11 October 2012

Obama and the dream of progressive persuasion

The editors of The Nation are clearly worried about apathy. Why else would they need to run a "Why Obama?" issue a month before Election Day? For the staff of the progressive weekly, the reasons are obvious enough, the main one being the existential threat presented by the Republican party. "A victory for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in November would validate the reactionary extremists who have captured the Republican Party," the lead article warns, "It would represent the triumph of social Darwinism, the religious right, corporate power and the big money donors who thrive in a new Gilded Age of inequality" But The Nation has been saying this all year, and they say it for every national election. The more interesting part of the article is intended not to scare people but to answer critics from the left who complain of how little Obama has accomplished, as well as the implicit criticism -- one I try to make explicit as often as possible -- of an unconditional dependence upon Democrats that inevitably gives the party little incentive to take the steps its constituents most want.

"[W]e have no illusions about the audacity of hope," the editors write, "no faith that the re-election of President Obama alone will accomplish the radical change this magazine has championed." Apart, then, from preventing the predicted Republican reign of terror, what's left to motivate progressive skeptics into voting Democrat again? The answer combines a complacent endorsement of Obama with a call to arms, of a sort.

For America to be on a different path in 2016 from that of 2012, progressive movements will have to “occupy” all the levers of power—in Washington, in the states and in the streets....More important, progressive movements can’t be lulled into complacency once the election is over and expect elected officials to make change from above.

The Nation exhorts progressive to put pressure on a re-elected Obama. The editors claim that progressives have already done this successfully during his first term. Since 2008, "activists were able to expand the limits of possibility by seizing the opening presented by the historic 2008 election and pushing for the change they believed in." Gay-rights and immigrant-rights activists are cited as successful examples of this approach. the LGBT community "cajoled, educated, applied pressure from the inside and protested from the outside, creating the conditions for Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage." Immigrant activist "dreamers," meanwhile, "dreamers succeeded in persuading the White House that a political directive halting deportations of young, undocumented immigrants was both good policy and good politics." Progressive "push and pull" has been used on other fronts, from gender equality to environmental activism, extending at an extreme to civil disobedience outside the White House to get the Keystone XL pipeline postponed. Such efforts should be repeated and redoubled, the magazine insists, once Obama is safely returned to office.

Or else what? How exactly did these groups get their way with the Democrats? Arguments about "pressure" are unconvincing given liberal intolerance for anyone threatening even to sit out the next election. With Republicans always looming as a worst-case scenario, and with Democrats always the easiest way to stave off the GOP, what kind of "pressure" can progressives exert on a Democratic government? Taking the Keystone case as an extreme, activists must be willing at least to "embarrass" a Democratic White House by holding demonstrations, though they should be reticent about further steps. But that sort of "embarrassment" is really part of an extra-electoral "persuasion" process that Nation-type liberals clearly see as their best option for dealing with Democratic officeholders. Just as Obama himself allegedly prefers intellectual persuasion to the bargaining or manipulation old-time hacks urge upon him, so progressives, The Nation insists, should trust in their ability to persuade the President, with numbers on the streets if not entirely with reasoned words, rather than issue threats to withhold their support for the perpetual crusade against GOP evil.  This is an appeal to faith, built on the assumption that activist persuasion is the actual cause of any policy the White House takes. The credit given activists begs the question whether they actually made an elected official do something he actually didn't want to do. I don't rule out that a leader can be persuaded by reason, but that doesn't prove that any of the activists cited by The Nation actually did the persuading. The claims will be most credible, I suspect, when the persuasion is tied to pressure in the form of threats to "primary" an incumbent. How much credibility can even that threat have, however, in an environment where such primary challenges are discouraged because they may weaken the winner for the general election? My point is not to discourage all efforts at persuasion, but simply to remind people that the power of persuasion is limited in the face of any resistance without some sort of "or else" option, and that any commitment to the Manichean (or Bipolarchial) struggle between good and Republican, which Republicans must never be allowed to win, inevitably limits activists' options. As long as the Republican party exists in its present and presumably intolerable form, those progressives who fear Republicanism would seem to have no choice but to settle for whatever Democrats choose to do for them. So it has been for some time, and so it may be for some time yet -- but it seems like something's gotta give. I just wonder what.

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