As inevitable disillusionment grows with Barack Obama, thanks to his lackluster performance, unfulfilled promises and often indistinguishable variation from his predecessor, it is perhaps time to put our toys away and return to real life.
The Obama campaign was in many ways just a misleading trailer hyping what’s turned out to be a third rate film. And as one does not remain the prisoner of Hollywood’s puerile productions, there is no reason to give politics’ any greater loyalty. You just admit you blew the evening and move on.
The record is indisputable: the expansion of the AF-Pak imperial war, a stimulus package that bailed out the largest banks and left workers and struggling homeowners as “lagging indicators,” a plan designed to improve the health of insurance companies more than that of all Americans, and a continuation of contempt for the Constitution.
One of the reasons Obama has felt comfortable pursuing such conservative politics is that, commencing with Clinton, a large segment of the liberal constituency has come to accept the view that incumbency is a reasonable substitute for sound policy. The depressing healthcare debate and lack of opposition to the Af-Pak war reflect the disappearance of a vigorous liberal base that actually believes in something and presses for it with the same sort of passion those on the right demonstrate so frequently.
In fact, if you scrap traditional presumptions and look at the American political spectrum based on specific issues, you find that the layout is not anywhere close to what we are told. Most striking is that traditional liberals, Obama and Democrats in general are closer to the GOP on many more these issues than they are to true progressives, Libertarians or Greens. In fact, on about a half of current big issues, Libertarians are closer to progressives or Greens than they are to the GOP.
The lesson? It helps to know who your friends are. But also how few they are. Pollsters generally give those who are left of center – including Greens, radicals or populist progressives – only one choice of self-identification: liberal. Yet even this inflated category is much smaller than generally acknowledged. Here’s a chart from American Election studies, showing the percent of those calling themselves liberal since 1972. The percentage has varied merely nine points over this period, with the peak tally at 23%.
And it gets worse. Of those calling themselves liberal, 8 to 11 percent described themselves as only “slightly liberal,” whereas the number who described themselves as “extremely liberal” never got above two percent. According to Gallup, the only groups in 2003 that comprised a quarter or more of liberals were those who had gone to grad school and 18-38 year olds.
Looked at another way, there are fewer self-described liberals than there are blacks and latinos. And while the cliche – raised to almost religious heights during the last campaign – has the black voter as an icon of liberalism, Gallup found that even 77% of blacks consider themselves moderates or conservatives.
Further the number of self-described liberals increased just three points from 2000 when Bush was elected to 2008 when Obama won.
If you eliminate the atypical ten point surge in conservatives in 1994 (thanks to Bill Clinton’s strong negatives) the gap between conservatives and liberals varied a maximum of seven points between 1972 and 2004. In other words, all the debate over these three decades produced a shift in the identity of about 4 percent of all voters (i.e half the gap).
Finally, if you take every category Gallup surveyed except political party – and that includes ethnicity, gender, age, income, and part of country – you find that the percentage of conservatives ranges from 30% for blacks to 49% for white southerners, hardly an overwhelming gap. For liberals the range is from 11% for those 65 and older to 28% for those with graduate degrees.
In other words, Americans’ political self definitions tend to be consistent in time and far less varied across demographics than we usually think. What is not consistent is how they use that self definition at the polling place. For example, the percent of self defined conservatives was actually a point or two less when Reagan was elected than when Clinton won or when Gore almost did.
Of course, turnout is a factor but again it doesn’t help the left of center, because – being smaller in size than the conservatives – the latter need only to enthuse their base, not convert someone else.
But it can be done. Part of the art of politics is redefining the meaning of the voter’s own self identity. For example, I have often argued that we have always had Christian fundamentalists in American politics; we just used to call them New Deal or Great Society Democrats.
Three years ago I took a look at 21 safe GOP states. Eleven had above average poverty, 12 had below average income and 8 had severe drought problems. If you didn’t know they were sacred GOP turf, you might think they were excellent organizing ground for the Democrats. Finally, 15 of these untouchable states, allegedly impenetrable behind their walls of faith-based family values, had above average divorce rates – all of them at least 90% greater than despicable, godless Massachusetts.
Politics is about getting people to think about the right things. The same people going into a polling place can cast distinctly different ballots depending on whether gay marriage or potential job loss is foremost on their minds.
The GOP has been brilliant over the past few decades, convincing people to obsess about the irrelevant, politicizing the non-political, and yelling “Fire!” when those around them were actually drowning. This is not conservative; it’s a con.
But the right has also been increasingly aided by a self-righteous liberal elite that has lumped victims with the cons instead of trying to rescue them. They call these victims racist, stupid and act as though everyone who doesn’t talk and believe like them gets their facts and philosophy direct from the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In fact, a Pew study this year found that less than 20% of the public turn on Hannity or Limbaugh regularly or sometimes and 62% of conservatives never do. For a crowd that loves to decry stereotyping, these trad libs do a pretty good job of it when talking about those not of their ilk.
This is the worst kind of self-defeating cliquish politics. Given that for three decades, the smug self-satisfied attitude of such liberals has generally been shared by less than 20% of the electorate, it is clear that unless one wants to live in a political gated community there has to be some effort to change the game. And as Martin Luther King admonished his colleagues, among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.
This sense is virulently absent in today’s liberal rhetoric and politics. Instead we have MSNBC and Fox throwing stones at each other with conservatives, thanks to the numbers, having the edge.
To find a better way of doing it, it helps to look at some past examples of groups that, while lacking the numbers, still changed the country. Two that come rapidly to mind are the early civil rights and environmental movements.
With the key word being movement.
We have become trained in recent decades by both liberals and conservatives to define action by simply being on a national mailing list and making a contribution. Which is why Move On and Emily’s List are so powerful but nobody knows what a liberal is any more.
Movements work differently. They have causes. They don’t use popes; they rely on independent congregations. They are driven not by remote saviors but by visible and accessible substance. They assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians should respond to people rather than the other way around, and they believe in “Here’s how” as well as “Yes, we can.”
Two of the best movements in the recent past have been the early civil rights and environmental movements.
The congregational model of the early civil rights movement is still not well appreciated for its strength and effectiveness. America’s obdurate inability to deal with ethnic cruelty – which not even a civil war could cure – was finally confronted in a meaningful way largely by a bunch of twenty somethings. In so many ways it differed from the style we traditionally adopt for political change. Nothing I have covered or been a part of has come close to changing so many hearts, minds, laws and traditions in such a short time as the mid-century civil rights movement.
Among its secrets: the holistic model of a church congregation whose worker priests not only preached a message but integrated it into support, education and community building. It is a style alien to us today. We see people as voters, contributors, email activists, enemies or allies, but not as lives for which we share responsibility as we involve them in our cause.
Consider this from civil rights activist in the Mississippi summer of 1964:
“It is most interesting to talk to whites. Most of them, when they see a white man and black man standing at their door, know what we are doing and immediately turn themselves off – they are ‘not interested.’ But the few who do talk to us are great. In spite of the weight of their prejudices, in some cases they are deeply concerned with what is going on about them and want to try to help. One white woman, who I signed up, wanted to come to the meeting tonight. I arranged for a baby-sitter and called her back. She said her husband had learned of what she had done and she was in a bad situation. I am worried about her, but she, because of her husband’s antagonism and our very sane and sensible conversation, may become quite active in her own way. It takes a lot of walking and talking on our part to do this, to gain this, but it is worth it, every bit of effort.”
Key to such an effort is the assumption that changing people’s minds takes effort. And it is worth it. You don’t just call some people racists, get a check from others, amend a piece of legislation and then move on. It is the sort of complex work one doesn’t find much of in politics these days.
The environmental movement also produced its change but not so much by effective community organizing but by effective education. From Silent Spring on, a growing number of activists taught America what its schools and media had ignored. It wasn’t that easy. As late as 1995, the Washington Post ran a story about global warming that split the arguments so neatly one could easily reach the author’s own conclusion: “When you sort through the confusion, how much you worry about greenhouse warming turns out not to be a matter of science.”
These two movements had an enormous effect in part because they weren’t just about civil rights and ecology, but also about politics. It was a politics based on specific issues rather than specific people. Last year millions voted for Obama to produce change. The civil rights and environmental movements produced change and let the presidents catch up With them.
When you only have a small percentage of the vote , such movements are a far better model than the top down, icon obsessed, cliquish approach of liberals deeply embedded in the traditional Democratic Party.
As for Obama, we just need to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice about someone else: “Don’t even ignore him.” It won’t always work – he is president after all – but he has also made it clear that if one’s politics is based on real issues and not celebrity cults, he has little to offer. When he does join a cause, we should welcome him, but as a general rule he is one more rocky ridge to cross between here and progress.
As I wrote last December, “At times the movement may find itself allied with Barack Obama; at other times he may be its major opponent. In either event, Obama will define change no better than John Kennedy defined the civil rights movement or LBJ the anti-Vietnam war movement. Change doesn’t originate in the White House; what happens there merely reflects the power of the change around it. Which is one good reason not to go soft just because Obama’s in the White House. If he won’t be an ally, then he must be made irrelevant.”
Cause-driven politics can especially benefit from a number of characteristics including:
– A congregational approach building communities of like-minded souls working on consensus-chosen issues.
– An educational approach in which activists gain support by creating more people who understand and appreciate the cause they are promoting.
– A willingness to work with people on one or more issues even when you disagree with them on others.
– A distinction between the manipulators of thought, whether media or political, and the manipulated . The latter shown respect even if you disagree with them.
– Introducing communities to a society increasingly filled with atomized individuals.
– Thinking local. Bear in mind that each of the great positive rebellious political movements of the past – such as the populists, progressives and socialists – made their impact thanks to the ubiquity and effectiveness of their local organizing more than through such national efforts as presidential campaigns.
– Basing politics on doing the most for the most, which means a heavy emphasis on economic issues Currently painfull lacking among embedded liberals.
– A willingness to cross traditional ideological boundaries. Every time you do, you weaken political stereotypes and make it easier for people to think for themselves. Two outstanding cross-ideological issues are ending the drug war and decentralizing government decisions. Starting a group called Gays for Gun Rights wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.
– An de-emphasis of leftist behavior designed to prove how radical you are in favor of relating progressive causes to the American norm and traditions. The public often supports substantial change but backs off if it feels it would be considered ‘radical.’ Many allegedly radical positions are, in fact, quite conservative, such as conserving our constitution, our integrity, our economy, our environment and peace. It is the establishment center that led us into disasters radical and extreme: radically wrong and extremely incompetent. That’s why when people call me a radical, I sometimes say, no, I’m just a moderate of a time that has not yet come.
A year ago, Sarah van Gelder of Yes Magazine gave us a clue as to what an independent progressive movement might look like – based on polls – of “an agenda that the majority of Americans support, whether they vote red, blue, green or something else.”
67% favor public works projects to create jobs.
55% favor expanding unemployment benefits.
76% support tax cuts for lower- and middle-income people.
80% support increasing the federal minimum wage.
59% favor guaranteeing two weeks or more of paid vacation.
75% want to limit rate increases on adjustable-rate mortgages.
58% believe a court warrant should be required to listen to the telephone calls of people in the U.S.
59% would like the next president to do more to protect civil liberties.
79% favor mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
90% favor higher auto fuel efficiency standards.
75% favor clean electricity, even with higher rates.
72% support more funding for mass transit.
64% believe the government should provide national health insurance coverage for all Americans, even if it would raise taxes.
55% favor one health insurance program covering all Americans, administered by the government, and paid for by taxpayers.
81% oppose torture and support following the Geneva Conventions.
76% say the U.S. should not play the role of global police.
79% say the U.N. should be strengthened.
63% want U.S. forces home from Iraq within a year.
47% favor using diplomacy with Iran. 7% favor military action.
67% believe we should use diplomatic and economic means to fight terrorism, rather than the military.
86% say big companies have too much power in politics
65% believe attacking social problems is a better cure for crime than more law enforcement.
87% support rehabilitation rather than a punishment-only system.
81% say job training is very important for reintegrating people leaving prison.
79% say drug treatment is very important.
56% believe NAFTA should be renegotiated.
64% believe that on the whole, immigration is good for the country.
The media and the mega politicians have taught us to judge politics and our own choices by the what is going on in the White House. This isn’t just Obama’s fault. Back in 1994 I wrote:
“[The] preoccupation with the presidency not only exaggerates the importance of the position, it distorts the constitutional division of political power, denigrates the significance of state and local government and creates pressures for presidential action when such action may be neither wise nor even lawful. We can not, even out of seemingly harmless celebrity worship, imbue our president with supra-constitutional virtues or powers without simultaneously damaging the Constitution and the democratic system it was established to protect.
“Besides, our presidential fetish badly skews our view of our country and the changes occurring within it — not only elsewhere in government but beyond politics entirely. It trivializes our own collective and individual roles in creating social and political change. And, conversely, it can create the illusion of great change when far less is really happening.”
It’s time to move beyond Obama, to seize control of change again, making it a popular and not an elite choice and design, to redistribute power we have been trained to give to the few but rightfully belongs to the many, to build congregations of progressives as vigorous as those of past, to help and not hate those whose view of reality has been warped by our monopolized information system to better understand what’s really going on.
If Obama wants to join us, fine. If not, then put him behind us. The future is too precious to let the dysfunctions of power leave us prisoners of its endless failures.