The Obtuseness of the "Left Establishment"

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 Recently a group of U.S. left-wingers, myself included, signed an open letter to certain members of the “left establishment,” urging them to come into open opposition to the Obama administration.  Among those to whom the message is directed are Michael Moore, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Bill Fletcher, Tom Hayden, and Jesse Jackson, Jr., all of whom vigorously supported Obama’s election as president.  For them, Obama was a progressive and the best hope for a better, more equitable United States. Unfortunately, Obama has proved to be other than they believed.  Although the letter doesn’t specifically say so, it implies that the signers don’t understand why otherwise intelligent people cannot say once and for all, now that their hopes have been so decisively dashed, that Obama is an enemy of working class men and women.  To quote our statement:

 [The Obama administration] has advanced repeated assaults on the New Deal safety net (including the previously sacrosanct Social Security trust fund), jettisoned any hope for substantive health care reform, attacked civil rights and environmental protections, and expanded a massive bailout further enriching an already bloated financial services and insurance industry. It has continued the occupation of Iraq and expanded the war in Afghanistan as well as our government’s covert and overt wars in South Asia and around the globe.

 Now, the simple explanation of what Obama has done is that he was never a progressive to begin with.  There was ample evidence for this.  For me, the most telling was his selection during the presidential campaign of a University of Chicago economist as his chief economic advisor.  Since becoming president, his choices have been similar. His appointment of two vicious opponents of social security to chair his deficit reduction commission is as good an example as any.

The simple explanation seems to be too hard to swallow for the “left establishment,” and they have twisted and turned to find an alternative and at the same time rationalize their active support for Obama’s election.  One tactic has been to say that they have been steady critics of Obama, eliding the difference between “criticism” and “opposition.”  AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka sharply criticized Obama’s two-year pay freeze for federal workers.  However, he will never oppose Obama’s nomination for president in 2012, and he will pour millions of dollars of union member dues money into Obama’s reelection. 

Recently, some black progressives have argued, in tacit support of the president’s actions, that Obama has had to be very careful in trying to get at least some progressive initiatives enacted lest he seem another “angry black man.”  One black intellectual even invoked the specter of Mau Mau, the violent 1950s African rebellion in Kenya, home of Obama’s father.  Obama has to keep cool, offering compromises to his (white) enemies, lest whites fear for their lives. An angry black man would apparently never have gotten any progressive legislation enacted.

Aside from the fact that “angry black men” (and women) have been in the forefront of the struggle for racial equality and overall social justice in the United States (Frederick Douglas, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, to name a few), and apart from the obvious truth that Obama’s policies have overwhelmingly helped the rich and hurt the poor, this argument is ridiculous.  Obama could have cooly insisted on single-payer health care, an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, hands off social security, and an end to war in Afghanistan.  Why would he have to scream or sound angry?  And wouldn’t people of all races, ethnicities, and genders have welcomed a little anger from their president?  There is certainly plenty to be angry about.

Another argument put forth, by both black and white progressives, is that overly harsh criticism of Obama from the left will drive the masses of Black (and Hispanic) voters away from the Democratic Party and to the right, to our eternal detriment.  Like the angry black man canard, this one is offensive to the intellect.  It presumes that Obama’s strongest supporters cannot now grasp that he is their enemy and not their friend.  As Obama oversees cuts in Social Security and Medicare and attacks our public schools, I think it is a safe bet to say that many Black and Hispanic men and women will become disillusioned.  I have a strong suspicion that more than a few already have.  And won’t they see that Obama’s policies have continued the anti-working class initiatives of the Bushes and Clinton, wrecking the prospects of the very black men whom Obama keeps hectoring for not living up to their responsibilities?  Even if we could plausibly say that minorities will be driven into the arms of the right, who will be doing the driving?  I’d say it was Obama.

Opinions abound as to who is the “real” Obama.  The writer Lewis Lapham sees Obama as a “celebrity,” with little substance.  He says,

Barack Obama in 2008 scored the apostolic music for gospel choir and guitar, but to notice that he failed to work the miracle of the loaves and fishes is to miss the point, like noticing that David Hasselhoff can neither sing nor dance. The author of two best-selling book-length self-promotions, Obama was elected by virtue of his celebrity, a commodity meant to be sold at the supermarket with the cosmetics and the canned soup, elevated to the office of a totem pole.

 Lapham is on to something here. Obama became president with a resume nearly as empty as that of George W. Bush. It is remarkable that the “left establishment” didn’t notice this, didn’t ask if the substance of the man matched the hype. 

Another view of Obama is expressed by a friend of mine, who says that Obama is an intelligent agent of the capitalist class who knows exactly what he is doing. I think he is on to something too.  Consider what Obama said on the campaign trail in Beaumont, Texas. In response to a health-related question from a black woman, he said,

I know some of y’all got that cold Popeye’s [chicken] out for breakfast. I know. That’s why y’all laughing. You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school … It’s not good enough for you to say to your child, ‘Do good in school,’ and then when that child comes home, you got the TV set on, you got the radio on, you don’t check their homework, there is not a book in the house, you’ve got the video game playing.

I remember thinking that this was an offensive comment. It played right into the worst white stereotypes of black parents, blaming them for the failure of their kids to prosper, while ignoring the awful material circumstances that are the real culprits. Why would he do this except to signal to the white middle class (those most likely to vote) and to his paymasters that he was not going to be a progressive president? That there was not going to be a rerun of FDR’s strong tilt to the left during the first years of the Great Depression.  How could our “left establishment” have been blind to this?

The obtuseness of the “left establishment” is almost too hard to bear today. In late 2010, two years into the Obama presidency and with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on economic recovery, the economic conditions of working class America, and especially those of racial minorities, are desperate.  In New York City, a recent report found that one in four young black men (those between sixteen and twenty-four) has a job. Only one in ten without a high school diploma is employed.  Nearly 70 percent of these men are not in the labor force, too discouraged even to look for work.  One of the study’s authors said, “Now young black men between 16 and 24 years have become the banner of hopelessness, particularly here in New York City.”  This sense of hopelessness deepens when we consider how many young black men are in prison, on probation, or on parole, not just in New York City but across the nation.

How is it not compulsory now for all on the left to ask some obvious questions? What has Obama done for young black men?  For young black women?  For the poor?  For the working class? For organized labor? For the one million black men and women in prison?  For all those in prison?  For undocumented immigrants? For gays and lesbians?  For those who don’t have adequate or any health care? For the world’s impoverished masses? I am afraid that the answer to all of these questions is “next to nothing.” If this isn’t enough to make us the implacable enemies of Barack Obama, what is?  Someday, if a radical political situation arises, the “left establishment” will try to take control of any movements that develop.  Let’s remember, even as we make necessary alliances, that these people couldn’t see through someone whose political choices have been as transparent as those of Barack Obama.

19 Responses to The Obtuseness of the "Left Establishment"

  1. jp December 16, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    along with the ‘popeye’s’ happening, another great example of obama’s love of the people is his declaration that a great economic development plan for black neighborhoods is to stop throwing trash out the windows.

    i notice that his supporters have also totally ignored his tenure in the us senate, which foreshadowed all his subsequent actions and should have conclusively dispelled all illusions (bailout, war funding, etc.).

  2. John Halle December 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Thank you so much for your concise and powerful demolition of the remaining foundation on which “support” for Obama rests.

    And, of course, thanks again for signing onto the letter.

    For Michael’s regular readers who might be interested in signing on to the letter, it can be found here:

    We’re a bit bogged down now (the big progressive sites won’t have anything to do with us) so retail, “door to door” canvassing is required.

    Hope everyone will help out with signatures, and also links.



  3. Vinnie Valente December 16, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

    Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

  4. jp December 17, 2010 at 12:10 am #

    vinnie, for people who hate the player, it’s enough to replace that player – like obama supporters who hated h. clinton and were sure obama was somebody real.

    you are absolutely right it’s the game – and the signers of the letter include many who know it’s the game. those are called by names like socialist, marxist, etc.

    the most deluded are the ones who assert the knowledge that it’s the game, yet think they can get closer to ending imperial slaughter, wage and debt slavery by supporting it (i.e., marxists for obama).

  5. Ben December 17, 2010 at 4:53 am #

    FW Yates, that was excellent, and thanks for the letter as well.

  6. mike December 16, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

    jp, Yes, we had plenty of evidence that Obama was like nearly all US presidents, namely the servant of our economic overlords.

    John Halle, thank you for being one of the to initiators the letter. I urge others to sign on.

  7. Dick Reilly December 17, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    The irony of course is that Hayden, Fletcher, Carl Davidson and his cohort Marilyn Katz ( former SDS leader and now a Chicago PR maven with ties to the Daley Administration) and others worked overtime to manufacture the illusion the Obama was a progressive to begin with – a assessment that many progressive community organizers and activists in Chicago intimately aware of Obama’s real track record as a local politician on the make flatly rejected at the time. Indeed, veteran community organizer, Bruce Dixon – now a editor of Black Agenda Report, first exposed Obamba’s ties to the DLC for the journal Black Commentator – which Fletcher currently writes for. It’s a story worth revisiting.

  8. Algernon December 17, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Mike, this post lands with the clean and solemn report of a bullseye. Thank you.

  9. Carl Davidson December 18, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    Reilly is simply wrong. From the git-go, ‘Progressives for Obama’ made the point that Obama was not a man of the left, not even a consistent progressive, but a ‘liberal speaking to the center.’ One nice thing about net-based projects is that it’s all there, in plain text, in the archives, for anyone to look up. I made the point many times that we were NOT ‘lefties for a progressive Obama’, but simply ‘Progressives for Obama’. Especially on the war, we pointed out he was not an ‘out now’ guy, but simply a lesser evil over McCain-Palin. What’s more, you’ll find the best critiques of Obama, all along, on our two sites, and

  10. Frank December 18, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Were ‘Progressives for Obama’ looking to function as some sort of Trojan Horse that would ultimately unravel Obama and the Democratic party, help them see where they went wrong, and point them in the right direction? It is hard to see this scenario tilting in favor of any progressive camp with an equitable socialist agenda in mind. Don’t radicals firmly believe that the logical and best road to follow in such matters is opposition, as opposed to criticism (from within).

    The Democrats will never tolerate any outside intrusion to cause it to change from within. Unless of course, one toes the Party line.

    Lastly, haven’t we gone down this lesser-of-two-evils road before? Will the People, the world and the country be better off if they let politicians cajole and intimidate them into believing that they have no choice but the best choice, in this case the one of the beast with two heads?

  11. Dick Reilly December 18, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Davidson writes: “One nice thing about net-based projects is that it’s all there, in plain text, in the archives, for anyone to look up”. He’s right. One online source worth examining is an article by Davidson’s colleague, former SDS activist Marilyn Katz, entitled “What We Lost After We Won in 2008” published by “In These Times” on Nov. 10, 2010 . It makes for interesting reading. –

    In this article, Katz details some of the events that led to Obama’s projection onto to the national scene as a possible Democratic antiwar candidate including his appearance at at an antiwar rally that she and Davidson helped to organize on on October 2, 2002 in Chicago. Katz who works as a PR consulant with ties to the Daley Adminstration served as media coordinator for this event and worked tirelessly to promote Obama’s speech to the national media market. She later went on to become one of his top fundraising bundlers in Illinois.

    But Davidson disingenuously writes: ” From the git-go, ‘Progressives for Obama’ made the point that Obama was not a man of the left, not even a consistent progressive, but a ‘liberal speaking to the center.’

    Really? Apparently, Katz did not get the memo. Here’s a quote from her conclusion.

    “In 2008 the American people elected a great leader who had an agenda that was not necessarily theirs or mine, but it was a progressive agenda, one that would frame the debate for the next four years. It is that sense—both of agenda and of the power of collective action, not of dependency on a great man but on the interdependency of man and movement—that has foundered. If the movement and the man are to prevail, that collective purpose must be found again.”

    The article was republished under the title “Marilyn Katz: Assessing 2008-2010, Developing a Frame for 2012” – on the PAR website.

  12. mike December 18, 2010 at 11:44 pm #

    Dick Reilly, I am with you on this. In August 2008, I wrote an essay on Counterpunch titled Obama and the Working Class. I said this:

    “What exactly does Obama have to say to them? Is he going to fight for their lost pensions? Make sure that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation has adequate funds? Is he going to do battle for their health care? Is he going to get the unemployment insurance system fixed? Is it possible to believe that he will go afer all those anti-worker trade agreements? Will he ensure that social security is never privatized? That it be made more generous, as it easily could be? Is he going to reverse the Bush administration’s draconian labor policies? Put people on the National Labor Relations Board who take the purpose of the labor laws—to promote collective bargaining—seriously?

    Will he make the Occupational Safety and Health Act a real law and not the dead letter it is now? Will he engineer a public works program that rebuilds the infrastructures of these forgotten towns and puts their citizens to work? Will he look for creative ways to bring these places back to life? Will he do something about public education and get rid of the corporate-inspired and ultra authoritarian No Child Left Behind legislation? Will he fight for college grants for those with little income? Will he bring home the working class wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters from Iraq and Afghanistan? Stop wasting billions of dollars on these criminal wars? Demand that unions be made legal in Iraq?

    Obama has failed to say anything meaningful about these matters, and as the campaign drags on, he moves ever further to the right. And if he doesn’t speak to the white working class, how could it be said that he speaks to the black or Hispanic working class either? What about the more than one million black men and women in prison? The gutted and ruined inner cities? The lost manufacturing jobs? The millions of immigrants now being treated as criminals, imprisoned and sometimes tortured before being shipped off to their native lands?”

    Carl Davidson, who was out stumping in W. PA for Obama, took me to task on Portside (if I remember correctly). Well, Carl was right that a lot of workers did vote for Obama, respecting I suppose the millions of dollars their old unions poured in to the campaign. But I was surely right in what I said. The proof is in the pudding, is it not? I was willing to say then that Obama was not the friend of the working class and never would be. Carl and others should have done the same.

  13. Mike B) December 20, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    TINA works for the bourgeois democracy too. TINA-Dem vs. TINA-Rep. Next time the election cycle trundles through, think about what you’re going to do. Voting takes ten minutes of your time at most and the results nowadays show just how little class consciousness has been organised into One Big Union since the last election. The election is also a measure of how little respect, those who understand what wage and debt slavery mean get, acting as toadies for the liberals. The revolutionary left should keep who it votes or doesn’t vote for to itself–nobody but the political manipulators in the DLC and Republican dirt file keepers care anyway. On election day, lefties can do their ten minute duty in the polling booth or go have a beer in the pub–‘they hate us for our freedom’. The rest of their TIME (and that’s all lefties have got to give in the end, unless they’re mere ‘checkbook liberals’) should be spent on educating, agitating and organising a classconscious citizenry, one not fooled about who creates the wealth, using natural resources and means of production owned by capitalists with their time and skills. A citizenry who knows who appropriates the lion’s share of both the wealth they create and the political power which goes with it.

    Obama is giving the left all the respect he reckons they deserve. McCain/Palin would have given them even less.

  14. Carl Davidson December 21, 2010 at 12:05 am #

    Nice try, but no cigar, Reilly.

    Marilyn Katz speaks for herself in these pieces you mention. I’m sure you can find more, but these quotes are beside the point.

    ‘Progressives for Obama’ had a statement everyone signed on to that reflects what I said above.

    As for Frank, we can point to the practice of PDA and its ongoing fights with many Dem leaders, mainly Blue dog and DLC types, around the country. Maybe someday the upper crust will move to purge them, but for the moment, PDA has grown from about 200 in 2004 to about 75,000 today. If we can multiply that by 10, we can do some serious politics.

    But with far less than PDA, the most folks can do over elections is kvetch in the cafes. If you want to build up the Greens with some sensible working-class politics, that’s fine, too. Go for it. I’ll support any Green or socialist with a decent shot at winning, especially if they try to take out Blue Dogs, GOPers, and Tea Partiers.

    But without some organization, it’s idle chatter.

  15. jp December 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    unfortunately it’s a lot more than idle chatter to support imperial slaughter, wage and debt slavery in the form of its latest embodiment. shameless…

  16. don December 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    The Left at one time understood that to win in the electoral arena meant that a mass movement for progressive social change by necessity must come first. This has now long been reversed. By placing so much attention on the electoral arena, the Left has done so at the expense of building coalitions, of building movements for progressive social change – which I argue has been sidelined by policy wonks, a DC-focused obsession, etc. In the end, too much of the Left has fallen into the trap of the fight between the parties Democrat or Republican.

    Today we fight the latest manufactured movement of the right, the Tea Party, as if they somehow represent the enemy, and backing Obama must be done no matter the compromise. Instead, we should see that the fighting among the working classes over whether to be Dem or Rep serves the interest of the ruling elite.

    As a self-identified leftist since my days in the university (late 70’s – when I subscribed to In These Times and The Nation – now long since dropped after ten plus years), I have just about had my fill of the establishment left.

  17. Deadbeat January 4, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    I don’t see how an appeal to Progressive Democrats (labeled here as the “Left Establishment”) makes up for the Left’s failure to fully back the Nader/Camajo campaign in 2004. Nader needed only 3 million new voters to achieve the 5% threshold that would have help to firmly establish the Green Party. You had signatory Medea Benjamin back the gadfly David Cobb, the late Howard Zinn embrace the Anybody But Bush strategy and Noam Chomsky remaining aloof until June of that year — much too late for Nader to obtain ballot signatures.

    Its confusion to see other progressives who clearly understood that a break with the Democrats are necessary sign onto this appeal to Progressive Democrats. For example Norman Solomon debated the late Peter Camejo that year suggesting that he and Nader not run at all! Solomon inflated the idea that George W. Bush was so vile that he must defeated. In other words, the Left help to spread the mindset that help open the door for Obama in 2008 and their failure to build a viable Green Party opened the door only wider.

    This meant that the Left was clearly in an extremely weak position in 2008 and rather than consolidate its efforts ran two completely parallel campaign which further split and weaken its ranks.

    Thus in many ways the Left has itself to blame for Obama’s rise and its appeal to Progressive Democrats is a way is a cover up of its own failures and a nifty way to divert from taking responsibility for helping to create the power vacuum that enable Obama’s rise to power.

  18. Frank January 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I agree with Deadbeat’s analysis. Moreover, it will be interesting to see if the Left will indeed test future candidates for blatant rhetoric, empty promises and speech, just to make certain this time around they are not being taken for a ride again, and remain true to themselves in their commitment to the poor and the working class.


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