Barack Obama has won. What happens when what appears to be the people’s victory is also the victory of the economic elite? Where is that convergence of interests located? And how long can such a coincidence of interest last? What are the tasks of the left and the social movements in the face of the Obama victory and his coming presidency?
As many others have said, Barack Obama’s election is a watershed in the history of race in America. His victory represents another step in the completion of a democratic revolution that began with the Civil War, continued through the civil rights movement, and reached a new stage with voters’ choice of a black man to be the next president. While the civil rights revolution remains incomplete, the breaking of the barrier of race at the presidential level is a development of enormous significance.
Obama’s victory also demonstrates the powerful rejection by the majority of American voters of the policies of President George W. Bush, John McCain, and the Republican Party. The Bush presidency — the disastrous Iraq and Afghan Wars, the insidious attack on Constitutional rights to privacy and fair trial, the horrendous practices of extraordinary rendition and torture, the use of signing statements to undermine Congressional legislation, the erosion of workers rights and thwarting of union power, the appointment of rightwing judges, the opposition to choice, and the resistance to GLBT rights — all of what constitutes the Bush legacy has been rejected by a majority of American voters who wish the country to move in a different direction.
The Obama victory represents in large measure exactly what his slogan said, a desire for change. The American people became fed up with the arrogance and cynicism of Bush and Cheney. We felt a collective revulsion for the mask of stupidity pulled over the face of malevolent political power. We yearned collectively for an alternative to policies that further enriched the wealthy by grinding more out of the working class, while neglecting the growing numbers of the poor. The majority of Americans voted against all of that, voted for change, even if what change would mean remained unclear, or better, undefined.
In all of these — the dropping of the racial barrier at the level of the highest office in the land, the rejection of the Republican Party, and the desire for change — the interests of the people and of the economic elite coincided. For America’s capitalist class, George Bush and the Republican Party had exhausted their usefulness, their political value undermined by the failure of U.S. imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently by the financial crisis. The American economic elite could no longer rule through the coalition of economic conservatives and evangelical right-wingers who dominated the Republican Party. The capitalist class recognized as well as the people did that it was time for change. The capitalist class turned to its other party, the Democrats, and has played an important role in their transformation.
The Recasting of the Democratic Party
The convergence of interests of the popular classes and the elite takes place where it must take place in a society with a democratic government, in politics, and in this case in the Democratic Party. Obama’s election to the presidency represents a recasting, reconfiguration, of the Democratic Party. Howard Dean as head of the Democratic National Committee had already begun this process, but in the hands of Obama, the rebuilding of the Democratic Party became real full-scale rehab. The Democratic Party’s expanding base, especially the younger newcomers to the party, rejected Hilary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton, their political machine, and their policies. Obama’s campaign transformed the old, tired, and in many cases weak Democratic Party organization, infusing it with new blood, new money, and new attitudes. Barack Obama — through the use of the internet, through direct fundraising on the web, through email barrages — electrified the party both literally and figuratively.
Thousands of young people from privileged families rushed to join the new Democratic Party movement. Many of them worked to mobilize millions of other young people, women, workers, and those from low-income families. Obama attracted millions of new voters. George Stephanopoulos noted that Obama had forged a new coalition with 95 percent of African Americans, over two-thirds of Hispanics, a majority of women, and most young voters casting their votes for America’s first black president. The description is interesting since it does not refer to the historic social coalition of labor unions, black civil rights organizations, and women’s rights groups, but rather to demographic segments of the population galvanized by the media and by Obama’s quiet charisma.
At the same time, Obama has strengthened, broadened, and revitalized the Democratic Party‘s ties to the banks and corporations whose executives have historically dominated the party’s inner councils both organizationally and financially. Corporate executives, youthful financiers, young lawyers, and socially conscious doctors rushed forward with their money, their time, and their talent to support a candidate who shared their educational background and their liberal values. Meanwhile, Obama, like Democrats before him, relied on the labor unions of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, particularly the latter, unions such as SEIU, UFCW, and HERE with a base among low-wage workers, many of them workers of color, to canvass the precincts and get out the vote. Obama’s campaign represented the first step of rebuilding the Democratic Party to become an organization that can more effectively bring together the well-heeled with the down-at-the-heels crowd, the corporate elite with the labor unions, that vast mass of working people who prefers to call themselves “the middle class” with Latinos, blacks, and the poor.
For the elite — who dominate the Democratic Party, at the level where the party converges with the permanent government of long-term elected officials, government bureaucrats, and top military officers, as well as fuses with the financial and corporate board members and executives who largely pay for and staff the party’s upper echelons — the point is to recreate a party through which they can rule. Obama’s usefulness for them, besides the fact that in all but his social origins he is one of them, is that he had made the Democratic Party attractive again to the mass of the middle class and working people. In a democracy, the capitalist class can only rule if their political party or parties — here as in many countries they have two — can capture a social base which both makes it possible to win elections and maintain the social cohesion to make domestic policy workable, that is, to avoid social turbulence. Obama’s rallies, culminating in the mammoth Grant Park assembly, showed that he can make the Democrats a party that they have not been since the 1930s.
The idea that this is a Rooseveltian moment has been raised repeatedly by commentators left, right, and center. For some this means the moment when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, under the influence of popular movements and labor unions, created the great public works programs, legislated workers’ rights in the form of the National Labor Relations Act, and established Social Security. For others it means that moment — which came in 1936 — when Roosevelt forged the great coalition that stretched incongruously but so remarkably effectively from the corrupt big-city machines to the Solid South of the Jim Crow era, from the new CIO labor unions to a section of capital whose corporations catered to mass production and consumption. Roosevelt could do the second, that is, forge the coalition, because he had done the first, that is, created a new social compact. The coalition and the compact made it possible for FDR to lead the United States into World War II and after the war for Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to establish America’s new role as dominant world power.
This is a Rooseveltian moment because that is exactly the task of Barack Obama today, a job which Bush and the Republicans could no longer possibly accomplish. Obama’s task is to overcome the current financial crisis and recession and to rev up the engines of capitalism, to put the wheels back on the great chariot of imperialism and make it possible for the United States to continue to dominate the world militarily, even if it cannot do so economically. To accomplish such tasks is not merely a technical problem in the world of either finance or military strategy; it is a political problem that requires a president who can lead capital in reestablishing its authority in American society and in the world.
Obama, less bellicose perhaps than Bush and McCain, is every bit as intent on reestablishing American authority — both by drawing down troops in Iraq and by building them up and winning the war in Afghanistan. He may prefer to exert American authority by soft power but we can be sure he will turn to war when U.S. economic and geopolitical interests demand it, as his remarks about bombing Pakistan informed us early on. As a black president who comes to power with enormous popular support among large sections of the population, Obama will have a vastly increased chance of getting African Americans, Hispanics, labor, and women to accept sacrifice, both of their money at home and of their sons and daughters in wars abroad. For black Democratic Party politicians since the early 1970s, this has often been their task: to get blacks, labor, and the poor to pay for all crises, foreign and domestic. Obama makes this possible because he has imbued Americans with a new sense of patriotism, nationalism and loyalty to government, and only on the basis of such sentiments can one successfully carry a nation to war.
The Left, the Movement, and Obama
Obama’s victory, won by a great campaign that involved mass mobilization in a variety of forms and that also created a tremendous updraft of hopes and expectations for the future, is already leading liberal think-tanks, labor unions, and networks of community organizations to foresee and undertake the organization of new social movements. They will proclaim their goal variously as supporting Obama’s agenda, pushing Obama to carry out his program, helping Obama to find his better self, getting him to support the programs of one or another of these movements. We will see such movements in health, education, and housing, in the peace movement and the women’s movement, among African Americans and Latinos. After Obama has been in office for six months, then a year, then two, they will talk of “holding his feet to the fire” and possibly even of making demands on him. Almost all of these will either explicitly or implicitly work within the context of the Democratic Party.
Obama, if he proves to be a Rooseveltian figure, will attempt to channel and to control such social mobilization in ways that give him more muscle in dealing with his political opponents on the right. If he is as creative as he seems to be, he may even attempt to conjure up and inspire such movements, even as he works both to control and to limit them. Everything will ultimately come down to the question: Will the left and the movements allow Obama and the Democratic Party to make up their itinerary and to set their agenda, which in the end will be the agenda of capital? Everything will come down to the ability to build independent movements and ultimately to build a politically independent organization.
For a moment, the interests of Obama and the people, especially the African American people, apparently coincided. That moment was 11:00 p.m. EST on Election Day, when the media declared the election for Obama, the defeat of McCain, the end of the Bush Republican fiasco — and millions cheered. But the interest of America’s working class people are not the same as those of the economic elite that Obama now both leads and serves. Nor are the interests of black working people the same as those of the black corporate executives, lawyers, and businesspeople who see their future prosperity in Obama’s victory.
Thousands of emails have been sent back and forth since Election Day by those involved in myriad movements both celebrating the victory of Obama and at the same time observing that he is no savior and the fight must go on. Now the task of the left will be, while appreciating Obama’s significance, to undertake to build a movement which escapes his influence and control. The future lies not with Obama, it lies with all of those people who place their hopes in him. The future lies in the struggle for all of the implicit agendas wrapped up in those hopes: To end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now and leave not one base, not one soldier behind. To provide jobs for all and leave not one person unemployed. To win labor union representation and living wages. To bring a national health care system to all Americans. To protect pensions and strengthen Social Security so that all retire in comfort and dignity. To insure not one home lost, not one person homeless. Having seen the presidential racial barrier broken, to bring racial justice to all Americans. To end poverty, and to stop the process which produces it. To gain GLBT rights, including the right to marry. To win rights for immigrants now.
Obama has his job to do, for those he serves. We have our job to do. And, since November 4, they are not the same. In fact, they were never the same.