Obama Babies and the Ten Per Cent Solution

by on August 21, 2008 · 3 comments

in Election, Organizing, San Diego


Grow up! When I listen to the squabbles between those on the left that support Obama and those that don’t I feel like I should drag out an old copy of Dr. Spock (for those of you not old enough to have heard of him, Dr. Spock was the baby doctor who wrote a book about how to raise children that was the Bible for parents during the 1950’s and 1960’s-not the character on the old Star Trek series). On the one hand, those that support him whine that they didn’t get what daddy promised them during the primary. They are going to hold their breath and turn blue until he gives them the truly progressive campaign he promised. On the other hand, those who oppose Obama sound like Bullying older brothers, “See, I told you he was a liar. I told you so! I told you so!” Let’s calm down and look at these positions maturely.

First, lets talk about those feeling betrayed. There are those on the left who are “shocked, shocked!” to discover that Obama has become a centrist politician. They feel betrayed that he has run to the middle of the road on some issues in order to get elected. The only thing surprising about this event is that so many on the left are surprised by it. It is not for nothing that politics has been called “the art of the possible”. Yes, this is craven opportunism, but it is opportunism that is necessary if you want to win a national election in the U.S. What is truly shocking is that this has led some of these jilted lovers of Obama to question their support for him.

There is a naiveté among some leftists about electoral politics. They believe that if a candidate just takes a principled left wing stand, the scales will fall from the electorate’s eyes, and s/he will immediately be elected. The only problem with this belief is reality. Americans are largely politically disengaged, and relatively easy to manipulate, particularly by right wing politicians. A number of recent books have made this point. One of the most interesting of these is “How Stupid Are We” in which political scientist Rick Shenkman argues that the American voter is largely disengaged from politics, uniformed about both recent and past political events, and easily manipulated by spin and sound bites. This is particularly true about international politics where knowledge is most minimal, and where voters are most likely to be manipulated by fear.

The current situation in the Middle East is the best example of this. While most Americans have come to oppose the war (after supporting it), this opposition is a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, over 60% of Americans tell pollsters that they think the war was a bad idea. However, most continue to oppose a fixed time table for withdrawal, and, according to a poll done last summer, most would support an invasion of Iran because they are scared by the right wing hysteria about “Islamic nukes” !!

Obama as a mainstream politician knows this, and has taken a more cautious position about withdrawal, Iraq, and foreign policy more generally now that he has the nomination. This doesn’t make him unprincipled; it makes him smart. The solution to this situation is to convince this very bright politician that there really is a constituency that is both informed and opposed to this war. As FDR once said to a leftwing petitioner, “You’ve convinced me, now go out and make me do it”. That is, the real secret of progressivism in electoral politics is to make sympathetic politicians do what is good for our values through popular mobilization. If we cannot turn out millions of people in the street to demand withdrawal, then the problem lies not with Obama, but us.

Now, as to those who oppose any involvement at all in the Obama campaign we confront a different form of political immaturity. Many progressives argue that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans in the areas that matter to us. I think a rational case can be made for the truth of this position when it comes to foreign policy. As I indicated above, Americans are peculiarly uniformed about these issues, most easily manipulated about them, and Democratic and Republican leaders tend to listen to very similar foreign policy experts. Even here however, there is an important difference between Obama and McCain. I am not so much talking about their different formal positions in regards to Iraq and Iran (though these are important), but to the fact that Obama is at vulnerable to the kind pressure that the left can mobilize. The same is not true of McCain. If progressives are ever able to mobilize enough people in the streets to demand withdrawal from Iraq, I have no doubt Obama would happily oblige. He is not invested in staying in Iraq, he is invested in winning elections. McCain both because of ideology (conservative) and personality (cranky and stubborn) is unlikely to do the same.

But here is the crucial point. Even if there really was no difference between Mc Cain and Obama in regards to foreign policy, this ignores the very real and important differences in domestic policies. Here another recent book is informative. Larry Bartels is a Princeton University political scientist who has written a book called, “Unequal Democracy: Politics in the Second Guilded Age”. Bartels finds that there is a very strong correlation between the presence of a Democrat in the White House and the degree of inequality in the economy. During Democratic administrations there is greater economic growth, and the economic affluence produced is spread around the class hierarchy more equally. During Republican administrations, growth is slightly less, but, most importantly, the benefits of this growth go disproportionately to the upper classes. This has been true, he argues, for over a half century.

One example of the truth of Bartel’s position is the issue of unionization. With a Democrat in the White House there is a much greater chance that the “Employee Free Choice Act” will be signed into law. This piece of legislation would give workers the right to be represented by a union if a majority of employees in a firm signed cards indicating their desire to join. This kind of law has existed in Canada for years, and is one of the main reasons that nation has a much higher unionization rate than the U.S. According to Bartels, the decline of the labor movement has been one of the major reasons for growing economic inequality. Recognize as well, that the American union movement has been a major force behind most of the progressive initiatives of the last one hundred years (e.g. the eight hour day, national healthcare, Civil Rights, etc.). Obama’s support for this one bill, let alone his support for other progressive economic policies, let alone his vow to reverse the right wing dominance in the Supreme Court, let alone his more progressive energy policy, etc., etc makes the few minutes it takes to pull the lever for him worthwhile.

Finally, what would a political Dr. Spock say would be a more specific solution to this progressive family squabble? Here I think electoral politics should be treated like family chores. It is something unpleasant, something best done by setting aside a specific amount of time, and something that should take place only after the more important work of the family is done. With this in mind, I would suggest a mature approach to this unpleasant chore is to devote ten per cent of the time we would normally spend politically involved to working for the Obama campaign. Devoting anything more than 10% of our time risks loosing perspective, and allowing ourselves to get sucked into efforts that slight our real work. Devoting anything less than 10% risks loosing the election to McCain.

This is crunch time. I believe that McCain is most likely to win this election because of the years of accumulated racism and right wing propaganda, but I think the economy and changes in ideology no longer make this a done deal. How can any progressive look themselves in the mirror after the election if McCain wins, and they have not devoted at least some time to the Obama campaign? Remember “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb; Bomb Bomb Iran” ? Remember, “I really don’t know that much about the economy” ? Remember, “I promise to appoint more justices to the Supreme Court like Roberts”? Somewhere in the Bible it says, “When I was a child I thought as a child, but when I grew up I put away childish things”. Now is the time for the left to put away its childish political impulses, and devote a mature amount of time to the Obama campaign.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Beau August 22, 2008 at 7:35 pm

i found this essay to be an interesting one..yet very redundant. Same arguments has been made by pro-dem Liberals for decades now, and to what end? Only the dismantling of the New Deal and a global imperialism with the full cooperation of Dem neo-libs who dominate the party and to whom Obama is now catering. He is not moving to the center..Liberal is the center…he is moving to the Right. if that is what it takes to ‘win’..what is a ‘win’ worth? It is astute of Mr Robinson to recognize that Obama has the same foreign policy as McCain…simply a more subtle face of imperialism…as in the Trilateral face. If one takes the time to look at Obama’s advisors…two Chicago School economists for his domestic economic advice and a whole host of Clinton retreads (one wonders why he ran against H. Clinton if he liked their ideas so much). And on Israel….well ‘sucking up at the Wailing Wall and AIPIC’ is not too strong a characterization offered by Robert Fisk. Interesting, in using Larry Bartels research, Mr. Robinson doesn’t give us any idea about how much inequality Dems diminished or how much income/wealth was ‘redistributed’ or how much the union movement grew (more likely slowed its rate of decline) under their watch. I won’t mention Mr. Robinson’s use of the ‘adult/child’ metaphor to present his criticism of the Left…oops I just did…a long Liberal tradition that they know best over the childlike and idealist Left. I must say, his discussion is well presented…as it should be as it is well practiced by now for decades..or about every 4 years. Again I ask, .to what end? As for looking in the mirror, Mr. Robinson might clean his…as it seems to have been dirtied by the political company he keeps and the hot air he spews about Obama the ‘agent of change.’ For me, looking Left has given me a fresh outlook and a clear vision sans the ‘oh, this time the Dems really mean it’ mantra. I do agree with Mr. Robinson…a black man (or woman of course) still can’t get elected President in the USA…I hope I am wrong…just on the race front but I come from southern Ohio…I grew with those confirmed racists that Hillary tapped into in Ohio, West Va, Kentucky and Pa.


j.stone August 23, 2008 at 8:59 am

While I’m usually one of the people that see no difference in the parties, and that voting is simply an exercise that keeps the populace from actual revolution, in this case I have to agree with you Greg. All the crap I read from the left about Obama selling out is wasted energy. He is a mainstream politician, that’s how this flawed system operates. I read critics ranting about the corruption of the two party system, and how energy should be used to develop a third party, while I agree in principal, this is the same stuff we have been saying for years, and it just isn’t working so well as a strategy now is it? People need to see the reality of what we have to work with in the here and now, and Obama’s it. Even if he stays in the center, it’s better than the far right that McCain wants. If nothing else the issue of judges should be enough for voting. The idealism has to be tempered with reality, and that reality is McCain’s a pig, and is far to the right of Bush. His entire philosophy is a military solution fixes everything. I hope we on the left can see the choice in black and white even just for this one time, shades of grey will give McCain the red button.


Gregg Robinson August 24, 2008 at 11:58 am

Thanks to both Beau and Jeff for responding to my piece. I agree with Jeff that the real problem is our system of electoral politics. It is stacked against third party parties in general, and progressive ones in particular. But I agree that you don’t change this by voting for a third party in a presidential election. Trying to start a third party during a presidential election is like trying to change the tire on a car that it is going 70 miles an hour.

Here are my responses to Beau’s very well argued criticisms. Yep, much of what I have said is redundant—something that progressive Democrats have been saying for years. But the same can be said of Beau’s criticisms, and that is the point: the left has been locked in this sterile debate for over a century. “Vote for a third party and hand the election to the Republican” one side argues, while the other says “Why compromise our principles by voting for someone we don’t truly support?” That is, is it the “lesser of two evils”; or the “evil of two lessers?”

Here is crux of this debate for me. If there is some measurable good that comes from having a Democrat in office, then taking a small amount of time to help elect him/her is worthwhile. That is why I am disappointed that Beau did not address one of the central parts of my argument: the impact of a Democratic president on domestic politics. His lament about a couple of Obama’s economic advisors does not address my point. I agree that his two top advisors are centrists –though only Goolsbee is from the University of Chicago. Furman, his top advisor, was trained at Harvard and is most recently associated with the Brookings Institute. It is important to point out that Obama also has some truly progressive economists on his staff as well. Jared Bernstein, for example, is a good left wing economist. Take a look at the New York Times magazine (“Obamanomics”) this week to see a good summation of Obama’s economic approach. While there are places where his approach is disappointingly mainstream, there are also places where it is truly progressive.

In addition, one has to also ask how Obama’s advisors compare to those of John McCain. The answer should be terrifying—Phil (“Americans are just a bunch of economic whiners” ) Gram was his past chief advisor and Steve (“Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple”) Forbes is his current one. While Furman has written an execrable paper on Walmart, he looks like Karl Marx in comparison to Gram and Forbes.

Beau asks for a quote from Bartels, so here is one: “On average, the real incomes of middle class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working poor families have grown six times as fast….” (Bartels 2008: 3). Bartels point is an important one not just in regard to the current political cycle, but about the origins of inequality in our country. Many commentators and economists claim that this inequality is inevitable, the result of supposedly “objective” changes in the economy (returns to education; internationalization, etc.). Bartels provides an important corrective to this ideologically driven nonsense by pointing out that much of our inequality is the result of very changeable political decisions. His point is supported by a great deal of evidence. For example, one of the most striking economic facts about the U.S. is that pretax/pre-redistribution incomes in this country are NOT the most unequal in the industrialized world. France for example is more unequal than our country BEFORE the impact of taxes and social programs. It is how we collect money from our population and what we do with it afterwards that makes this the most unequal country in the industrialized world. These tax/redistribution decisions are obviously political, making who makes them an issue not to be taken lightly.

Finally, what about unionization? A presidential candidate who has categorically stated that he would sign the “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA) makes a few minutes in the voting booth worth while. Don’t believe me on this fact, take instead the word of a proven expert on American unionization: Walmart. This union busting company has started a campaign across the country to propagandize its employees to vote against Obama because he will make unionization too easy!!! Moreover, other large corporations have poured millions of dollars into a campaign to stop Democrats from being elected to Congress because they are afraid a veto proof Senate will mean the passage of the EFCA. I share Beau’s working class roots, and I wonder how he could dismiss Democratic support for unionization so cavalierly.

But here are the final three pieces of evidence that demonstrate that having a Democrat in the White House rather than a Republican makes a real world difference: George W. Bush.


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