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