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A couple of weeks ago, in comments on various blogs, I threw out the notion that it was time to start a Dump Obama movement. It stirred up a variety of responses:
The move is premature.
We need to concentrate on further exposing Obama first.
The masses aren’t yet ready.
We need to overthrow the entire system, not just Obama.
Congress is a worthier target.
Republicans are worse.
As well, a significant number of folks were either intrigued or downright enthusiastic.
Since then, I have seen a growing stream of posts illuminating the extent to which Obama has been initiating right-wing policies which can in no way, shape or form be blamed on his inability to control a Republican-dominated Congress, among the best being Glenn Greenwald’s “The profound mystery of the ‘enthusiasm gap’ “. Especially interesting was a September 8 piece by FireDogLake’s Jon Walker "Why Should I Care? Leaders Lack Good Reasons to Vote For Democrats – or Against Republicans”, in which he attempts a hardball analysis of the consequences of a Republican takeover of Congress, noting:
I’ve been told for two years a mere 59 Democrats in the Senate are powerless due to the filibuster; by this same logic, we have nothing to fear from Republican gains because they will never be able to get anything through a Democratic filibuster, and even if they do, Obama can veto it … Talk of how a segment of Republican candidates favors privatizing Social Security or eliminating Medicare does demonstrate that they are out of touch with mainstream America, but in all honesty there is zero possibility that either move would come about as a result of Republican action alone, with or without winning narrow control of the House.
At the same time, the din of hysterical “Republicans will eat middle-class babies” articles and comments are becoming a steady chorus, as erstwhile radicals clarify their loyalties.
Timing is everything. It is time to develop a tactical focus to our discontent. Now is the time to begin a Dump Obama movement.
I hold to the following:
(1) The excuse that Obama is any kind of liberal but held hostage by congressional Republicans is completely bankrupt. Further exposure of Obama is helpful but in no way a precondition for a Dump Obama movement.
(2) Enough people would support a Dump Obama movement to give it, not an immediate majority, but critical mass.
(3) Dump Obama gives the left (broadly defined) a bully pulpit not readily available elsewhere, an opportunity to focus a wide array of political forces — populist, progressive, radical — that would normally not be able to work together.
(4) The 2012 presidential primaries provide progressives with an existing structure for a Dump Obama movement.
(5) The argument that our primary concern must be to prevent a Republican takeover is bankrupt and worse, a public menace.
(6) The key concept at this point is building a movement, not coming to agreement on a candidate or specific organizational vehicle (timing is everything).
Obama is no innocent hostage
(1) Obama could end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as commander-in-chief, in practice if not through legislation. But his Justice Department is defending it against a REPUBLICAN challenge.
(2) Obama didn’t have to cut a pre-election deal with the healthcare industry precluding bargaining over drug prices, imports from Canada, and a public option.
(3) Obama could close Guantanamo as commander-in-chief.
(4) Obama could renounce George Bush’s claim on dictatorial presidential powers, including assassination of American citizens, rather than extending them.
(5) Obama could order his Justice Department to prosecute Bush era war criminals.
(6) Obama could end the war in Afghanistan as commander-in-chief, ending the slaughter of wedding parties.
(7) Obama could use his powers to make recess appointments to give progressives such as Dawn Johnsen a foothold in his administration.
(8) Obama could end the Catfood Commission he insisted on after it was REJECTED by Congress.
(9) Obama could simply veto any extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, rather than pointedly refusing to promise to do.
(10) Obama could use the bully pulpit for so many causes, rather than cower in front of a Congress that has 59 senators.
My fingers grow weary, but others could add to this list.
”Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Lately, I’ve been seeing references (mostly disparaging) to the Dump Johnson movement of 1967-68. Critics of Obama, when not Nader-baited, are tarred with that brush. It is fascinating that Obama defenders are the ones recalling the Dump Johnson movement. Nervous?
In 1967, protest against the war in Vietnam was running high, with massive demonstrations and widespread turmoil. The focus was on the government, the system, and Lyndon Johnson. It was not couched in Democrat vs. Republican terms, and a major element of the debate within the left was whether to participate in electoral politics at all. Liberal Senator Eugene McCarthy, an early critic of the war, determined that there was sufficient base for running against Johnson in the primaries in 68. After he scored 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, Johnson dropped out. At that point, Bobby Kennedy dropped in, and was seen as the likely Democratic Party nominee. Except for him being shot and killed.
The nod went to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a solid example of the species “cold-war liberal.” He was rightly seen as a Johnson stooge, and the police riot against the McCarthy people at the Chicago convention didn’t help. The left was less than whole-heartedly supportive of Humphrey, and Nixon narrowly won.
(1) The left was “credited” with throwing the election to Nixon.
(2) The left was credited with ending the war in Vietnam, however long it dragged on under Nixon.
Electoral ins-and-outs aside, it is clear that Johnson’s war policies (which generated the protests) led to the election of Richard Nixon. What a fucking shame. Let’s examine the equation.
We ended up with Richard Nixon, who while performing any number of villainous acts ended the draft, and gave 18-year-olds the vote. His policies were a grudging continuation of the liberal welfare state. After committing unspeakable crimes against the Vietnamese people, he pulled the U.S. troops out of Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam turned out to be a massive blow to the American economy, with 55,000 dead U.S. troops, as Johnson tried to pursue both guns and butter. And by the way, the war was directly responsible for the deaths of one million Vietnamese combatants, two million Vietnamese civilians, and one million Cambodians. That’s 4,000,000 people. That’s approaching serious Holocaust numbers
We rightly bemoan the 5,000 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s an 800 to 1 ratio, people! Eight hundred to one! EIGHT HUNDRED TO ONE! (sorry) But according to some lights, the left should have chilled out on the war lest it elect a Republican. So much for simple humanity.
So let’s deal with the “lesser evil thing” head-on
After all, both progressives and the general public get hung up on this.
The Walker piece is particularly interesting, as he makes a cogent argument for the difference between Democrats and Republicans being insignificant. I happen to have serious disagreements with the foundation of the piece. He ACCEPTS a variation of the question “which is worse,” Democrats or Republicans, and argues that the difference is insignificant based on how a Republican win of Congress might play out. For instance, George Bush was unable to slash Social Security due to, among other things, staunch Democratic Party opposition. But Obama might be able to gut Social Security because he could disarm much of the Democratic opposition and — in alliance with the Republicans — ram it through. In a different vein, Obama’s veto pen could thwart any number of Republican initiatives. Thus the left is free to campaign for what it actually believes in, and can play hardball with Democratic candidates, because actual collateral damage would be minimal.
This analysis is far superior to the simplistic comparison of Democratic vs. Republican programmatics. But it leaves us terribly vulnerable.
In other words, Walker still accepts that dualistic framework. And who controls the choices ultimately controls the fight. Suppose Obama performed one good deed while the Republicans started open advocacy (rather than Obama’s covert encouragement) of war with Iran? Strategy would have to be re-evaluated every time someone made a speech. Who’s better today? Well, that’s no way to run either a railroad or a revolution.
At the risk of still being schematic, let’s add another factor equation: What is good for the movement, or what is good for the left? The left has been making these lesser-evil choices for generations, and I have to say that things are going badly. The point now is not to support the Republicans, or to secretly hope they win, but to build a populist progressive movement on our own terms, without being overdetermined by their partisan definition of the battlefield.
The “do you want to elect a Republican” logic is corrosive, deadly for progressives, rots out our souls on a vast array of issues. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. Opposition to the war is opposition to Obama’s policies. It can only diminish Obama’s support at the base. Whether a little or a lot is beside the point. Given the current frenzy over the congressional elections, ANY diminishing of Obama’s stature can invoke the Republican menace. Shut up on the war.
Outcry over the BP oil spill might remind us that Obama had been fine with offshore drilling, and that Obama has been covering up the extent of the damage and shielding BP. Should progressives now shut up about this lest it harm the Democrats in November?
The Democrats hate discussing the abortion issue, lest it cost them votes. Should pro-choice advocates now shut the fuck up?
Should demanding jobs and extended benefits for the unemployed be shelved, since unemployment is now a Republican talking point?
Should gay leadership now lay off the DADT thing, etc., etc.
Once that logic is accepted, it seeps like poison into the groundwater, corrupting everything for miles around. It is poison for the left. It deadens every progressive issue.
Even if we reject lesser-evil logic, however, does specifically building a Dump Obama movement further the progressive cause?
The public has to be brought in
Put yourself in the place of Jane or John Q. Public. You know the system sucks, you are out of a job, and here are your choices:
(1) Government could create millions of jobs rebuilding our infrastructure, our safety net, etc., and using any means necessary that things keep running if mass capital tries to sabotage our lives.
(2) Cut taxes for the richest corporations, in the desperate hope that they will use their profits to at least create a few more jobs.
Choice #1 is obviously preferable. You know Wall Street has totally fucked us. BUT, if you are convinced that Choice #1 is not an option (Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure plan is hopelessly inadequate), then what else can you do but say, "well, we gotta give #2 a chance," and if trashing some ethnic or religious group helps my odds, sad but …
They’ve done a pretty good job convincing folks that #1 is off the table. Even the left and the blogosphere seem to have given up, seriously uncomfortable with the notion of "using any means necessary" to accomplish, well, anything. The blogosphere sounds very angry. Keeps exposing the details of which everyone already knows in the broad strokes. But the Democrats know they can break any promise with impunity. No consequences.
As I’ve said many times, exposing what is already exposed but doing more of it fits the classical definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result).
There has to be a tactic. If there is nothing you can do, or do in concert with your neighbors, then you have to accept what is offered, however inadequate. We have to deliver consequences.
Dump Obama is a tactic. It is a tactic whether or not it succeeds in ousting Obama. It offers an alternative to the Republicans AND pressures the Democrats. If the Democrats are then too stupid to respond to that pressure, I will not be held hostage to THEIR stupidity.
The merits of Dump Obama for building a movement
Some have argued that Dump Obama is too simplistic. But in fact its simplicity is its beauty.
Progressives are constantly bemoaning that the masses can’t grasp their complex analytical arguments, their profound understanding of the system. Masses are too easily swayed by slogans, all that. Dump Obama is a nice slogan and fits on a bumper sticker in real big letters.
Many progressives have issues dear to them, and the blogosphere reflects that diversity. Diversity is fine, but so is unity. Obama is, among other things, a symbol of the government, not just a symbol of the Democratic Party. He can “unify” our progressive opposition.
Dump the system? Sure. Go after the Senate? Why not? Go after the Republicans? If we advance progressive issues, they will not escape our ire.
The presidential primaries provide a vehicle to express that opposition. Can Obama be beaten there? Probably not. The incumbency is a powerful tool. But McCarthy didn’t “beat” Johnson either. Still brought him down.
Here it is worth making a comparison with 1967. There was substantial ferment that year, which provided the foundation for people to go “Neat and clean for Eugene.” Bobby Kennedy waited until McCarthy had laid the groundwork for him to enter the race. He was accused of opportunism, rightly so. Today, there is no such corresponding movement. At the same time, discontent is much wider than it was in 1967. In 1967, people broadly believed in America. Today, they’re just stuck in America. The disparity between anger — including anger at the system — and organized protest is immense, stunning, potentially volatile. While the level of open protest is small, the hysteria that any protest generates is totally out of proportion.
Some have argued that it is “too early” for raising the Dump Obama banner. Because the base isn’t there. Au contraire. One of the weaknesses of the Dump Johnson movement was that it basically opportunized off the movement, did not last beyond 1968. It was in fact, in some ways, the right wing of the movement. Today, given the weakness of the movement, Dump Obama would stake out the left wing. And by moving to get ahead of the curve, we might be able to deal better with the various candidates that will surely jump into the fray in 2011, whether from progressive or opportunistic motives. The base is there but not organized, because it falls by default under the rubric of the Democratic Party.
The word is Movement
Note that I call for a Dump Obama movement, not a campaign committee, not a candidate. (Dennis Kucinich? Russ Feingold? Jane Hamsher? Who knows?) Nor does a Dump Obama movement have to confine itself to the primaries, when independents make up a third of the electorate. I assume there will still be a general election. It’s a matter of timing. All these questions and more will have to be addressed. But to be able to address them, we have to get something going. The exposure has been done, the misery is all around us, the rage explodes all around us in often unfortunate ways. The concept of movement provides the beginning of how these elements might begin to gel. That will provide the preconditions for taking this further.
The system is fragile. Huge, but fragile. It is on the edge, economically and geopolitically. Obama’s police state policies reflect his awareness of this. That his defenders are already warning us of their interpretation of the Dump Johnson legacy is telling. We have to sense their weakness as well as they do.