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Glenn Greenwald: Bush/Cheney Approach to Civil Liberties Has Been Continued & Embraced by Obama [VIDEO]

3:31 pm in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola

The Socialism Conference was held in Chicago, IL, over the weekend. On Saturday, July 3, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald delivered a speech on civil liberties in the age of President Obama.

I attended the conference and recorded Greenwald’s speech. Throughout the next couple of days, I will be posting video of his speech and, eventually, a full transcript of it will be made available.

In this first part, Greenwald discusses how it has become conventional wisdom that Obama has continued many of the Bush Administration policies, which were once regarded as policies that shredded the Constitution, but now in Democratic circles it is considered to be “Democratic consensus.”

He describes how one year ago it was “controversial” and “provocative” to utter observations that President Obama had virtually continued “the entirety of the Bush/Cheney approach to the war on civil liberties and terrorism.” It was something people found “repellent.” But, now, it has become “so obvious” and “self-evidently true.”

That it has become so blatantly obvious means one no longer has to spend time proving the existence of continuity between the two administrations, Greenwald argues.

One of Greenwald’s most salient points is made as he highlights how the Bush-following American right has had to acknowledge Bush policies have continued under Obama and thus admit he has been strong and courageous on national security.

“The reason why I find it interesting that even the right wing is willing to acknowledge these policies have continued under the Obama presidency is for decades the Republicans have gained really potently on a political level from accusing Democrats of being weak on national security or soft on terrorism in the age of terror,” Greenwald suggests.

He adds:

Now, weak on national security in American political parlance doesn’t mean that somebody shies away from acts of strength and courage. And similarly, strength and national courage doesn’t mean that one acts strongly or engages in acts of courage. It means the opposite. What strength and national security means is a willingness to send other people’s children off to war to risk their lives to kill large numbers of civilians in foreign countries.

Greenwald cites Jack Goldsmith, former National Security Agency head under former President George W. Bush, Michael Hayden, and former Vice President Dick Cheney as proof that one of Obama’s greatest achievements among the political and ruling elite in America is that he has made what was once controversial, and seen as right wing radicalism, part of a bipartisan political consensus. And, by making this part of a consensus, Greenwald argues, debate is effectively ended; the policies are no longer objectionable to the political class in Washington.

Finally, Greenwald notes liberal professors and leaders of liberal groups like the ACLU have noted the continuity and expressed their disgust and outrage at the fact that the assault on civil liberties has continued and in some cases escalated under President Obama.

Discussion of civil liberties and the Obama administration’s assault has been largely absent from conversations. At liberal conferences, discussion has been pushed to the margins.

Netroots Nation had one panel, “What the Government Wants to Know About You,” that looked at some of the policies expanding under Obama. There was little talk about Guantanamo and lack of accountability for torture. Liberal organizers focused on the right wing attack on the middle class, avoiding outright condemnation of the bipartisan support that President Obama has created on national security (although Kaili Joy Gray of Daily Kos did ask White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer why Guantanamo hasn’t been closed).

In October, the liberal Campaign for America’s Future that holds a “Take Back America” conference each year is rebranding their conference, “Take Back the American Dream.” Led by Van Jones, there will likely be minimal conversation on civil liberties or national security policy, as the focus will involve a much more politically safe discussion on jobs and unemployment.

A key difference between those who attend Netroots and “Take Back America” conferences and those who attend Socialism conferences is the fact that those in attendance seldom consist of people with radical views, which in American history have been openly condemned and in many cases left people with those views open to government smearing and prosecution. Those with socialist views understand what many liberals take for granted, why civil liberties must be protected.

How can one fight a right wing assault on what Democratic Party operatives term the middle class if one’s civil liberties or rights under the constitution have been entirely stripped away or rendered meaningless, especially in cases when one is challenging power?

There’s a Twitter town hall tomorrow at 2 pm ET. This is an opportunity to undermine liberal organization leaderships’ efforts to make nice with the Obama Administration and overlook the Administration’s ever-expanding assault on civil liberties by doubling down on Bush Administration “war on terror” policies.

Purify the Tweet stream for #AskObama with lots of questions and remarks on the continuity between the Bush and Obama Administrations.

*Go here for Part 2 of Glenn Greenwald’s speech.

The New Republic’s Sean Wilentz Greatly Misunderstands Movement Politics

8:39 am in Uncategorized by Kevin Gosztola


People from various social movements gather for “One Nation Working Together,” a rally held on Oct. 2nd that demonstrated movements in America are convinced they must depend heavily on the Democratic Party for success. | Photo by Kevin Gosztola

Sean Wilentz, writer for The New Republic, thinks he understands why the Obama Administration has floundered: movement politics has undone and unraveled his presidency. To a point, Wilentz would be right, but the conclusion that Wilentz comes to is to utterly disregard movements and engage in “‘status quo’ politics” to save his presidency and ensure re-election in 2012.

A look at recent columns on “movements” and “activism” in the country would likely reveal that there is nothing all that exceptional about Wilentz’s view. It’s conventional wisdom in professional journalism. All the more reason to dissect his viewpoint.

His article titled, “Live By the Movement, Die by the Movement,” characterizes social movement politics as “Obama’s doomed theory.” The outline of history on how a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Marshall Ganz, was “hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training volunteers” may be interesting to some who are unaware with how Obama developed his campaign.

Peter Dreier, a member of Progressives for Obama and a politics professor at Occidental College, also receives some attention as a publicist who posted articles to The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Dreier apparently channeled “memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movement, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes,” to help develop a campaign that could “transform the very sum and substance of the political system.”

Readers are reminded that President Obama, as president, would be “organizer-in-chief” tapping into movements that elected him to “reform health care, end global warming, and restore economic prosperity.” The movements would provide President Obama with the opening to bring change the people believed in. But, unfortunately, as progressives or liberals know, things didn’t go as planned.

After the midterm election, Ganz, according to Wilentz, charged that President Obama “lost his organizer’s fire and neglected to deliver the wonderful speeches that would frame the political course for the movement.” He “lamely sought reform”inside the system structured to resist change” and ignored, in fact, scorned “liberal and leftist advocacy groups.” Networks on MyBarackObama.com were demobilized and he became “transactional” instead of “transformational.” (President Obama acknowledged this reality in his post-midterm election press conference saying he had hoped to change processes but in the end his Administration had been in such a hurry to get things done that they didn’t change how it was done.)

Wilentz argues that Ganz does not understand is that bringing movement politics into the presidency “may have been a dead end” and that it may have “helped foster an inevitable disillusionment.” Here is where Wilentz starts to misunderstand and craft a false understanding of movements and politics in America.

If Ganz is right that President Obama and his administration ignored and scorned advocacy groups–which they did—Wilentz is proceeding a premise that doesn’t exist. In order to criticize movement politics in the White House as a failure, movement politics would have had to be employed by its members. Say one entertains the idea that movement politics were tried, what about Wilentz’s concepts on movement politics?

Wilentz’s suggests “fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists.” He says Obama “endorsed” this idea when he proclaimed, “Real change comes from the bottom up.” He adds an example: people who believe this model claim President Abraham Lincoln would “never have been the Great Emancipator had the abolitionists not pushed him to do so.”

Interwoven in this article is the deep-seated contempt Wilentz had and still has for the late Howard Zinn. He was asked by the Los Angeles Times to provide his opinion on Zinn’s work as a historian. Wilentz told the newspaper, “To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great.”

Wilentz also told the newspaper, Zinn “saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.”

If one knows that Wilentz utterly rejects the notion history has been determined by people at the bottom, it becomes obvious that his essay will likely be one designed to disparage the idea that political leaders allow movement politics to influence their governance.

He argues that “Abraham Lincoln did not have to be awoken to the evils of slavery; he hated slavery all his life” so “the idea of change coming from below, of course, is simplistic.” If one ignores the recent history books published (which are featured in this article from US News & World Report), Wilentz is correct. But, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states and territories the freedom to abolish slavery. He thought he had to avoid the issue of slavery as president to preserve the Union. Black abolitionist and “radical” Republicans helped shift the political climate and create the opening that led President Lincoln to propose the idea of emancipation.

After providing his version of history on President Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, Wilentz shoots down Ganz and Dreier’s idea that what had been liberal or Democratic politics had been suffering a “values” problem. There’s reason to criticize Ganz and Dreier, who were likely responding to conventional wisdom promoted by the corporate media in 2004 that “moral values” influenced people’s votes. But, Ganz and Dreier were smart to try and ignite a movement based on “feelings and values.” If the Bush Administration had done anything to citizens, it had made them feel powerless and wary of government. The people desired a leader to campaign and contend they could put this country back on the right course and ensure government returned to upholding the values and principles it should uphold.

Wilentz correctly brings out a paradox: that the movement leader, President Obama, would now push politicians to create change when he was in the White House. Such a paradox compels one to ask, did his position in the White House effectively mean whatever “movement” built up prior to his election was destined to splinter and dissipate completely? Possibly.

What’s missing from this analysis of movement politics is a mentioning of the influence of corporate and special interest money, especially money from Wall Street, which Obama used to fund his campaign. And, what’s missing is an understanding that the people in his “movement” ceased to be “grassroots” when they began to take marching orders and go to “Camp Obamas” run by campaign leaders. This meant the “movement” was now under the control of the Obama campaign and their votes were not up for grabs and they could be counted on to be foot soldiers for the campaign.

Typically in history, movements have run leaders to wage electoral struggles for social justice. The Anti-Slavery Party (which later became the Republican Party) and the Liberty Party were both parties that ran against slavery in the mid-1800s. They made it possible for the issue of slavery to become a mainstream issue and understood they had to have an electoral component as well as a social movement component to their struggle to end slavery.

A better analysis from Wilentz would suggest that because the “movement” didn’t run a leader for president the dynamics of movement politics were different. While Obama appeared to understand bottom-up or grassroots politics, the campaign still expected to exact a level of control over the people who wanted to see him win. The campaign did regulate what issues were important to the campaign and what were not. And, when factions of the campaign took issue with Obama (like when he voted for the FISA Amendments Act and supported the expanded use of wiretapping), those factions were mollified quickly.

In concluding his essay, Wilentz illuminates how Obama’s post-partisan attempts to work with the Republican Party failed and then proceeds to suggest that Obama must engage in “day-to-day political trench warfare” like President Clinton did after 1994 in order to survive politically. Such a conclusion raises the question: Can a historian understand movement history if he or she is not a participant in any movements?

Wilentz’s solution sounds very similar to other commentators’ suggestions that Obama must uphold centrist politics because liberalism or “left-wing politics” lost severely in the midterm election. His prescription for Obama is a liberal intelligentsia answer to solving the current woes the president faces. It does not consider how “day-to-day political trench warfare” would impact citizens and it does not ask why citizens should favor that tactic.

Ultimately, his essay is lazy. He doesn’t address any of the interest groups that have tried to influence Obama since his election. He offers no insight on how groups advocating for healthcare for all or a public option were asked to remain in a proverbial veal pen so the Administration could continue to get away with backroom deals with private insurance and drug companies designed to prevent the companies from killing the health reform legislation. He does not discuss all the organizing unions have engaged in for President Obama and how the Administration has opted to protect Wall Street instead of showing interest in improving the wellbeing of workers in America and what that might mean for movement politics. And, he does not discuss the environmentalist movement or the peace movement and how they have been valiantly trying to organize in a climate where independent activism is becoming more marginalized.

Oddly, the Tea Party doesn’t enter into this analysis at all. He doesn’t address their impact on the public’s conception of movement politics. Are Americans to assume they aren’t really a movement? Or should Americans be informed of how corporations are using fearful Americans to co-opt and revise the history of social movements in this country to fit their capitalist agenda?

The people’s interests aren’t and will never be the same as the interests of political leaders in America. The people are not politicians. They are citizens. They don’t have corporate financiers. They don’t need to worry about getting re-elected or staying on message. They don’t need to craft an identity. Their interests involve fixing communities and upholding values that do not provide cover for the destruction of humanity. Their interests should be survival and, therefore, when the top 1% seek to concentrate all wealth at the top and keep it out of the hands of the lower classes, that should be regarded as an affront to survival.

If, in fact, Obama sought to utilize any “movement” over the past two years, the failure isn’t because he was inept or didn’t know what to do. The reality is history indicates movements have been managed and herded into supporting Democratic presidential candidates for decades. Movement leaders have willingly allowed the Democratic Party to herd their movement and then splinter it in two by proposing reforms that will divide movements (e.g. proposing a public option which splintered those who favored “Medicare for All” lessening the impact of health care activists).