How the Left must handle President Obama

Activism is my rent.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

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “How the Left must handle President Obama”

  1. Pat says :

    I have the impression that Alinsky’s “futility of a means versus ends debate” perspective is simply a nuanced variation on the ends justify the means. That is hard for me to accept.

    So too it was hard, too hard, for me to accept Obama because, while he fulfilled my lifelong hope of a black president, Obama the individual did not fulfill any of my social justice values as a lifelong civil liberties advocate. And thus far he seems to be validating my worst fears.

    Now I find myself feeling that it is necessary to aggressively critique his positions not only in hopes of moving his administration to a more reasoned and intelligent position but also to educate people who I feel supported him in the campaign more blindly than their own human interests would justify.

    It looks like the president is taking us down some very dangerous paths in drug war policy and using small nuanced reforms to intentionally split potential political opposition to the dangerous actions that he is setting in motion. America could very quickly become a much more dangerous place with events in cities across the nation mirroring the horrors we have been seeing in Mexico.

    My fear for this potential forced me to once again vote for Ralph Nader in protest and now I see my concerns coming to pass. I just hope that people who supported Obama with the highest ideals in mind don’t allow those ideals to blind them to reality in the coming months and years.

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