As 2009 has given way to 2010, chants of ‘Yes, we can’ have given away to groans of “What the hell?” There is no question the turn of events in the last month or two has dealt a severe blow to American liberalism. The Democratic Party, which thought itself on the verge of creating a new, lasting coalition after eight years of Republican misrule and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 propelled them to power, now find themselves with their backs against the wall. Barack Obama simultaneously managed to dishearten his base while mobilizing his conservative opposition. This has led to a perfect political storm in which nothing of real substance has changed from the Bush years, yet somehow the fans of Rush Limbaugh believe Socialism has been imposed on the nation.
Even though many progressives knew little about then-Senator Barack Obama, we were so disgusted with the Bush Administration and nearly thirty years of Republican domination (in one form or another) we were willing to give Obama a chance to bring his “change” to America. As it turned out, those of us who were so excited about the historic moment of electing America’s first African American President had seriously deluded ourselves. Nothing in Obama’s brief voting record as a U.S. Senator indicated he was a politician with any cojones whatsoever. Obama did not wait long to disappoint. Even before taking office, he began choosing for his staff and cabinet the same kind of people Hillary Clinton would have chosen. Then there was, of course, the Rod Blagojevich scandal, which reminded us all of the corrupt political culture that has pervaded the city from whence Obama cut his political teeth. Citing all the betrayals Obama, in my view, has made since taking office would take up too much space: From the choice of Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary to Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff to the decision to conduct a surge in Afghanistan, Obama has really bent over backward to piss liberal voters off.
Republicans have a different view. Somehow, they think Obama’s stimulus plan constituted ‘socialism’, even though it was composed of only slightly more money spent than Bush’s bank bailout in 2008. The conservatives then screamed about a “government takeover of health care”, even though the health care plan proposed had far more input from insurance and drug companies than it did from followers of Marx or Lenin. The one issue the Republicans are correct about is that all the additional social spending has driven up the federal deficit, but it is quite odd the chronic deficits never bothered conservatives much when they were being run up by the previous Administration. Nevertheless, as little evidence as there is to support the conservative standpoint, their views have held out, especially amongst independents, who are flocking back to Republicans. The proof of the independent defection to the GOP was demonstrated by the political earthquake that occurred recently when the Massachusetts Senate seat left open by the death of Ted Kennedy went to a Republican, Scott Brown, effectively killing health care reform and putting Obama’s Presidency on life support. The loss signals a virtual slaughter of Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. If Obama goes by Bill Clinton’s playbook, he’ll soon choose a Dick Morris-style sleazebag political consultant and bend over backwards to Corporate America (as if he could bend anymore than he already has) in order to amass a war chest meant to destroy any serious competition. In the meantime, he’ll sign legislation further moving him and his Party from any pretense of progressive ideals. In other words, Obama will continue to sell us all down the river, only at a faster rate. Thus, the Democratic base that organized so well to help win Obama the election will be even further marginalized.
Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of cash to support or defeat candidates in elections. This means that, soon, politicians in the Democratic Party are to become even less likely to fight for real reform (if such a thing is possible), as they become cowed by the prospect of multimillion-dollar smear campaigns to defeat them, the likes of which happened to John Kerry in the 2004 election, only worse. Liberals will be implored to stay on board: We will be warned that America has turned rightward and more bellicose and we must support the Democrats as the most progressive choice that is politically possible.
This citizen, for one, has had enough and would rather engage in the audacity of real hope. Since I first cut my political teeth during the Iran/Contra days in the mid-80s, the Democrats have been putting out the same basic story year after year and election after election: “Vote for Democrats, because the Republicans are extremists.” The scare tactic has worked. Democrats have taken gobs of corporate money, screwed its electoral base on nearly every issue, and gotten away with it, election after election, simply because much of their voting base is scared to death of the big, bad GOP. But I’m not so sure they’ll be able to get away with it anymore. Progressive voters really have nothing more to lose by supporting a third party movement. We have finally seen what it would be like to have a Democratic majority in both Houses, including a filibuster-proof Senate. For all our trouble, all our organizing, precinct walking, letter writing and blog posting in support of Obama, we got nothing. Nada. No end to the war. No cuts in the military budget. No restoration of civil liberties. No accountability for Wall Street and no health care reform. Barack Obama has remained steadfastly loyal to the wealthy elite that largely funded his campaign.
Although it is easy to get discouraged, Obama’s failures might also be a prospect for long-term change. In some ways, these current times remind me of the fateful election of 1992, when Americans’ desperate cry for change almost led to the nation’s first independent President. That year, I supported former California Governor Jerry Brown, who ran for the Democratic Party nomination on a rather radical platform of taking no more than $100 from any single contributor. Frustration on the Left was expressed through the Brown candidacy; on the Right, anger was expressed via Patrick Buchanan. When Buchanan and Brown both flamed out, H. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire, seemed to unite the anger of Left and Right and Middle, and seemed a good bet to go all the way to the White House. Until just before the Democratic convention in July of 1992, the Texas billionaire was leading in the polls; then a series of political missteps led him to suddenly drop out of the race and virtually hand the election to Clinton. I was in New York at the time, and Perot’s timing could not have been better for the Democrats: When the dust had settled, a sluggish Democratic Party was re-energized and suddenly grabbed the mantle of reform, pulling a majority of Perot voters into their camp. Although Perot re-entered the race later that year, the damage had been done, and Clinton was elected President.
Being one of those progressives who swore never to vote for Clinton, I was virtually strong-armed by progressive friends that Bubba was the only real option. Having stained myself with the Clinton vote, I tried to make up for it by keeping up on my commitment for change within the Democratic Party. Working with other local volunteers from the Brown for President Campaign, we formed a political group- called We The People–that hoped to be a model for a national movement. Former Governor Brown himself attended several of our meetings, and at one of them, pitched to our group the idea of putting an initiative together for the City of San Francisco that would build on his Presidential bid and limit campaign contributions to $100 per individual. Our organization had some dedicated signature gatherers who had already collected enough signatures to put a public transportation initiative on the ballots for 1993, and we were confident they would have done so for the campaign finance initiative.
Unfortunately, the Jerry Brown, who ran against the Democratic Party establishment in 1992 eventually caved in to pressure from labor unions, who did not like the $100 initiative. It turned out, it was not only corporations that were against campaign finance reform, and this was a rude awakening for me. Brown, who is now once again a prolific fundraiser, soon convinced our We the People chapter we would be better off working in a coalition of labor and union activists to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He asked us to pull the petition and we the grassroots organizers foolishly obeyed the calculating politician. Against our better judgment, our organization steered away from the core issue of the corrupting influence of money in politics and became just another conventional political group making compromises. The dropped initiative caused a bitter internal battle, which eventually led to our dissolution. We’ll never know if the $100 campaign contribution initiative would have shaken up San Francisco politics because it was killed in its infancy.
The lessons I learned from the experiences of 1992 are many but one key lesson I took away is to not to always look for change to come from above. If ordinary citizens always depend on a Jerry Brown, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan or any one politician to tell us what we need to do, we are setting ourselves up for being betrayed. I initially found Obama’s grassroots organizing appealing, but later have come to realize that his people are too attached to his persona, and not to the ideals of the Republic. This is the one enticing aspect I find about the so-called “Tea Parties”: This movement is not attached to a single political personality, even though its origin may be more Astroturf than real grass roots activism. If something similar could percolate around a new progressive, antiwar movement, and would refuse to let itself again be co-opted by the hopelessly sleazy and corrupt Democrats, it might be a real force for change. Many of us screwed up badly by buying into the fantasy that the Democratic Party can be reformed. Hats off to those individuals who refused to drink the Kool Aid: Sibel Edmonds and Cindy Sheehan amongst them. The truth seems to be that change will only come, in the long term, if citizen activists, tens of thousands of us, remain detached from the mainstream parties and do not get caught in the game of strategic politics.
Will 2012 be the year a truly independent, reformist movement breaks loose in American politics? One can only hope so. Whether that is the case or not, I personally believe it is time to dump Obama and the Democrats and start working change from the outside. Jerry Brown, in one of his more lucid moments, told Frank Sesno of CNN in 1992 that when one is inside a fish house, it is nearly impossible to clean out the stench. Unfortunately, the stench of a cannery is like perfume compared to that coming from the tired, bankrupt Democratic Party and the dysfunctional Obama Administration.