Bill Clinton was the worst thing to happen to the Democratic Party and to progressives since that racist warmonger Woodrow Wilson won the presidency and dragged the US into the utterly pointless and incredibly bloody First World War.
Clinton, by posing as a progressive, confused and undermined, and ultimately betrayed the liberal/progressive wing of the party, shattering what was left of the New Deal coalition and leaving the American left adrift and riven by the conflict between those who thought the Democratic Party was the only viable vehicle for progressive reform and those who thought it was hopelessly in the grip of corporate interests.
Barack Obama offers the hope of bringing that era of debilitating confusion to an end.
Not because he is the Great Black Hope of progressives, but because he has taken the concept of selling out to corporate interests and compromising with Republicans to such remarkable heights that progressives hopefully can no longer be confused about the irretrievably corrupted nature of the Democratic Party.
On virtually every issue of importance, President Obama has sided with corporate interests and the wealthy.
On the issue of war and peace, he has sided with the military-industrial complex, with a policy of permanent occupation of Iraq and endless war in Afghanistan, as well as continued funding of the country’s colossal armory of death, from strategic missiles and submarines to aircraft-carrier-group armadas to high-tech fighter squadrons and space weaponry.
On civil liberties, he has sided with the police state, supporting continuation of the Bush/Cheney administration’s insidious National Security Agency spying program, defended military spying within the US, and refused to prosecute obvious abuses by the prior administration.
On torture, the Obama administration is continuing the imprisonment and torture of captives in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world at Bagram Air Base and, probably, at other secret sites, and instead of closing Guantanamo as promised, is looking into transferring that hellhole of torture and abuse to one or several sites in the mainland US.
Health care reform has become a sad joke, with the emerging “reform” bill looking for all the world like the Rube Goldberg creation of the Clinton era that properly went down in flames. Instead of taking on the insurance industry, the hospital companies and the pharmaceutical industry and other parts of the profit-making medical-industrial complex, Obama cut deals with all of them behind closed doors, assuring that their profits would be left untouched, and that they could essentially write their own “reform” bill through the offices of bought-and-paid members of Congress like Senator Max Baucus. Obama and his congressional allies carefully kept any discussion of the single-payer idea—essentially Medicare for all, and the approach that even Obama himself admits would be cheaper and more universal—out of sight and off the table.
Climate change action, too, has been sold out, with Obama adopting the approach favored by the energy industry—“cap and trade.” That concept is a gold mine for Wall Street trading firms, which will be doing trades next in pollution credits instead of subprime mortgages, and for energy companies which will get free credits to sell, courtesy of the taxpayer. And because it’s a system so easy to game, it will do nothing or next to nothing to reduce greenhouse gases.
Finally, there’s economy and banking reform. Here Obama didn’t even make a pretense of taking a progressive approach. There is a stimulus program, but half of it was in the form of tax cuts—token for the poor and middle class and significant for the rich and for businesses, and half in the form of federal grants, often for unneeded projects like roads and road repair which go to some of the higher paid members of the working class, leaving the poor and the ununionized with no job help. Meanwhile, bankers were the recipients of trillions of dollars in bailout assistance, while nothing was done to break up the huge mega-bank holding companies that brought on the financial and economic crisis in the first place. Instead of picking economic advisers and bank regulators from the many talented system critics like Nobelists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, Obama picked veterans of the Bush/Cheney administration, and Wall Street shills like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner.
Last fall, I and many progressives urged voters to elect Obama, not because we thought he was a progressive, but because we hoped that his background—community organizer, raised by a single mother, experience living in a third world country (Indonesia), multi-racial—would lead him to make at least some right decisions. We, or certainly I, hoped too that the energized young and working class electorate that came out for him in the fall would continue to press him aggressively to do the right thing on war, environment, civil liberties and the economy.
I was wrong on the first count: Obama has been a corporatist through and through on all the major issues that matter. And I was wrong on the second. Most of the left in the US, from the labor movement to the environmentalist movement to the anti-war movement, has to date remained glumly quiescent as Obama has sold them out on each of their key issues.
But here is the silver lining: The sell-out this time is so much more blatant, and so much more serious, than it was with Clinton, and for all the talk about Obama’s ability to string words together, he is so much less of a charismatic figure than the gregarious Bill Clinton, that he is unlikely to hang on to the ardent support that propelled him to his victory last November. The disappointment and sense of betrayal among progressives this time is palpable, especially because, while Clinton, by 1994, had the excuse that he was working with a Republican, or partially Republican Congress, Obama has solid control of both houses, but refuses to use it. If, as I expect, the recession continues to deepen, with more and more people losing jobs and homes, if, as I predict, health care continues to be unaffordable and inaccessible, if, as I know will happen, evidence of deadly climate change continues to pile up, and if, as I am equally certain, Iraq explodes and the war in Afghanistan continue to worsen, the left is going to see Obama and the Democrats in Congress as the failures and corrupt frauds they are, and will abandon them.
That leaves the question of what to do, and where those frustrated progressives will turn.
I don’t claim to have the answer to that. Clearly the labor movement needs to recognize that hitching its fortunes to the Democratic Party has been and will continue to be a dismal failure. It needs to pull all its political money back and only support those who are 100% allies in the struggle for the rights of workers. No money for the party as a whole. It should also go back to the pioneering work of people like the late Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil and Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, who before his death was tirelessly working to establish an American labor party.
Other third parties on the left need to drop their individual agendas and work towards unity, especially with the labor movement, in order to create a broad-based left party that doesn’t have litmus tests for inclusion—just broad principles like steeply progressive taxation, an end to NAFTA and the WTO, democratization of the Federal Reserve Bank, national health care, a wholesale slashing of the military budget, by perhaps two-thirds or more, free education through four years of college for all, and a crisis plan to attack climate change.
If the ever fractious US left, and the somnolent labor movement, cannot come together as one, there is little hope of political change in America. At that point the alternative would be an increasing militancy over these critical issues, outside of the electoral arena—something that has to happen anyhow, regardless of whether a real third party force can be put together. We know that simply organizing occasional polite marches in Washington, or in key cities, accomplishes nothing. We have learned that email campaigns to deluge members of Congress with canned opinions don’t work. What has worked, and will always work, is massive campaigns of civil disobedience, tent cities in Washington, organized disruption of war preparations, and door-to-door organizing. The corrupt hacks who inhabit the halls of Congress and the White House will not do the right thing just because it is the right thing, or because we ask them nicely. They may, if we make them fear that they will actually lose our votes in the next election. For the most part, incumbent Democrats know that the people who peacefully march down Connecticut Avenue are still likely to vote for them come the next election. They’re not going to be so sure about people who are being hit by tear gas and water cannons and who are being hauled off en masse to jail at protests.
We may need to start sending that stronger message.
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
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