The election of Barack Obama, the still-deepening economic crisis created by conservative deregulatory policies, and the persistent, protracted stases over war, the constitutional order, civil rights and liberties and the ecology created by Bush-Cheney-Rove and their minions have opened up new political space and possibilities. Left-progressive efforts to use that space and take up those possibilities can be seen both at the national level and locally and regionally in Oregon and the PNW. The local dimensions will be acted on in a Town Hall Meeting on the Economic Crisis today, Saturday, January 31 from 1-5 p.m. in Portland, which brings together a large coalition of forces and groups, spearheaded by Jobs with Justice and parts of the labor movement.
What fruits these efforts will bear remains to be seen. This essay tries to put them into a strategic analytical context. For that context, I want to focus on a concept of "political space," situated in this moment in time.
Back in the 1980s in South Africa, open, organized internal political resistance to apartheid re-emerged on a permanent basis, after decades of having been driven underground. It took the shape of what came to be known as the Mass Democratic Movement, centered in independent trade unions, and a wide coalition of civil society organizations. Thinkers and organizers in that often used the term "political space" in debating strategy and identifying intermediate goals in the larger long struggle.
One aspect of the concept of political space was that it provided a way to evaluate compromises. For example: should trade unions enter into a system of registration and recognition by the government, after having been entirely illegal, despite the degree of legitimacy this granted to government power and the legal system? After fierce debates, the bulk of the unions and the movement decided yes. The opportunity to exist and operate openly could be used to organize and press further. A key element of this decision was that the unions accepted recognition, but ignored other attempts to restrict them that the government sought to impose. That course was relatively easy, since the unions had been ignoring harsher restrictions and full illegality anyway.
In 1992, despite knowing the vast differences between South Africa and the U.S., I somewhat naively thought that this idea could be useful in thinking about relationships between left-progressives and Bill Clinton after he won the Democratic presidential nomination. Many had misgivings about the Clinton-Gore ticket's roots in the Democratic Leadership Council, and rhetoric of compromise with Reaganism. Even so, Reaganism had us on the defensive, divided and losing ground on so many fronts. A Clinton administration would at least reduce the onslaught and create greater political space for reorganizing.
A piece of my naiveté was that, in itself, political space is passive. Its meaning depends entirely on what one does with it. The South African debates took place within determined mass movement already organized in active, creative struggles and intent to expand their organizing. U.S. left-progressives had nothing comparable. In the event, on the whole, we settled for respite from the worst of Reaganism. Some agreed to work with Clinton mainly on his terms -- a few who worked inside the administration later resigned over welfare "reform" or other matters, in addition to those who were thrown under Bill's bus before that term came into vogue. Others stayed out and grumbled or complained about Clinton's compromises to little effect. Despite a number of efforts to organize more or less inside or outside, we never worked out the inside vs. outside dilemmas, often failed to cooperate, and in the end did not effectively take what space there was to build an active movement that could change the terms of engagement with the political system and further widen the space for progressive change.
Today we are in a political moment that in some ways is comparable to 1992, and in some ways quite different. The victory of Barack Obama and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress have again opened up new political space. They confront us, as in 1992, with the question of what to try to do with it.
However, unlike Clinton, and despite his post-ideological if not exactly centrist rhetoric and his cautious policy positions, Obama does not present himself as providing a more tempered and temperate version of preceding conservative politics. He ran on an unambiguous platform of "change." His rejection of "partisanship" includes a rejection of Bush-Cheney-Rovism, which was of course intensely partisan.
And the rhetoric of the campaign is not all. While various critics have treated his rhetoric of change, belief and hope as essentially lacking content, if not actually a smokescreen for continuing business as usual with the usual ruling elite suspects, even for skeptics the current deteriorating economic situation makes their portents far from certain.
On the one hand, Obama's rhetorical skills have mobilized millions in raised expectations, albeit inchoate, unorganized and in all likelihood often conflicting expectations. On the other hand, the sharpness of the current economic crisis caused by conservative deregulatory philosophy and policies, coming on top of protracted weakening of the country by wars stupid, illegal or both and by persistent assaults on the constitutional order for the benefit of narrow elitist interests, demands action, and dramatic action.
The political space for progressive action opened up is thus much larger than that represented by Bill Clinton in 1992. The situation is more volatile and potentially amenable to real change for the benefit of real people, even if we were to assume the worst accusations were true about Obama's lack of sincerity about change, which they may well not be.
But, again, in itself, this political space is passive. Again, its meaning will depend entirely on what we do with it. And here again I think there is a difference from 1992, which is that left-progressives, including those who worked and worked hard to elect Obama, as well as others more skeptical of him, have a clearer understanding that they must advocate actively from the get-go for their values, aims, and the interests they seek to promote.
There also is a kind of mental wrestling going on, not only among progressives as a group, but often within individuals. Thirty years in the wilderness have created habits of cynicism and bitterness that don't meet current needs. Yet equally obviously, given the lack of cohesiveness previously described, credulity and passive reliance on Barack Obama's rhetoric makes no sense either.
At this moment, the point is not to focus on what might or might not be wrong with Barack Obama and those closest to him, or with Congress, nor yet to focus on what might or might not be good about him and them. It is too soon for either. The point is to put up a challenge and a demand that he and they lead us in certain directions and not others, in as effective a way as possible, without prejudging the response, see what happens, and respond to that.
Pushing hard for real change that can offer real hope to ordinary people facing potential disaster requires holding both optimism and skepticism in mind and heart at the same time. Giving up either will be the same as giving in completely to one or the other. Either course would be self-defeating.
Some degree of coalescing around such an approach can be seen at the national level. The centrality of the labor movement in pulling together protests and pressure against elite-oriented responses to the financial crisis, to a considerable degree overcoming organized labor's own internal divisions, has been a good sign. With respect to healthcare access reform, four organizations focused on promoting a unified national government-funded health insurance system ("single payer") have united to coordinate their efforts: Physicians for a National Health System, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, Healthcare for All, and Progressive Democrats of America. In the anti-war/peace movement, the largest coalition, United for Peace and Justice, last month held a national assembly that both embraced the spirit that drove Barack Obama's victory and insisted that the anti-war motives and desires of Obama supporters and the American public as a whole go beyond the cautious positions of his platform, tailored as it was for insider policy elites.
I believe other examples could be cited; these examples are just ones on which I happen to have focused.
Locally some of the same forces can be seen coming together, partly in connection with national organizations and partly not. For me, one straw in the wind is a local grassroots activist who was indefatigable as a MoveOn Portland Council caller for Barack Obama in the presidential campaign. She has been just as relentless in working to build up the January 31 Town Hall Meeting on the Economic Crisis. That Town Hall Meeting is a further development of work that began with a demonstration in early October outside the Federal Building downtown, opposing the no-strings-attached Bush-Paulson Wall Street bailout, as part of nationwide organizing. The October demonstration was addressed among others by AFL-CIO national organizing director Stuart Acuff, who happened to be in town, by Barbara Dudley of the Oregon Working Families Party and PSU, who gave a fiery and potent speech, and by Jo Ann Bowman of Oregon Action.
Dudley and Bowman are also on the schedule for the Town Hall Meeting, along with Tom Leedham, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 206, who ran as a democratic reform candidate for the national Teamsters presidency several years ago, national labor journalist David Bacon, Lewis & Clark College Economics professor Marty Hart-Landsberg and PSU Sociology professor Veronica Dujon.
What's less visible is that both the October demonstration and the mobilization for today's meeting on the Economic Crisis drew on coalition work that has been developing for some time among politically activist sections of the local labor movement, the immigrant rights movement, the peace/anti-war movement and other social justice oriented groups, including many people who were activists for Obama and Jeff Merkley and others who were not. Locally in Portland and in Oregon the healthcare reform link is not as strong as it is nationally, perhaps partly because PDA in Oregon is still getting off the ground, and certainly because of the local shadows of Senator Ron Wyden's different approach nationally, former Governor Dr. John Kitzhaber's different approach locally, and the legacy of a questionably run, spectacularly failed state single-payer initiative campaign a few years ago, now possibly being misread in light of changed health policy dynamics in the labor movement.
Whether such forces in localities across the country can pull together into a cohesive or at least relatively coordinated movement to seize the moment and take advantage of the political space currently opened up by the economic crisis remains to be seen. Moreover, real change that will give real help and real hope in the near term to ordinary Americans facing personal crises, threats and fears will require a wider political spectrum than left-progressives.
Thus we need not only to pull our own socks up, but figure out how to voice the demands we believe necessary and commonsensical in ways that get others to coalesce with us. It's something we've failed at before. There are aspects of both the formal structure of government and practical distribution of power in the United States that make it difficult, along with elements of the internal political culture of the left. The new political space derives mainly from unsteadiness in practical power, which does not touch those other historic obstacles.
Yet if demands for reforms favoring the popular and working classes are not made in a powerful and organized way from the left, enough to affect the debates across the political spectrum, it is all too likely that the expectations raised by Barack Obama's election will collapse. They could end up as the politics of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and Bob the Builder: "Faith and trust and pixie dust -- we can fly!"; "Can we fix it? Yes we can!": nice stories for children, to be sure, but not real change.
Yet again, by the same token, falling prey to cynicism about that rhetoric stripped to its most simplistic can rapidly turn into a type of self-fulfilling cop-out at which U.S. left-progressives often excel. The hunger in the public for change was real even before the depth of the economic crisis became apparent, and was not limited to Obama supporters. The crisis has made real change imperative. Cynicism is cheap, but we can't afford it, and we oughtn't indulge it, IMO. Likewise with sniping at one another. We all have to play our parts, insisting that President Obama and the Congress play the ones that should be theirs, and backing them in doing so, if and when they act not just for the benefit of those in the center and at the top, but for the broad common good.
Can we make a substantial difference and open still further space for progressive change if we try? I don't know. But I do know that we can't if we don't try.