Joseph M. Schwartz
The 2012 election poses a tragic choice of evils for the Left. On the one hand, the Obama administration disappointed labor, youth, and communities of color who mobilized to elect him, by failing to advance an anti-corporate recovery strategy in 2009 when the Democrats controlled Congress. More of the same, thereafter, would leave the working class still mired in an economic trough, while Wall Street has fully recovered. On the other hand a victory this fall by the Republicans, dominated by the radical Right, would threaten all the social gains of the last century.
The first tragedy, is that the Obama administration embraced the policies of the “liberal” wing of Wall Street, rather than a bold program for rapid economic recovery. Instead, Obama put Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and other Wall Street cronies in charge of the Treasury. Had Obama used the electoral mandate to push for stronger stimulus, a massive public jobs program, tough re-regulation of the financial industry, and major aid to foreclosed and underwater homeowners, the recovery would have been far less anemic. Obama’s concern for losing Wall Street alienated much of Main Street; his continued failure to relieve distressed homeowners means that millions of American families will face massive debt for years.
On the other hand, mass constituencies of the Left, ie organized labor, feminists, and Black and even many Latino voters – despite increased deportations -- fear that a Republican presidential victory could roll back the gains of decades of struggle. Much of the fervent hostility to Obama is fueled by a right-wing racial populism. The Republicans’ main electoral slogan will be: “time to take back OUR country,” appealing to vulnerable white working class people’s suspicion that their distress is due to an administration favoring poor folks of color (far from the truth, but “in politics perception is reality.”) Consequently, some white working class “Reagan Democrats” will return to the GOP fold.
Thus, some of our closest allies may carry water for a centrist Democratic President who failed to lead in a progressive direction. The major international unions lined up this spring behind Obama’s re-election, despite his earlier failure to fight for labor law reform, since Romney actively opposes labor rights in the public and private sectors. Most LGBT and feminist organizations will mobilize for Obama, given his endorsement of same-sex marriage and the Republican “war on women” threatening reproductive freedom. Expanding the gender gap will be central to many progressive Democrats’ fall electoral hopes. And even some health care activists will support the President, as while “Obamacare” represented a huge subsidy to the private insurance industry its legislative defeat (or overturning by the Supreme Court) might put the principle of universal health care coverage off the political agenda for another decade.
The weakness of the Left and labor meant that Obama faced little grassroots pressure in 2009 to govern from the left. Until the Occupy movement emerged in the fall of 2011, where were [the] movements against foreclosures and unemployment comparable to those of the early 1930s? Even FDR only enacted progressive reforms in response to pressure by mass movements from below.
Progressives can mostly avoid the tragic electoral choice faced by mass constituencies in this presidential race, by doing our activist and educational work in social movements. Presidential campaigns, controlled top down, are not an effective venue for fighting dominant corporate ideology. But what the Left and popular movements can accomplish is constrained by state power. Thus, many of the mass constituencies of the Left will mobilize for the re-election of the President. Obama still has strong support in the African-American community, despite the valid criticisms that Tavis Smiley and DSA National Chair Cornel West make of his silence on the inner city poor or the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth.
Until the US Left builds real organizational capacity at both the national and local level, we’ll often face unpalatable choices in mainstream politics. How could we begin to redress this situation? The democratic left and its allies in the labor movement and communities of color must work to link the youthful, disproportionately white, anti-corporate energy of Occupy to a broader anti-corporate coalition. We should press our friends in labor about the importance of building a non-labor, community-based national political organization that is pro-labor, but not controlled by labor, to engage in protest and community organizing but also electoral politics. This movement will need to run its own candidates – in Democratic primaries or as independents -- to channel the grievances of underemployed and indebted college graduates, and the multi-racial, de-unionized workers of the new “precariat” (with neither stable career paths nor decent wages and benefits).
For most Americans, electoral politics will be the primary form of politics this fall. Thus, progressives should seriously consider working collectively, in progressive Congressional and state legislative races. In Ohio, liberal-left Senator Sherrod Brown will face a tough re-election battle, as will Senator Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota.
We can use protest tactics to interject the crucial issues at candidate forums and other public venues that most candidates will not raise: progressive taxation, infrastructure and alternative energy sources, and major cuts to the wasteful “defense” budget. Here we can use materials from our educational projects around the massive resurgence of poverty (the 50th Anniversary of The Other America project) and the critique of the bi-partisan neo-liberal economic policies of fiscal austerity, regressive tax cuts, and economic deregulation (the GETUP project – Grassroots Economic Training for Understanding Power. (Contact the national office for details about both projects).
The absence of an organized, “federated” Left (with national, state and local affiliates) meant that Wisconsin was not replicated across the country. If Occupy links up with grassroots movements fighting against state cuts to crucial public goods, such as higher education, then that insurgent energy can be linked to fights over state policies that affect millions.
The future of the labor movement depends in part on state legislative races, as the Right has prioritized passing more state right-to-work laws and attacking state employee collective bargaining rights. ALEC has made it clear that their goal is to kill the U.S. labor movement, as well as the right to vote for the young, the elderly and the working poor. We must prioritize fighting voter suppression laws: the Right is trying to deny a basic right won by the sacrifices of millions of abolitionist, feminist, labor, and civil rights activists over the past two centuries.
Whatever the outcome of the 2012 elections, when the automatic cuts to discretionary programs required by the summer 2011 budget agreement hit this December, we should be out in the streets. We will need a powerful mobilization to demand that the rich and corporations pay their fair share, and that the hugely wasteful military budget be cut. These revenues could then support not just the funding of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but also restore federal job training and anti-poverty programs and revenue sharing with the states to reverse the brutal cuts to public services, and WPA and CCC-style direct public employment programs to end the ongoing jobs crisis.
While we may have hard choices to make on presidential politics this fall, we can deepen our commitment to building a multi-racial, labor-based, grassroots progressive coalition that can influence state power and turn back the austerity politics of the center-right. If we do that, we may eventually achieve sufficient strength that we can vote for what we want, rather than having to vote against what we fear.
Joseph M. Schwartz is a National Vice-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America and teaches political science at Temple University. His latest book, The Future of Democratic Equality: Reconstructing Social Solidarity in a Fragmented America (Routledge, 2009) recently won the American Political Science Association’s David Easton award for the best book recently published in political theory.
This essay is from the Summer 2012 issue of Democratic Left.
Posted with permission.