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Clearing the Air: Progressives and the Presidency

Pondering the possible implications of a Barack Obama Presidency for American progressives.

by Charlie Bertsch

Both here in the United States and around the world, progressives have been holding their breath, sometimes to the point of passing out. We are all, as the saying goes, waiting to exhale. At the same time, though, we are have been through too much to believe that even the most favorable election results tomorrow will truly clear the air. That would be too much to hope for, in a campaign that has already worn that word down to the point that we can see clear through to the other side. The Left faces a special quandary where Barack Obama is concerned. Few progressives would admit to not supporting him. Even those who plan to vote for a third-party candidate have been quick to declare that they want him to defeat John McCain. At the same time, though, many complained, as the 2008 Presidential campaign wore on, about Obama drifting away from his base out of political expediency. Some of his early backers expressed similar concerns as well, though in more muted tones. From his FISA vote to his refusal to back strict gun control measures to his end-of-the-campaign refusal to defend his African aunt’s right to stay in the country, both his words and actions as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer have suggested that he would govern as a centrist, much as Bill Clinton did before him. And that has the potential to be a huge disappointment to progressives, who still haven’t recovered from the bitter irony that the Clintons, who were barely Democrats by the standard of Tip O’Neill, came to personify a purportedly resurgent American Left in the 1990s. Now Obama, whose public statements place him to the right of John Kerry, has been linked to “socialism” by the McCain campaign, suggesting that, were he to take the Presidency, that term would be redefined by conservative pundits with the same vigor that “leftist” was in the previous generation. True progressives contemplate a world in which their supposed ascendancy could well coincide with their political erasure. It’s a disturbing prospect, powerfully reinforced by the realization that whoever wins on November 4th will preside over a nation that is a shadow of its former self. At this point in American history, it strains credulity to believe that any person, no matter how special, can do much to steer the United States off its precipitous downward trajectory. The only reason things aren’t much worse here is that the rest of the world relies on American consumers to purchase the goods it produces. We have made ourselves indispensable by virtue of our very profligacy. It is this willingness of other nations to prop up our economy, whether through investment here or policy changes in their own domestic affairs, that makes these times so confusing for the contemporary Left. If the survival of the fittest truly prevailed, as defenders of the free market reflexively insist that it should, we Americans would be forced to suffer the grim consequences of our individual and collective irresponsibility. But, just as the United States government is bailing out the industries most deeply affected by the current economic crisis, other governments are doing their part, even if they would be loathe to admit culpability, to bail the United States government out. Back in the early twentieth-century, leftists heatedly debated whether it was better to focus, whatever the odds, on overturning the whole political order or, rather, to divide their energy between pursuing an idealistic long-term vision and seeking to improve the day-to-day conditions of the working class through participation in existing government institutions along the way. Although Marxists complained that the latter approach amounted to selling out, the example of The Communist Manifesto, which opens with stirring statements about revolutionary possibilities and closes with specific advice on the formation of alliances in specific national contexts, suggests that Marx himself was not sure which course to pursue. Or, more charitably, this example indicates that he regarded ambivalence to be the Left’s best political strategy. Now we find ourselves confronted by a crisis in which the term “socialism” – not to mention the name of Marx himself – is being invoked by the mainstream media to a degree unprecedented since the turmoil of the late 1960s. As the covers of numerous magazines attest, many people, especially in the privileged classes, are worried that the rapid pace of change in the financial sector will bring an end to life as they know it. Their conviction that the threat of socialism ended with the Cold Ward has been replaced by concern that, like the specter of a worldwide depression, it has come back from the dead. Although John McCain’s Presidential campaign has attempted to tar Barack Obama with the implication that his interest in redistributing wealth makes him a socialist, the truth is that many business leaders would actually welcome a turn towards social democracy if it would prevent further economic collapse. That is, they recognize the need for the middle and working classes to keep paying for things that they probably could and should do without. Compared to a situation in which the absence of purchasing power drove corporations bankrupt, a little extra regulation and higher taxes would be a small price to pay. This situation mirrors the one that confronted their predecessors during the 1930s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his fierce detractors, both on Wall Street and Main Street. But he was able to get enough members of the privileged classes, of which he was an exemplary scion, to recognize that he had their interests in mind and then submit themselves to a little patriotic punishment. And their perception proved correct. Even though it took World War II to truly extricate the United States from the Great Depression, FDR’s strong leadership drove the prospect of revolution back into the realm of radical fantasy. Progressives should think hard about the success Barack Obama’s campaign has had raising money, not only from ordinary citizens donating $25 here and $50 there, but from major donors who, like those who supported FDR before him, seem to feel that their own interests, in times like these, will be better served if they stop conceiving of them as narrowly as they did during the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s. As laudable as the percentage of small donors in the Democratic nominee's record-setting fundraising may be, the fact remains that he was only able to outspend his Republican opponent the way he has because plenty of large donors who supported George W. Bush in 2000 or even 2004 switched their allegiances this year. So where does that leave the Left, contemplating the possibility of an Obama Administration? The departure of George W. Bush from the White House will be welcome news for almost everyone, including those who opined, back in 2000, that it wouldn’t make a mite of difference whether he prevailed over Al Gore. But as commentators of all stripes have noted, the next President will have one of the shortest honeymoons on record. The day FDR was inaugurated, the banking crisis was peaking. That’s what his famous “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” statement was addressing. He had prepared to hit the ground running, with a 100-day plan, and achieved most of his early objectives. Even if things aren’t quite so dire when the next President takes office, a carefully coordinated plan of action will be essential if any momentum is going to be achieved prior to the inevitable backlash in both Congress and the media. And if that President is Barack Obama, the need for such a plan will be even greater. Right-wing pundits and talk-show hosts who reluctantly supported John McCain but eagerly took on the task of making the Democratic candidate look like an inexperienced, untrustworthy, potentially treasonous extremist will be ready to pounce, eager to forestall the decline in ratings that typically occurs in the year after a major election. While the label “tax-and-spend” is unfairly reserved for what passes for the Left in contemporary American politics – there are many forms of both overt and covert taxation, including some that Republicans favor – and perhaps even more unfairly affixed to Progressives, many of whom reject the idea of Big Government in favor of a more flexible model of local control, it isn’t going away anytime soon. Were Obama to prevail on November 4th, then, the risk of confirming the McCain’s campaign’s rhetoric would be high. Some Democrats, tired of playing mouse to the Republican Party’s Fat Cats, will no doubt insist that such risks are less important than the rewards that will come from breaking with years of conservative leadership. But that would be a shortsighted approach, whether from the perspective of political or economic strategy. A more effective change of course would be one which limits the perception that the Democrats just want to spread the wealth in the form of pork, while taking steps to undo the grievous damage done to the middle and working classes, not only over the last eight years, but during the past three decades in which the Right has dominated the nation’s politics. A 100-day plan oriented towards rolling back the excesses to which the ideological fervor of Ronald Reagan led would play better than a New Deal-style attempt to restart the economy by expanding the reach of government. Indeed, whether we like it or not, the controversy over the bailout confirms that we have already maxed out the public’s willingness to spend our way out of the crisis. What the average American wants is a leader who will say “No” to the millionaires as well as the people who shop at Target, not someone who will say “Yes” to lobbyists of any kind. Considering how savvy Barack Obama has proven over the course of this seemingly interminable campaign, it is likely that he has already reached the same conclusion himself. Whether he will have the political will to act on it, however, is another question. This is where progressives come in. We can make the case for limiting government where it needs to be limited and, what is more, do our part to remedy the perception that the Left would rather spend than think. And we can do so from a perspective that acknowledges what the Democratic Party does better than the Republicans – supporting short-term solutions that help actually existing Americans – while insisting that the current political reality makes it highly unlikely that either party can effectively work towards more profound change. There was a time in this country’s history, in the early part of the twentieth century, when progressives were harder to pigeonhole than they are today. They stood for reform more than for a party. The fact that they also frequently stood for positions we find deeply troubling – Woodrow Wilson’s attitude towards African-Americans is a perfect example – does not mean that we should reject their aspirations to transform society on a non-partisan basis. Indeed, given how rapidly the sense of ideological possibility has expanded over the past few months, it is not out of the question for progressives to make people rethink the term “socialism” itself. The nationalization of banks and industry may be identified with socialism in this country, but that does not mean that all socialists favor Big Government. The truth of the matter is that we usually end up with Big Government when the privileged classes recognize a threat to their standing and set out to create buffers for their own protection. If Obama wins, we will surely have to inhale some noxious fumes. But true progressives should see that risky period as an opportunity, not to expand the number of climate-controlled institutions, but to begin the process of constructing filters that remove toxins from the air without spending huge amounts on redevelopment projects. Perhaps it’s fitting that the last controversy of the 2008 campaign centered on Obama’s comments about the viability of coal-fueled power plants in a more environmentally friendly future. Maybe the best government is the sort that steers clear of trouble before it happens, rather than steering out of it after it has already begun. For the time being, obviously, the latter will have to be the order of the day. With the help of progressives and, yes, even situational alliances with other maverick-minded folks like the more flexible libertarians out there – Ron Paul’s support from young voters will be forgotten at our peril – the next President might just be able to get the country headed towards a different, better destination, where the air is fresh enough that a breath of it will not seem like a big deal.After years spent wandering in a wilderness at least partially of his device, Charlie Bertsch has returned to Bad Subjects for a hope transplant. He welcomes your invective.

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