So I feel like I'm being hypocritical and not doing what I'm asking others to do: talk about building local, regional and even statewide power instead of just focusing on the glitzy Presidential elections. So, in the spirit of staying true to my own politics, this will be my last post on the Presidential primaries, and maybe one of my last posts about the Presidential race period. There are many other people who have been following the races more closely than I have and who have very intelligent things to say. My two favorites if you'd like to read them: Jan in San Fran and Racewire from the good folks at the Applied Research Center.
Okay, deep inhale. Here's my lay-it-all-out-there, full-on post on why I'm not as thrilled about the Presidential elections as some of my fellow progressives and radicals are, and what I think is helpful/hopeful/useful about them as well, from a movement-building standpoint.
The reason I am so critical of the Obama-mania--and possibly of Obama himself, although I honestly haven't read up enough about him to know his policy proposals inside-out--is that many progressives, activists, radicals, long-time organizers and movement people I know are saying that we need to take advantage of this opportunity, that we need to follow the masses who are following Obama's lead, that we need to not stay on the sidelines and just be the nutty radicals talking to ourselves in the far-left corner of the room.
All of that I totally agree with, and think is a good thing. Of course, having millions of people who may have previously not been engaged in politics at all--the young people, the 'disaffected' that Obama's been inspiring--is a good thing. But here's the catch: if we radicals and progressives are trying to insert ourselves into the Obama campaign to 'ride the coattails' of his amazing sweep through the primaries, what are we really trying to get out of it? Are we trying to use this as an opportunity to put out a message of civic engagement, of voter mobilization for the long haul, of democracy as a right to claim and not a privilege to hope for? Or are we simply going with the tide, not being critical of the candidate we're supporting (while we remain hyper-critical of his Republican and some Democratic opponents), squashing any real opportunities to talk about the really big issues: ending US imperialism abroad, true health care reform, real democracy, quality education, and, yes, race and gender and how all of these are intertwined.
I could be wrong--maybe those conversations are happening at Obama's (and hopefully Clinton's and Edwards') campaign offices all across the country. Maybe my fellow progressives are taking the newbie activists that are getting mobilized by Obama's campaign out for drinks (or sodas) after phonebanking and breaking down to them how the Presidential race is just ONE election that happens every four years, and how we need to be engaged in all levels of government in order to make real change in our communities. Maybe some of you all Obama-heads out there are really engaging in deep conversations about true democracy with the slightly starry-eyed folks who read 'Audacity of Hope' or watched Oprah (and I'm not disparaging those things, I'm a big believer in the power of the media) and wanted to get on board with Obama. If you are, then more power to you. I support you 100%, and I will be here for you if you want to talk about it, or vent about how frustrating it can be, or want to just share what a great experience it is.
My biggest fear, however, is not that those conversations aren't happening--because I'm sure, to some degree, they are. My fear around an Obama presidency is that he is going to win, and that progressives will be rejoicing, and saying this is the best possible thing that could've happened under the circumstances (a big lowering-the-bar kind disclaimer, and one I've heard from activists). And then when he gets into office, he's going to come under intense scrutiny because he's a Black man--I think Dave Chappelle's sketch 'Black Bush' from Season 2 of the Chappelle's Show is the best vision for what a Black president would endure, even while he does all the f**ked up, racist, and imperialist shit that any President is expected to do. And because of this scrutiny, he will be advised that that he has to be tougher on 'terrorists', on people who are incarcerated, on poor people--who are all still largely people of color in this country--and that he won't be able to talk about race in an honest and sane way, and won't be able to implement the social and economic reforms he's said he would because of the way the system is set up. That he'll buckle (as any other President would) under the massive pressure from corporations and Dems not to change things TOO much, because as a Black man with a 'foreign'-sounding (whatever that means) name, he'll feel he has to be extra-palatable to the mainstream in order to get ANYTHING done, much less make any of the sweeping reforms that the folks at the grassroots are hoping that he'll make.
But even further, my real fear--and one that I can already see happening, because I feel that there are very few progressive people of color out there willing to critique Obama's politics the way we're almost expected to when it comes to Clinton, Edwards, McCain, etc. because then people look at us like we're crazy--is that many people will DEFEND Obama when he's doing all the shit that US Presidents do to uphold US imperialism. Like invade Afghanistan, or 'take out' Ossama bin Laden assassination-style, or invade (militarily or economically) Cuba once Fidel passes. These things, I don't have any doubt, will probably happen no matter who becomes President of the United States. It's all a matter of degrees. But the difference with an Obama, and even with an Edwards, victory, would be this: would progressives and / or people of color actually defend him when he has to make these moves? Will racial solidarity or white guilt or labor union cronyism keep people from being critical of a Black President or a labor President because they don't want to attack someone who's having such a hard time already? We already expect that Clinton will be a classic deal-cutting politician, and she hasn't really promised not to be. But Edwards and Obama have. Will we try to hold a President Obama accountable to the vision of hope that he inspired us with? And will we work to build grassroots power so that we can hold him accountable? Will the people who came out in the millions to vote for Barack, donate money to his campaign, work for him, etc. be around when accountability needs to happen? And which side will they be on?
These are the questions that swirl around in my mind when I think about Barack Obama as our next President. I wonder if Oprah will, after Barack's sent troops from Iraq into Afghanistan, have him on the show to talk about how brave that was for him to do? How the American people admire him for doing that? That a Black man can be just as imperialist as any other President? Is that the kind of racial equality we are fighting for?
I agree with my friend Ludovic and others that Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition presidential bid in the 1980s energized a large mass of people who remained engaged in politics on some level afterwards. Yes, very true, and I'm not going to compare Jackson and Obama's politics because that's not what this is about. The bottom line to me is, that was a different time. Our education systems looked very different then (at least in California, the 5th largest economy in the world and one of the economic and political powerhouses of this country). There was more solidarity between people of color because we were all, to a large extent, still second class citizens. We were only 10-15 years removed from the Black Panthers and Black Power, the Vietnam War, the Iran hostage crisis. People of color had not yet integrated into previously white society to the deep levels that we have now. It was still an era of affirmative action. I think as a nation we were probably more honest about race, class and maybe even gender than we are now. And then, of course, there's 9/11 and how that has profoundly changed American culture, economy, media and politics.
In short, an Obama campaign and a Jackson campaign are, in many ways, apples and oranges. But my friend Ludovic asked for concrete proposals and so I've got a few. Make of them what you will:
1. As far as voting for President, I'm voting in the primaries for Edwards. He's not perfect by any means, and I know he's not going to win, so maybe it's a cop-out vote, but at least I like his economic policies. After the primaries, it's anyone's ball game. I'll definitely be voting for a Democrat, since I don't want to chance a Republican winning, so I guess the choice will be pretty clear after August. I won't be working on any Presidential candidate campaign though, nor will I contribute money, so don't ask.
2. For the people wanting to work on Obama's campaign because of the movement that has stirred up around him, go for it. I just ask you to have those longer-term, movement-building conversations with the people you meet along the way. Take some time to really engage with people about what a real democracy looks like, because a lot needs to happen between Presidential elections to make a democracy real. Let's not forget about that.
3. And don't be dejected if Obama doesn't win the Democratic nomination. He will have run one of the most successful 'underdog' campaigns in the history of this country. If we're about real change and long-term movement-building, let's make sure that either way, victory or defeat for Obama, that we use the opportunity to talk about true democracy, to talk about race and gender and class, to talk about rebuilding our communities from the bottom up. Let's do what we say we want to do. Let's not just talk about it. Let's do the hard work of creating a democracy. Another world is very possible, but it will take all of us working together to make it real.
And now that I've put it all out there, I promise to only or at least mostly talk about statewide or regional/local elections issues from now until at least June. I try to practice what I preach. It's all about trying, at the very least.