast Obama coalition,
not perceived as negative do-nothings in the minds of
the young people and African-Americans at the center of
the organized campaign. It is not a "lesser evil" for
anyone of my generation's background to send an
African- American Democrat to the White House. Pressure
from supporters of Obama is more effective than
pressure from critics who don't care much if he wins
and won't lift a finger to help him.

Second, his court appointments will keep us from a
right-wing lock on social, economic and civil-liberties
issues during our lifetime. Third, we all can chew gum
and walk at the same time; that is, it should be no
problem to vote for Obama and picket his White House
when justified.

Obama himself says he has solid progressive roots but
that he intends to campaign and govern from the centre.
(He has said he is neither a "Scoop" Jackson Democrat
nor a Tom Hayden Democrat.) That is a challenge to rise
up, organize, and reshape the centre, and build a
climate of public opinion so intense that it becomes
necessary to redeploy from military quagmires, take on
the unregulated corporations and uncontrolled global
warming, and devote resources to domestic priorities
like health care, the green economy, and inner-city
jobs for youth.

What is missing in the current equation is not a
capable and enlightened centrist but a progressive
social movement on a scale like those of the past.

The refrain is familiar. Without the militant
abolitionists, including the Underground Railroad and
John Brown, there would have been no pressure on
President Lincoln and no black troops for the South.
Without the radicals of the 1930s, there would have
been no pressure on President Franklin Roosevelt, no
New Deal, no Wagner Act, no Social Security. Without
the civil-rights and peace movements pressuring
President John Kennedy, there would have been no march
on Washington and no proposal to reverse the nuclear-
arms race.

It is true that these radical reforms were limited and
gradually weakened, but there is no evidence to suggest
that if radicals had abstained from mainstream
electoral politics that deeper reforms or revolution
would have resulted.

The creative tension between large social movements and
enlightened Machiavellian leaders is the historical
model that has produced the most important reforms in
the course of American history.

Mainstream political leaders will not move to the left
of their own base. There are no shortcuts to radical
change without a powerful and effective constituency
organized from the bottom up. The next chapter in
Obama's new American story remains to be written,
perhaps by the most visionary of his own supporters.

His own movement will have to pull him towards full
withdrawal from Iraq, or the regulation of the great
financial power centres, instead of waiting for him to
lead. Already among his elite caste of fund-raisers,
there is more interest in his position on the capital-
gains tax than holding Halliburton accountable. And his
"cast of 300" national security advisers, according to
The New York Times, "fall well within centrist
Democratic foreign policy thinking".

Progressives need to unite for Barack Obama but also
unite-organically at least, not in a top-down way-on
issues like peace, the environment, the economy, media
reform, campaign finance and equality like never
before. The growing conflict today is between democracy
and empire, and the battlefronts are many and often
confusing. Even the Bush years have failed to unite
American progressives as effectively as occurred during
Vietnam. There is no reason to expect a President
McCain to unify anything more than our manic

But there is the improbable hope that the movement set
ablaze by the Obama campaign will be enough to elect
Obama and a more progressive Congress in November,
creating an explosion of rising expectations for social
movements-here and around the world-that President
Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009.

That is a moment to live and fight for.

[Tom Hayden is a lifelong peace and human-rights
activist, former California legislator, professor, and
author of more than 15 books.]

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