The Clash Between Progressives and Obama
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By now, across the progressive spectrum, some familiar storylines tell us the meaning of the Obama campaign. In a groove, each narrative digs its truths. But whether those particular truths are the most important at this historical moment is another story.
We can set aside the plotline that touts Obama as a visionary pragmatist who has earned the complete trust of progressives. The belief has diminished in recent months -- in the wake of numerous Obama pronouncements on foreign policy, his FISA vote to damage the Fourth Amendment and the like -- but such belief was never really grounded in his record as a politician or his policy positions.
A more substantial narrative concedes that Obama has "compromised" on numerous fronts but assumes he has done so in order to get elected president, after which time his real self will emerge. This kind of dubious projection is as old as the political hills, and inevitably becomes a kind of murky exercise in armchair psychology. All in all, projection is not useful for assessing where political leaders are and where they're headed.
In contrast, quite a few on the left -- some from the outset of his presidential race, others beginning more recently -- express appreciable disdain for the Obama campaign. The critiques of Obama's positions on issues are often on the mark. Overall, the fact that Obama brings civility and intelligence to public discourse that would be a welcome change in the White House does not alter the corporate centrist core of his espoused policies.
No matter how much we might like to think that people's reasoning and logic are the essence of political judgments, actual experience tells us different: The political stances of many people, including on the left, are contoured around their own internal emotional terrain. And there may not be a lot of sorting through contradictions or analysis of the current historical circumstances.
Yet we're in great need of willingness to acknowledge contradictory truths, to sort through them as a means of finding the best progressive strategies for the here and now. While some attacks on Obama from the left are overheated, overly ideological and mechanistic, there's scant basis for denying the reality that his campaign and his positions are way too cozy with corporate power. Meanwhile, his embrace of escalating the war in Afghanistan reflects acceptance rather than rejection of what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the madness of militarism."
To some, who evidently see voting as an act of moral witness rather than pragmatic choice (even in a general election), forces such as corporate power or militarism are binary -- like a toggle switch -- either totally on or totally off. This outlook says: either we reject entirely or we're complicit.
Such analysis tends to see Obama as just a little bit slower on the march to the same disasters that John McCain would lead us to. That analysis takes a long view -- but fails to see the profound importance of the crossroads right in front of us, where either Obama or McCain will be propelled into the White House.
Any progressive who watched the "faith" forum that Obama and McCain participated in on Aug. 16 would have good reasons to be negative when assessing some of Obama's answers. But McCain's responses were vastly more jingoistic, militaristic, fanatical and pro-corporate, while also making clear his enthusiasm for the worst of the current Supreme Court justices.
In an odd and ironic way, progressives who are unequivocal Obama boosters and unequivocal Obama bashers embrace similar concepts of limited alternatives in electoral work. They seem to rule out candidly critical support of a candidate -- viewing such an option as either a betrayal of the candidate or a betrayal of principles.
But supporting one candidate -- clearly preferable to the Republican -- should not require a lack of candor about the preferred candidate's defects. And progressive interests are not advanced by claiming, against the evidence, that it doesn't really matter which candidate wins.
We suffer from way too much political argumentation that seems to be on automatic pilot, either puffing up Obama as a paragon of progressive virtues or denying the real differences between him and McCain. The pretending that follows from faith or dogma is no way to mobilize a progressive movement.