The left in the Obama era

March 4, 2009

Organizing the struggles ahead in the era of President Barack Obama was the focus of a panel discussion "The Left and Obama: Different Perspectives on Social Change Today," held at the UNITE HERE union hall in Chicago on February 28.

Some 200 people--veteran activists as well as many people new to organizing--turned out to the event, sponsored by Haymarket Books to hear Sharon Smith, columnist and author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States; John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine; James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice and a member of the In These Times board of directors; and Paul Street, an independent journalist and author of a Barack Obama and the Future for American Politics.

Here, Sharon Smith looks at the prospects for left-wing politics and organizing in the years ahead.

I WANT to start by talking about what a kick I've gotten out of reading and watching the corporate media this week covering Obama's budget proposal.

As I'm sure everyone here is aware, Obama's budget proposal has been greeted with anger and outrage in corporate boardrooms and in luxury penthouses all across America. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, described Obama's budget as "the most redistributionist in modern history."

Martin Regalia, the Chamber's chief economist, told the Financial Times, "I would prefer not to mention the views of our members, which contain too many expletives for a family newspaper." Meanwhile, Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, told the Wall Street Journal, "This budget is a forced march toward socialism, in my opinion, without trying to be dramatic about it."

I would venture to say that melodramatic is more appropriate. Because all the outcry aside, Obama's budget represents merely a slight reduction in the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S., which had already hit 1929 proportions back in 1989, when former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips pointed that out.

Women for Obama rally in Charlottesville, VA

This is what they are all up in arms about. Obama's budget calls for the income tax rate on the very richest people to rise to 39.6 percent from its current 35 percent. Before anyone gets too worked up about that, it is worth noting that the top income tax rate stood at 91 percent under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and was 70 percent during the reign of Republican Richard M. Nixon And it was 50 percent or higher for the first five years of the Reagan administration.

Even the proposed scaling-down on the super-rich's tax deductions would amount to $28 on every $100 of deductions instead of the current $35--that's just $7 less than now. How will the rich put food on the table?

How do we even compare that to the workers at the Acco Corp. in Lincolnshire, whose management announced 10 days ago that, effective immediately, all the workers would get a 47 percent cut in pay? That was on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.

The corporate media, of course, can always be counted on to find a Joe the Plumber figure (who, of course, it turned out wasn't a plumber, and wasn't even named Joe) to magnify the opposition to historic progress.

This time, it is CNBC commentator Rick Santelli and his now infamous rant against the first effort to provide any real assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure since the housing crisis began almost two years ago. Obama's proposal, by the way, leaves out millions of homeowners in distress and doesn't even begin to do what should be done, which is a moratorium on foreclosures.

Santelli claims Obama is bailing out people who he calls "losers" for their inability to keep up with their mortgage payments and claims that it is unfair to those responsible people, like Rick, who have kept on paying their mortgages. Santelli is now making the most out of his 15 minutes of fame by organizing anti-stimulus tea parties throughout the South, which the corporate media is, of course, covering as if it were a groundswell of revolt against Obama's march toward socialism.

AS IS so often the case with the corporate media, however, its conclusions are exactly the opposite of the truth.

The first point I'd like to draw out here is that the mass of the population has turned sharply toward progressive and class politics, and, number two, Obama's policies don't begin to approach what would be needed to actually redistribute wealth in any meaningful way in this country.

A New York Times opinion poll released just this week demonstrates where mass consciousness stands regarding the bailouts for Wall Street vs. Main Street.

The New York Times described the poll as showing a "strong strain of populism"--i.e, opposition to Wall Street and corporate executives like the auto industry CEOs who keep getting bailed out. The poll also showed that ordinary people are far less concerned with Obama seeking "bipartisanship" than they are with actually winning the sweeping changes that Obama promised on the campaign trail.

They are definitely on to something there. Because that hallowed notion of bipartisanship, the idea of Democrats reaching across the aisle to find common ground with Republicans--i.e., the notion of both corporate ruling parties working together--is actually beneficial only to the ruling corporate class that they represent.

Let's give a very blatant example. It should be perfectly clear that the fact that John McCain is absolutely delighted with Obama's so-called withdrawal plan for Iraq should be cause for alarm for everyone who wants the U.S. to actually withdraw its troops--and that should mean all U.S. troops--from Iraq.

It couldn't be more obvious now why the very policies that benefit the wealthy elite who run the system are harmful to the workers who produce all the profits for them.

I don't think the corporate class yet appreciates the degree to which we have entered a starkly different political era. That is the only way to explain the behavior of these corporate executives--like the CEOs of the big three auto companies. Could you believe in November when they went to Washington to request that Congress bail them out, each flew in their own private corporate jet! They couldn't even jet-pool.

Or AIG--not only did they fly their executives to a luxury spa the weekend after getting their $85 billion bailout, but a couple of weeks later they jetted off to England for a weekend of fox-hunting! And now here they are--back at the bailout trough, oinking for more!! Oh, excuse me, I didn't mean to insult pigs by comparing them to these corporate slime. But seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up.

The Republican Party certainly has not even begun to appreciate the turning point that we have reached. There is no other way to explain their behavior right now--like the nine Republican governors who are planning to reject the federal money being given to them from the stimulus package to expand unemployment benefits in their states. Why? Because they stand in principled opposition to "big government."

These Republicans do not seem to realize that their policies have been summarily rejected by the mass of the population who are now eagerly seeking social change. An historic moment like this only comes along very rarely--when the contradictions of the capitalist system they so openly advance are on full display for everyone to see.

So the Chicago Tribune did a front-page story on a day in foreclosure court in this city. Guess what? The so-called "losers" that Rick Santelli has such distain were all people who had lost their jobs or who had serious medical problems that caused them to go deeply into debt and face foreclosure.

One man, a Latino gentleman, was in foreclosure court because he had paid off his house years ago and then it turns out that he became terminally ill after he had taken out a second mortgage to do some home repairs. He is now in foreclosure court. I think he spoke very eloquently when he summarized the problems with Obama's bailout scheme against foreclosures. He said, "The money goes directly to the banks and the bank executives." That about sums up the problem with the plans to stop foreclosures.

PEOPLE ELECTED Obama to win change--real change. It is Obama who raised people's expectations. And that's why they voted for him, in addition to being against the war. The extent to which the desire for change has penetrated mass awareness really hit me that last time I went to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. I looked up and there was saw a plaque on their wall that said: "Jiffy Lube: an oil change you can believe in!"

There is no doubt that Obama has enacted some very important changes from the Bush era that will impact millions of people's lives for the better, and we can't minimize that--like lifting the global gag rule on abortion, which will allow millions of poor women around the world access to contraception and abortion services they were denied throughout the Bush administration. It's high time that happened.

It's high time that we are allowed to see the coffins of the soldiers killed in the wars for this government. It's high time that happen. These are crucial changes that should not be minimized. But neither should we exaggerate how much change Obama has brought.

Obama promised real change, and raised the expectations of the majority of people who voted for him, but what he has delivered so far is thoroughly inadequate to address the scale of the crisis that we face. In some cases, he has even continued some of the most despicable policies of the Bush administration. It is not enough to close down Guantánamo Bay but then go on to continue renditions, because renditions equal torture. We do not condone torture.

From the economy to the war, the problems that exist today are fundamental to the system, and they require fundamental changes to the system. So most of all, what Obama has shown us in the first weeks of his presidency is that we will get only as much as we fight for from this administration. Fortunately, since his election, what we have seen indicates that many, many people are ready and willing to wage the fight that is needed.

In fact, since November, what we have seen is ordinary people demonstrating a willingness and a courage to fight to win that we have not seen in this country in decades. Since November, we have seen the LGBT community come alive, unwilling to take no for an answer. Make no mistake, we are going to win gay marriage. It is not a question of whether, it's a question of when. The sooner the better, it goes without saying.

Also in November, the Republic Windows & Doors workers occupied their workplace to protest the illegal practices of their employer in shutting down their union plant to open up a non-union plant in Iowa. And the Republic workers not only won their case--but they won the solidarity of thousands of workers and students in this area. A whole bunch of people in this room were down there and witnessed it for themselves.

Since that time, we have seen college students starting to occupy their colleges demanding divestment from Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people--and they also have scored some victories, like the divestment of Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

Here in Chicago, it may not seem like such a big victory, but it is, believe me. Here in Chicago, the administration was planning on shutting down 22 schools, but six schools are going to remain open. You might say, "Six schools--that's not a victory. They are still closing most of them." But this is the first time in recent decades that any schools have stayed open that the Chicago School Board planned to shut down.

THESE ARE just a few of the highlights of the struggle we have experienced in just a few short months. That is not to say that everything will be going our way from here on in--not at all. Their side hasn't even begun to fight. And we know they will.

In addition, racists are organizing around this country. Racist hate crimes are skyrocketing by people who are angry we have an African American president. We shouldn't belittle the possibility of the growth of the far right. And even when it comes to the Employee Free Choice Act, the Chamber of Commerce, which has already pumped thousands of dollars to defeat EFCA, they have a long tradition of fighting against unions tooth and nail for many, many decades. They have shown every indication that they plan to fight tooth and nail to defeat EFCA. There will be many defeats ahead. There is no doubt.

There were many defeats in the 1930s, mainly before 1935, which is when things began to turn in favor of workers. The point here is, however, that the possibility for struggle opens the possibility that we can actually win. If you don't fight, you can pretty much be guaranteed that you won't be winning.

I think that we on the left have to begin to raise our own expectations to match the expectations that are out there right now. Those of us on the left--through no fault of our own, we're just used to losing not winning, we're used to aiming low and not aiming high--and just now if we really want to win, we have to have some sort of expectation that it's possible. Otherwise, what are we doing fighting?

At this point, we are facing the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and yet at the same time we face the greatest prospects for rebuilding the U.S. left since the 1930s. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. Just as the economic crisis is not an exact repeat of the Great Depression. And we didn't expect it to be--I understand this one is now being called the Great Recession. But we also should also not expect history to repeat itself identically when it comes to the class struggle.

In some ways, the working class movement is stronger, and in some ways it is weaker than it was back in the 1930s.

This is what I want to end on--what kind of left we need to build. The left is certainly smaller and weaker than it was in the 1930s, no question, which makes it all the more urgent to build our side and reorganize. But we are also stronger in a couple of other key respects than we were during the Great Depression.

The struggles of the 1960s were not fought in vain. The struggles for civil rights and Black Power, for women's liberation and for gay liberation--they left a lasting imprint on U.S. society that is not going away.

Take the struggle for gay marriage--it's a synthesis of a fight for civil rights and a working-class demand. The struggle for immigrants' rights is a struggle for civil rights and is also a working-class movement. What we saw on May Day 2006, when millions of immigrant workers came out for what was called "A Day without an Immigrant"--withholding labor in order point out how crucial labor is. And they did that.

That moment in history gave us a glimpse of what is possible in the coming years in building a working-class movement that stands for strong unions and also social justice. Because back in the 1930s, industrial unionism pointed the way toward the future for the U.S. working class and a rejection of the sectionalism of craft unionism.

I'd like to argue that just as industrial unionism was the key to the 1930s, social justice unionism is the key to the fight today. The fight for justice and the struggles against oppression needs to be central to the class struggle. That will not only be the way forward for us in the U.S. but the way forward for the working class around the world.

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