Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a persuasive op-ed in today's New York Times about the president's recent characterization of the Left as having unrealistic expectations. Apparently President Obama has suggested, recently, that today's Left would have been dissatisfied even with the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln issued during the Civil War.
On the contrary, Coates argues: the Left forced President Lincoln's hand. He would never have signed the Proclamation without "the work of abolitionists and radicals whose tactics, encompassing jailbreaks, treason and shootouts, far outstripped anything ever concocted by MoveOn.org."
It's also worth mentioning the activism of those who were enslaved, which was even more important; their mass migration from the plantations to union lines, which W.E.B. Du Bois characterized as a "general strike," effectively ground southern production to a halt in many areas. More, the visible presence of self-liberated former slaves behind union lines forced rank-and-file soldiers, their superior officers, and finally the union army's leadership, to recommend that the president consider emancipation in such areas. As Eric Foner has noted, pressure trickled up to the president.
It's a lesson worth heeding, because we've become very accustomed to expecting the president to act without pressure from the grassroots. Because we voted for him in 2008. And that's just wishful thinking.
Coates argues effectively that the president is comfortable using the Left (engaging in "hippy punching" as he calls it) to establish his own moderation.
The administration of President Obama has never held much regard for its left flank. Admonished by the vice president to “stop whining,” inveighed against by the president himself for “griping and groaning,” the liberal critics have been generally viewed by the White House as petulant children. “The Professional Left,” former press secretary Robert Gibbs dubbed them, a gang of nettlesome romantics who “ought to be drug-tested,” and would not be happy until “we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.”
Keeping up the theme, the administration recently released a video of Mr. Obama waxing scornfully at the expense of his softheaded allies. The audience was an ideological cross-section of college students, no doubt picked to emphasize Mr. Obama’s ever open mind. The president invoked Abraham Lincoln, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise that freed only the slaves in rebel territory. “Can you imagine how The Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ”
Personally, I have no problem with the president using the Left for cover. I just don't see that we're giving him much. I don't see where we've really applied pressure. I see the Tea Party's pressure, but I don't see ours. I know that's partly because of the media, and the way the wingnuts get extensive coverage if they get 5 people on the mall in Washington. But it's partly that we haven't united on what we want, and haven't found a persuasive way to get that message before the public.
Economic issues motivate the wingnuts because it's easy for them to rally behind their simplistic anti-tax, anti-government slogans. The Left has had some success in organizing pressure around specific issues in some states, like marriage equality, but can't seem to find a winning position on government protection and economic fairness from which to do the same.
I know this sounds hackneyed, but good government is good for people. The Sharon Angles of the world would like to live in a pre-industrial world and go back to a barter system, but regulation is essential in modern, industrial society.
The contrast is clear. The GOP seems willing to turn the US into a third world nation as long as they can squeeze the last dollar from it before they leave the wasteland behind. This is why they are gleefully overturning environmental regulations that protect natural resources and public parks. They want to strip people of their newly-won health insurance coverage, poison their rivers, and throw them off the unemployment insurance rolls.
Why do they hate America? Maybe because the rich can always move somewhere else.
So who will defend government? If the president won't (or can't) make a cogent argument for its existence, it's time for us to do so. Government protects people from greed, heedless growth, exploitation of workers, and the persistent unemployment that underlies any capitalist economy.
Maybe it's just hard to rally around an abstract concept. I suggest that we begin with something concrete and popular and captures the role of government in people's well-being: Medicare-For-All. If you think it's out-dated, that the battle's been won, consider this: the GOP is poised, once the debt-ceiling struggle is over, to wage an all-out attack on health reform gains won last year. They're doing it already in the courts, and you can bet that they'll use every trick in the book to roll it back. Many of us hated the final form of that legislation, but it has done some good, and most importantly established the principle of universal coverage as a social good.
Demanding Medicare-For-All is a smart way to pre-empt the GOP's assault. That's what I plan to focus on.
But it doesn't have to be a single action or cause. The main thing is to bring together like-minded people and start making clear the places where government can make a positive impact on human lives: infrastructure, public education, safe workplaces, the safety net. And to get those arguments into mainstream discourse.
It's time to champion these positive social goods. If we take them for granted, we may find they disappear in a puff of smoke.