Why Should the Left Support Obama?
Doug Henwood | October 17, 2012
As I paged through this magazine’s recent presidential endorsement issue, I searched vainly for the “plague on both their houses” point of view. Though many Obama fans are happy to cite the spirit of the Occupy movement, they don’t want any part of the skepticism about electoral politics that many Occupiers express. Vote Green, vote Socialist Workers, don’t vote at all—there was no trace of those venerable positions in these pages.
I’m not sure that I’d embrace any of those positions myself. But I wish, just once, an endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate coming from the left would mull over some serious structural issues that are at stake.
There are certain eternally recurrent features of these endorsement editorials, and they are depressing. The shortcomings of this year’s Democrat are acknowledged, only to be dismissed, because this is always the most important election since 1932, or maybe 1860. If the Democrats lose, brownshirts will move into the Oval Office. It will be repression and immiseration at home and aggressive war abroad. Sure, there will be some repression, immiseration and war even if the Dem wins, but see above re dismissal of shortcomings.
The persistence of the pattern is no exaggeration. Here’s something from a 1967 essay by Hal Draper on the imminent 1968 election: “Every time the liberal labor left has made noises about its dissatisfaction with what Washington was trickling through, all the Democrats had to do was bring out the bogy of the Republican right. The lib-labs would then swoon, crying ‘The fascists are coming!’ and vote for the Lesser Evil.”
And what is the consequence of that swoon? Draper’s answer: “the Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those forces to the right.” Almost every editorial urging a vote for this year’s Dem will lament the rightward move of our politics without ever considering the contribution of such calls to the process.
Back in 2008, I recall a group of self-styled Progressives for Obama resolving to hold his “feet to the fire” should he drift rightward in office. That amazed me, considering that none of them would ever consider withholding a vote and/or urging others to do so. In an election likely to turn on a couple of percentage points, the threat of exit could have some force. But it’s hard to imagine it ever being exercised—because of the brownshirts in the wings.
Another recurrent feature of the genre: a lament over the Democrats’ lack of spine, which is often treated as a curable condition. But in fact the invertebrate status is a symptom of the party’s fundamental contradiction: it’s a party of business that has to pretend for electoral reasons that it’s not. Related to that, it’s getting harder to say what the party’s core beliefs are. Republicans have a coherent philosophy—loopy and often terrifying, yes, but coherent—which they use to fire up an impassioned base. The Democrats can’t risk getting their base too excited, lest it scare their funders.
That fundamental problem is worsened by Obama’s personality. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, who in a marvelous 1936 speech announced that he welcomed the hatred of the rich, Obama craves their approval. Roosevelt emerged from the aristocracy and had the confidence to step on their toes now and then. Obama, born into modest circumstances, was groomed for power from an early age by elite institutions, and has little taste for toe-stomping. So instead of a wholesale renovation of the financial architecture in the style of the New Deal, we got the weak tea of Dodd–Frank.
I would prefer that Obama win the election—not so much because he’d be so much better than Romney on policy but because he will disappoint so many of his loyalists that it would be good for radical politics. Instead of people bellyaching about McCain’s awfulness, as they would have had he won in 2008, we got Occupy. Occupy faded, in part because attention was turned to the presidential campaign. I’m hoping that come November 7, we can turn away from big-time electoral politics again, which is where people who want more than minor transformations should be looking. Presidential politics, given the power of money and all our constitutional structures that nurture orthodoxy, is the natural terrain of the big boys. It would be much more fruitful to organize around specific issues, like single-payer health insurance and living-wage bills; to develop better institutions, like livelier unions and third and fourth parties; and if one must work in the electoral realm, to build from the bottom up, where the likes of us could actually make a difference.