Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Challenge for Progressives with an Obama Presidency

Yesterday on Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now! program, Manning Marable shared his thoughts on the election of Barack Obama as president.

Marable (pictured at right) is a professor of public affairs, political science, history, and African American studies at Columbia University in New York City. He is also the author of a number of books, including Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future.

I appreciate Marable’s candor about president-elect Obama, whom, he insists, “is not a person of the left,” but rather “a pragmatic liberal” who will “govern largely from the center.”

Accordingly, I greatly resonate with the concerns and questions raised by Marable, such as: How do those of us who are democratic socialists relate to someone who, ideologically, is not an enemy?

“The real challenge, says Marable, “is not so much what Obama does, but what do progressives do . . . now [that] we’re in [the] unusual situation, where, for many people left of center, we actually have a friend in the White House.”

Following are excerpts from Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman’s interview with Manning Marable in which he shares his thoughts on the significance of the nation’s first elected African American president, and on who Barack Obama will answer to given the massive amount of money that was poured into his campaign.


Amy Goodman: How will Barack Obama, being the forty-fourth president of the United States, change race relations in America?

Manning Marable: Well, some of us would say that we’ve been waiting for this victory since 1619. It’s been about 400 years for African Americans to really feel a part of American democracy. It’s been — forty years ago — I mean, I think about this — the majority of black people did not vote in a presidential election. The first time they did was in 1968. That black people, for 250 years, were defined as property in this country. For another hundred years, we were relegated to the margins of democracy because of Jim Crow segregation. Black people were denied access to the ballot across the South until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And for us to move in forty years’ time to the point of having a black chief executive is almost unbelievable for the vast majority of black people.

But now the great challenge occurs, and it occurs in two ways. There are expectations that African Americans have that I believe can’t be realized by one person, by this one man, entering a political structure and an apparatus that is not designed to liberate black people. We have to be soberly cautious about what Obama can achieve, can accomplish, even as the nation’s president. But a second problem that I want to reiterate is, what does the left do as we approach a liberal administration that has won an unprecedented victory in our own lifetimes? This is equivalent to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But what do we do? How do we put forward an agenda of — that raises issues of class inequality, of gender inequality in this society? The Democratic Party is not a vehicle that’s designed to advocate the issues of poor folk and working people.

Amy Goodman: Did you expect to see what you have seen? Did you expect this to come to pass now?

Manning Marable: Actually, yes, for two reasons. One, that we had demography on our side, that is, that the United States is rapidly being transformed ethnically, that by — within the next thirty years, the majority of the population of the United States is going to consist of people of color, of Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans, so someone like Obama was inevitable to emerge within the political system. I’m somewhat surprised it occurred so suddenly into the twenty-first century, but someone would have inevitably emerged.

The second thing that is striking to me is that Obama represents, I think, a group of . . . race-neutral African American leadership, that includes Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who are not race-based politicians, who appeal directly to whites, who try to sidestep issues of race, who are pragmatists, ideologically more centrist than the liberal politicians who emerged out of the civil rights and black freedom struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.

Amy Goodman: You have, on the one hand, the grassroots community organizing [that helped get Obama elected], but something that perhaps works against it in the future and something that grassroots groups have to deal with: the massive amount of money that was poured into this campaign, unleashed by, well, not abiding by campaign finance rules, opting out of the public campaign finance system. And the question now is who Barack Obama will answer to.

Manning Marable: That’s right. The way I think about Obama now is that he represents something of a reverse-Reagan, in the sense that what Reagan represented was a hard-line, right-wing public policy agenda that was framed around clear principles — anti-communism, smaller government, building up the military — but with appeals to the center; Obama is like the reverse of that. You’re going to get, instead of a right-center leadership, you’re going to get a center-left leadership. Obama is going to govern from the center, but he’s going to make strong appeals to the liberal left. And that’s what his government will look like, with core principles: energy independence, alternative energy, an end to the war in Iraq, the economic — addressing America’s economic problems.

. . . I think that the real challenge now is not so much what Obama does, but what do progressives do? Because we have — we’re now in an uncomfortable and unusual situation, where, for many people left of center, we actually have a friend in the White House. You know, I can’t remember, during my lifetime — and I’m fifty-eight years old — where I can actually say that, that someone who understands clearly the positions of the left.

Now, we had a lot of silly talk about Obama being a socialist during the last two weeks of the campaign. He’s not. He’s a progressive liberal. But for those of us who are indeed democratic socialists, those of us who are on the left, how do we relate to the government, where someone who ideologically is not an enemy, someone who understands the agenda and the issues that are of concern of the truly disadvantaged? How do we relate to that government? How do we relate to the politics of that administration? This is a real challenge for progressives.


Actually, this same challenge was discussed during September’s Peace Island Conference, held in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention.

Two speakers at this conference, in particular, addressed the challenge for progressives posed by an Obama presidency.

Here’s what Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, said in September:

We should not assume that electing one man to the White House is going to solve all the problems, but there will be an opening for us as an anti-war movement to push harder, insist harder, to make sure, for instance, that the war in Iraq ends. Left on his own, [Obama] will leave troops there, he will leave tens of thousands of troops there. Left on his own, he will expand the war in Afghanistan. Left on his own, I don’t know what he’ll do with Iran. He may talk first and then bomb, instead of going right to bombing. And we can’t let that happen. That is the challenge to us.

I am concerned that if Obama wins there will be a sense among many people in this country that our work is done. No! If Obama is elected our movement needs to be stronger and smarter and larger and push harder.

And here are author and political activist Antonia Juhasz’s thoughts:

We can still support an Obama presidency and be the peace movement, but we have to articulate this in those places were he fails us. We have to challenge, criticize, stand against, organize, go head-to-head with our elected officials. We cannot expect that one of us is going to fill every single seat of every single office. And even if we did, you and I are all in the peace movement but we don’t agree on every other policy issue. So does that mean that we don’t support each other? Because there are lots of things I bet we disagree on significantly, but we might still want to elect each other into office.

What that means is that political leaders don’t embrace every single issue. They create, hopefully, the environment in which we are activists, and within which we organize and speak truth to power. And that is our job.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“Change Has Come to America”
A Night of Celebration
Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Presidential Election
Progressives and Obama (Part 1)
Progressives and Obama (Part 2)
Progressives and Obama (Part 3)
Progressives and Obama (Part 4)
Progressives and Obama (Part 5)
Obama a Socialist? Hardly
Reality Check
Historic (and Wild!)
One of Those Moments
An American Prayer

No comments: