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When Will We Take Responsibility for the Obama Presidency’s Failings?

Holding Ourselves Responsible for Electing Obama

Another cycle of conversation on the bitter disappointment that is the Obama presidency appears to be taking place once again among liberals or progressives. Writers for prominent progressive media like The Nation and leaders in prominent progressive organizations like Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) are expressing their discontent and offering suggestions to dismayed Americans who had hoped change would actually come from the Obama Administration.

Eric Alterman of The Nation published an article recently calling the Obama presidency "a big disappointment." Katrina vanden Heuvel, also of The Nation, suggested that people aren’t just disappointed in Obama but really wonder where this country is headed. And, Norman Solomon, on the executive board of Progressive Democrats of America, recently told Real News’ Paul Jay, "The Obama Administration is more and more moving towards policies that many who worked to elect Obama have worked to oppose in recent years."

The emerging consensus, which has been present over the past year and a half as more and more progressives confess frustration with President Obama, is that the presidency has taken a turn away from progressivism, a turn that many didn’t expect or hoped would not occur. There are a few progressive minds who are being asked what to do next that appear willing to admit they held their nose and voted for a centrist Democrat, but an overwhelming amount continue to cling to their history of delusions and maintain Obama could have been progressive.

The consensus also religiously clings to the reality that Republicans are becoming increasingly dangerous for the country and hold that reality up as an excuse for why Obama has "failed" progressives tremendously. To them, the power of the minority has made it near impossible for any progressive agenda, any major social reforms to get through. This would be a valid argument if plenty of evidence of Democratic Party leaders allowing or quite often colluding with the toxic talk and agenda of the Republican Party did not exist.

Not extending unemployment benefits and not raising more of a fuss as Republicans obstruct the renewal of these jobless benefits, appointing Petraeus to replace McChrystal in Afghanistan and continuing a war in a country often regarded as "the graveyard of empires," maintaining a permanent troop presence in Iraq, contributing to culture which led to the BP oil disaster by indicating renewed support for offshore drilling one month before the disaster, keeping the option of a national public-financed healthcare system off the table as Republicans cried foul about a socialist takeover of healthcare and talked death panels, refusal to advance the minor reform that labor unions have desired, the Employee Free Choice Act (pretty much the only real demand they have had for Obama), the continued use of rendition, believing the truth will endanger soldiers and lead to increased deaths and instability in the Middle East and refusing to investigate torture or release photos of the abuse that soldiers inflicted on detainees— These are just some of the victories Republicans have won from Obama. These are just some of the many examples of continuity that Republicans have enjoyed.

Obama on Inauguration Day

Progressives have gradually woken up from their hope-induced coma and begun to realize more and more the folly that they have been engaging in. They had been dithering on what to do as social movements stumbled (e.g. the antiwar movement, which Cindy Sheehan has tried to re-ignite without much success). That’s why more and more editorial writers and more and more leaders and organizers are being critical.

The questions must be asked: What level of responsibility should progressives take for the fact that they were swept up in Hope-a-Palooza ’08? How much are progressive writers, media makers, organizers, and leaders to blame for the current impact the Obama presidency has had on society, if any?

While it is uncomfortable and in some respects unreasonable to take to task the people who should be the biggest allies of social movements and, in fact, an ally of this writer (who considers himself to be progressive), the cycle with which progressives have the Left going in is incredibly destructive to the future of this country, the world and in fact the whole of humanity. The strategy and tactics of progressives increasingly look like the definition of insanity–doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.

Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen each appear in two different series produced by Real News on progressives and the Democratic Party. One set particularly addresses the dynamics between progressives and Obama and the other addresses the corporatism of the Democratic Party, which has made it about impossible for real change to occur.

Both offer a further understanding of what the role of progressives is in society. Solomon reminds progressives "the Democratic Party base is appreciably more progressive than those who get elected and that needs to be rectified. Primaries exist for a reason, they’re rarely utilized to the extent they could and should be." Cohen expresses his belief in the idea that progressives can "take over" the Democratic Party "through social action and grassroots politics and money" just like the Republican Party did after the Eisenhower Administration.

Solomon and Cohen display faith in the tying of social movements and independent political action to electoral activity. Fundamentally, there is little wrong with this concept. The best movements understood they had to have a presence in the street and had to have an electoral arm of the struggle. But, all too often, those movements, which had presences in elections, were running on a single issue as a candidate for a smaller party that was not Democrat or Republican, an electoral strategy that Solomon and Cohen do not support.

Given the massive shortcomings of the past four decades, it is time for those who speak for progressives and who purport to know ideas on how to best move forward toward a more egalitarian, more socially responsible and less corporate-controlled country to explain why not just progressives but Americans are to believe that their so-called "inside-outside strategy" can work or should work.

Why should we who have visions of a world that the Democratic Party is not willing to push for, why should we support the efforts of groups like Progressive Democrats of America to keep all concerned, socially-minded and oftentimes left-leaning people in one big tent?

Lance Selfa takes a close look in his book, Democrats: A Critical History, at what groups like PDA and examines whether the left can take over the Democratic Party. He quotes PDA founder Kevin Spidel who told writer William Rivers Pitt, "The most important thing we do is that inside-outside strategy. Pulling together members of the Green Party, the Independent Progressive Politics Network, the hip-hop community, the civil rights community, our allies in Congress, the anti-war community. We are bringing together all the social movements within the Democratic Party under on effective tent, and we will do it better if people can contribute to our cause."

Essentially, Spidel (and I imagine anyone who celebrates the "potential" of PDA) would like all those discontent to not let their discontent create alternatives to working with the Democratic Party. In fact, they would like people to help deter creations of alternatives; PDA did not do anything to denounce or deter the Democratic Party’s funded campaign to force Nader/Camejo off the ballots in the 2004 Election.

The examples of Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, writer Upton Sinclair’s 1934 primary victory, and Howard Dean’s eventual demise in 2004 are all bitter indications of the shenanigans and uphill battles candidates have to face as they organize and run as a Democrat. And, with Kucinich, candidates not only are forced out of the race but are tasked with the duty of herding progressives into the center of the Democratic Party and inspiring them to support a much less robust progressive agenda and much more corporate Democrat like current President Obama.

This writer is very cognizant of the dismal state of the Left. There currently exists no surefire way for any progressives, Greens, socialists, communists, Marxists, or whatever label members of key social movements anoint themselves with to win state power. Ballot access laws effectively make it a chore for candidates from parties not Democrat or Republican to run. Media corporations effectively refuse to cover politics that is not Democrat or Republican. And, the people of this country are conditioned to believe politics is only Democrat or Republican and, actually, that’s why so many Americans are angry and upset with the state of this country.

Many recognize how similar the Democratic and Republican Parties are in this country. The characterization is no longer simply that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference (as Ralph Nader has said) but much deeper. It’s that what Americans are faced with is a corporate party with a left and right wing. Or, it’s that we have a war party that splits off in a left and right direction (or something similar to these characterizations).

What is the answer? Where do we go? How willing are we to raise our expectations?

At forums all over the world like the World Social Forum, at summits organized by movement leaders all over the world and at conferences held here in the United States, there are people willing to make the cogent analyses necessary to understand the objective reality we face as a people. There are scholars and thinkers and concerned citizens and sharp, energetic organizers willing to develop and work to get this country turned around so it is no longer going in the destructive downward spiraling direction that it had been going in for decades.

But, what has to be done so this can translate into the political arena? When do social movements get to grow up and actually run this country? When leaders from social movements get to lead? And, when do we stop using the Democratic Party as a measuring stick for what’s possible in American politics?

I don’t have the answers to the problems this country faces because of the broken electoral system, the control corporations have over politics in this country, the influence that corporatism and it’s fiendish offspring militarism have over the agenda and policies of America, but I do have the unwavering interest in a better future one that my children, their children and their children and so on and so forth should be able to enjoy–a future where generations won’t have to confront the levels of contempt, exploitation and injustice toward humanity that seem to be increasing because of the policies of an elite few who run this country.

One wonders if a future focus is enough to take on the sharp contradictions of society. But, if that doesn’t push us to mature politically and socially, what will?

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."