Friday, November 21, 2008

Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State

Everyday, reality rears its ugly head for progressives. During the Democratic primaries and in the general election campaign, I often thought that the left was collectively in an Obama-Vegetative State. Like zombies, they moved along, unable to muster up the slightest analysis of Obama that did not sound like messianic blather. I do not blame Obama for this. On the contrary, I have come to view him as one of the most skillful politicians in U.S. history. Progressives, however, frightened me because most of them abdicated dissent.

Recently, however, the EEG has detected signs of brain activity among the left. Now progressives seem to realize that an "election is not a social movement" (something I argued weeks ago). Gradually, more of them now argue that in order for Obama's presidency to generate meaningful reform, grassroots political activism around specific issues (rather than ambiguous appeals to change and hope) must take place. This will not occur if leftists and liberals remain lulled into an hypnotic state by their excitement of having a Democratic president and their utter shock and amazement that this Democrat is also black. Here are some examples of renewed signs of life among progressives.

The Nation
For the last year, The Nation (a liberal magazine) was passionately uncritical. Anything Obama did generated chills, tears, smiles, and warmth. Euphoria comes to mind as an umbrella term to describe the mental state of writers for the Nation. Now that the election is over, kinks have emerged in the liberal Utopia. For example, Francis Fox Piven has published an essay arguing that liberals and progressives need to generate activism to push Obama to implement progressive policies. No, Virginia, he will not do it on his own! Piven accurately argues that FDR -- the storied leader of progressive change in the U.S. -- did not come to power with a radical agenda. Instead, labor movements, consumer activism, and political protests helped push through meaningful reform. A coalition of progressive causes also supported the progressive changes that took place during the Johnson Administration.

The Executive Director of the NAACP has also joined the conversation at The Nation. Benjamin Todd Jealous acknowledges the historic nature of Obama's presidency, but he argues that: "[W]e cannot stop here. This victory is momentous but ethereal. Progress is eroded when not pushed forward, taken to the next level."

Reactions to Cabinet Selections
Obama's cabinet choices so far have probably done the most to jolt progressives out of their slumber. Many people on the left feel "betrayed," if not horrified, by Obama's personnel decisions. They are particularly upset by his choice of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff and are sweating bullets over the prospect of Hillary Clinton heading the State Department and Larry Summers getting the nod at Treasury. But perhaps they got some relief when Penny Pritzker, the 135th wealthiest American according to Forbes Magazine, declined to accept an offer from our beloved community organizer to become Secretary of Commerce.

Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive criticizes Obama for not appointing persons with progressive credentials to serve in his cabinet. He argues that "there are a lot of talented progressives who could be in an Obama cabinet." Rothschild's list of potential nominees includes Dennis Kucinich as Secretary of State. Back at The Nation, Tom Englehardt argues that it almost seems as if Clinton won the election and that "Clintonistas are just piling up in the prospective corridors of power" (I have made similar arguments).

And over at the liberal blog Open Left, David Sirota has blown a gasket reacting to the current line-up of Obama appointees, calling the situation "creepy." Sirota argues that:
For all the talk of "change," I'm really curious whether Barack Obama thinks
there are any worthy, smart, well-qualified people who aren't part of permanent
Washington and who didn't serve in the Clinton administration? Certainly, his
campaign apparatus appreciated that. But it doesn't seem like his transition
team does (a transition team, of course, dominated by former Clinton officials).
My take: This is great stuff. If you read my background area, you will notice that I started this blog because I believed that during the campaigning progressives completely abdicated engaging in dissent and that liberal academics were doubly wrongheaded because as liberals and (especially) as academics they have a greater duty to examine society with a critical lens. Many progressives now realize that broad social change does not magically occur, while some of them simply thrive on criticism (like I?). None of this detracts from Obama or his victory. Instead, it just treats him like any other president or presidential candidate. Obama is positive, but imperfect, and he will do whatever it takes to get elected and re-elected. Consequently, social movements must apply pressure on him in order to ensure that he will press for progressive social change. Otherwise, he has no incentive to do so.

Related reading on Dissenting Justice: 2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama.


jcb said...

It's about time. Like you, I don't blame Obama, he punked the "progressive left."

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well, he did what candidates usually do -- tried to appeal to the base before moving to the center. In many ways, the left decided that Clinton was too awful for them to support. They needed any excuse not to vote for her. And turning Obama into a leftist was good enough for many of them. I am still not sure whether many of them even believed it originally, but simply went along with the narrative out of hatred towards the Clintons. At some point, they convinced themselves that the narrative was true.

jcb said...

After spending months screaming at people who puport to care about the things that I do (genuine universal health care, the rule of law, etc.) I can only attribute it to "irrational exuberence." This election cycle must be studied as part of the growing litterature in this area.

jcb said...

Robert Schiller has done amazing work in this area, his economic analysis (essentially why people disregard facts and red flags when caught up in what basically amounts to "collective effervescence") is just as applicable to this past political year. Actually, given what has happened in the market and the political responses over the last 20 years one might well argue that it is one and the same)

Anonymous said...

now they know how conservatives felt when Bush started his liberal spending spree.

As for the Clintons-who doesn't think they know the truth behind Obama's birth records.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

JCB -- collective effervescence. Great term! Irrational exuberance - that works too.

Anonymous: I guess in a way it might feel the same, but I cannot speak for conservatives!

FLRN said...

As a conservative - I can speak for them - we too experienced this "dismay" about the meandering and expensive Bush agenda that seem to fall off the track and sink into an ocean - adrift and costly. Like the Shaivo debacle.

Darren - Please don't stop your commentary and analysis- Obama is a politician and he is moving toward the middle - JCB I like your thoughts ~ health care is broken and the fix will come from inside the system NOT from Washington insiders. If you want to fix it ask the people who are watching it fall apart! I have been in healthcare for 20 years there is a solution and it called for a collaborative effort, analysis, and then a plan. You just are not going to get this from the top - rather it will be from the bottom up.
Darren you said it - consumer activism - unfortunately health care consumers are critically ill and poorly able to articulate the issues - My solution Ask the health care delivery system itself they are also consumers - not the lawyers or the bean counters or the people with their hands in the cookie jar - not the insurance companies or health care administrators ask the leaders and the motivators the nurses. This is what Professor Hutchinson is alluding to when he talks about progressive changes and consumer activism - ask someone without an agenda. Historically these quiet leaders in every industry have the solution.
My take for instance - The care givers know the issues and have solution based remedies but no one is asking or even listening - come down to Florida and take a good look in my backyard. I will give you a tour of overcrowded hospitals pushing sick patients out into lower levels of care without the proper training and skills to provide the necessary services. I can answer the questions about how patients die in a hospitals and why hospitals are losing money despite the DRG PPS system. Universal healthcare can be supported with little changes in the tax system - and an increase in regulatory management of the facilities with educational requirements and universal standards of care with smaller and enforced nurse to patient ratios. Access to care and the uninsured patient are in desperate need of rescue and delivery breaks down not because of rising health care costs - it breaks down because we are racing after the wrong issues. Control these issues give a care giver a reasonable care load and she will maximize her or his care delivery and target the care rather than run around trying to protect an organization against frivolous lawsuits and documentation restraints! Come see the process that is the ONLY way to fix the problem. ~ But I digress great Blog Darren.

Harper said...

It is amazing that Obama was able to meld together such a coalition. The difference between conservative and liberal is change. You don't have to build a coalition of multiple interest groups when your banner is "Maintain the status quo". It is far easier to appeal to the republican base. The democratic base however, argues about what direction change should take us. Being able to appeal to so many different segments was Obama's magic. He has an amazing ability to be able to disagree with you in such an agreeable way. Now he is trying to win over the other 46%. Good luck to him.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Harper, conservatives -- and by this I mean arch conservatives -- want change too. They would ban abortion, same-sex marriage, end affirmative action, probably curb welfare more, expand the usage of the death penalty, etc. Moderates on both sides of the spectrum basically want the economy to look good -- and if they get support for their "social issue" then even better.

Obama truly pulled together a lot of supporters. That is great for getting elected, but not as good for governing, unless all of the groups have the same expection. I think it is becoming abundantly clear that the Obama coalition does not see eye-to-eye on social issues. Just look at California, where he won by 22 points. Despite this dramatic performance, the state constitutionalized discrimination against gays and lesbians. The same thing happened in Florida.

Bringing people together is only part of the story. Constructing a coherent agenda that substantially transforms society while not generating anger from part of your coalition is another part.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

FLRN - I agree that uninsured people are typically power and disempowered. But there are advocacy groups that represent their interests. I agree with you that healthcare professionals must be a part of any workable solution. I have not read Daschle's book yet. I am assuming that Obama agrees with Daschle's ideas, since he is not the Health Czar.

Lionel Braithwaite said...

Serves you all right for not voting Nader/Gonzalez! As my grandmother used to say, 'If you don't hear, you will feel.' And now, all the so-called 'progressives' will feel it after the parties cease.

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