How the Left must handle President Obama
I was recently asked to comment on an article by Linda Burnham about how the Left, specifically the anti-Capitalist Left, should feel about and work with the Obama Administration. It’s called “Notes on an Orientation to the Obama Presidency”.
There is real debate about how ardent Leftists, Progressive activists, think-tanks, etc. should approach the government under President Obama. Groups that have felt alienated by American politics and the pervasiveness of Conservative ideology have been frustrated & cynical for the past 60 years. They are not content with incremental solutions to big problems. They are almost offended when with presented with nuanced distinctions in policy or rhetoric that at the end of the day is not demonstrably different from the status quo.
While I find myself in this group much more often than not, there are some real opportunities to make progress on a fundamentally Progressive agenda. We must take proper advantage of these times, lest this once-in-a-generation opportunity pass us by.
Here is my full response:
This article is dead-on with the thinking of many in my own activist circles. It is particularly acute among firmly Progressive Black activists who are toeing the ever-present perception line between being seen as change agents or haters.
Means Versus Ends
Personally, the Obama win has led me to research his inspirations for activism and his approach to bringing about change. That in turn led me to Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky, one of Obama’s primary influences as an organizer. Alinsky, widely believed to be one of the most effective organizers of the last century, talked a lot about the futility of a means versus ends debate, which is how I would describe a good portion of the debate on the Left regarding Obama. His basic point (one of many) was that only disinterested people that are far-removed from an issue care about the specific means (read: process) by which a goal is reached. Therefore, since means were of little consequence to those directly impacted, they should be of little consequence to the organizer/leader, so long as the objectives are correct.
This hit me hard because I often believe in personal life and politics that the “how” matters, as do most Progressives. But the truth is that if given a choice between the “how” and the “what & why,” most will pick the 2 w’s.
Change The Actual World, Not The Make-Believe One
This is in no way a statement in support of “pragmatism” as it is usually used in our current political discourse. In many cases today, when that word is thrown out there, it typically means “I gave the other side exactly what they wanted for basically nothing in return.” What this is is a call for us to work toward the first task of the Left as pointed out by this article, which is to “defend the democratic opening.” Alinsky would call this “seeing the world as it is, not as we think it is or should be, and changing that world.”
We do this by harnessing the ethos of collaboration that the effort to elect Barack Obama inspired. What we saw this election was the recasting of everyday people as kingmakers. Regular people wanted Obama to be President, and they went out and made it happen. Nothing is more viscerally progressive than this flavor of collectivism. This is the middle class, the “massive class” in terms of numbers, making a decision to take back power by electing “their candidate.” Karl Marx may not be smiling, but he is smirking.
No matter how watered down the rhetoric, how centrist the politician, we still have some level of momentum to build upon as activists to bring a more progressive future into fruition. To dismiss that because it’s not 110% in line with our utopia is intellectually irresponsible and principally dishonest.
So I’ll keep asking questions. I’ll keep demanding answers. But most importantly, I’ll keep reaching out.
One Love. One II.
Image Credit: brand resistant on flickr