From Hope to Fear and Back: Obama & the Absence of a Progressive Bloc

By Lynn Koh
Aug 12, 2012

We all remember that night in 2008.   In Oakland, as in cities across the U.S., strangers hugged each other and filled the downtown streets.   Stephen Colbert broke character and got teary-eyed.  Many wondered, was the US charting a different path into the future?[1]  This year, an Obama victory will likely produce a very different reaction – celebration by the faithful, of course, but on the larger left perhaps a simple, vast sigh of relief at a catastrophe avoided.  

Autumn 2008 brought both Obama to the White House and economic crisis to the heart of the Wall Street.   For a moment the ideologues of neoliberalism were shaken, as if dazzled by a sudden light after stumbling out of their caves:  The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf proclaimed that free-market fundamentalism had failed, while Foreign Policy invited Leo Panitch to discuss Marx’s relevance.

But the sun shone only briefly.  After a bank bailout and a stimulus package, corporate profits skyrocketed[2].   Companies now hold about $5 trillion in cash.[3]  After grabbing the public’s money, the financial sector developed a hard-line opposition to even the mild regulatory reforms that were the Obama administration’s keystone achievements.  They have proven their willingness to concede much to the far-right in order to eradicate any progressive sensibilities among the political class.  The result is Mitt Romney’s rehash of orthodox neoliberalism, a zombie politics we thought had died years ago.

For his part, Obama has articulated a light version of classical US liberalism, but one embedded within his larger commitments to expanding the reach of global capitalism.  His ‘gaffe’ about the private sector doing fine was intended to highlight the loss of public sector jobs and their centrality in any plan for economic recovery; he has also rhetorically opposed extending tax cuts for the wealthiest, and emphasized investment in infrastructure, all while advancing NAFTA-like policies in the Pacific region.

Obama’s billionaires, as Forbes calls them[4], are the liberal philanthropic capitalists such as Penny Pritzker, Hollywood moguls, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs; there is a larger fraction of the capitalist and ruling elites -- Bernanke at the Fed, Lagarde at the IMF, who oppose the outright austerity measures that have devastated the Eurozone and have one foot in the real world.  But across the board, the economic fortunes of these capitalists also depend on deeper financial integration between the US and, for instance, China and India where Pritzker’s Hyatt hotel chain plans a major expansion. 

Furthermore, even those sectors that would supposedly benefit from a growing economy and increased demand are not clamoring for real action.  It’s not just a deep-seated ideological revulsion towards government responsibility for the public good.  It is also that the current sluggish growth in jobs has tilted the balance of forces in the workplace to the boss; there have been an unprecedented number of lockouts, there have been a huge number of strikes against hugely profitable companies that demand long-term wage freezes or give backs.[5]

The political elites have thus failed to even generate a serious discussion about the real structural problems of the US economy.  No surprise, then, that the national discussion generated by the presidential election leaves out poverty, full employment, and the impact of deepening inequality.  In fact, one of the lessons of Occupy is how much organizing and social explosion it takes to actually influence the elite and mainstream discourse.

At the state level, the right has taken full advantage of its 2010 electoral victories.  It has systematically sought to keep down the Black and Latino vote through all kinds of legislation, such as restricting early voting and requiring ID[6].  While this is a venerable tradition, and general forms of voter suppression are bipartisan, it is now central to the GOP’s political strategy as the calculated response to the growing weight of the electorates that brought Obama to the White House.  It is overlaid on the politics of fear stoked by Fox News and other propagandists -- that the white-male-Christian world order, and all the social and economic certainties that come with it, is under threat.  So:  neo-Jim Crow at the voting booth, open terrorism of immigrant communities, attacks on reproductive rights.  


What about the movements and constituencies that were paradoxically energized and somewhat demobilized by Obama’s election in 2008?

Many of the institutions, I think, experienced a demoralizing sense of political crisis during the long slide downward through 2010, and then were buoyed by the 2011 Arab spring, Wisconsin uprising, and Occupy movements; as well as successes in the Keystone XL campaign and the Dream Act movement. 

These experiences have created a new kind of common sense in the movements about the need to struggle against politicians they often helped to elect.  The labor movement, for instance, has had the deepest institutional links with the Democratic Party. Yet in his remarks to the AFL-CIO leadership on August 1st, Trumka laid out a political strategy that includes a demand for a pro-labor executive order and which regards Obama as an ally and a target.   These ideas come straight from the playbook of the Keystone XL and Dreamers campaign.  But for the top US labor leader, this is stuff you are just not supposed to say publicly. 

There is also more connection among the various sectors than ever before.   This is partly generational – the result, for instance, of two decades of progressives and leftists going into the labor movement where they had been excluded before.  It is also a result of the progress of our movements:  today, progressive politics is assumed to include both the full democratic rights for oppressed communities, a commitment to the environment, as well as economic justice. 

The attempts to build a progressive formation with some sustained political clout – One Nation Working Together, for instance, or Rebuild the Dream – have mostly fallen short of expectations.  But key leaders see success on this front as increasingly important.  As William Greider reports in the Nation, heavyweight liberal institutions such as the AFL-CIO, National Council of La Raza, and Center for Community Change have shifted their thinking in the past 4 years; they’ve been disappointed by Obama’s first term; they share a more or less common vision for economic and social justice, they are expecting a fight against a Simpson-Bowles-style ‘Grand Compromise’ between centrist Democrats and Republicans, and some see the necessity of a mass movement around economic justice.[7]

Those of us on the left likewise strongly feel the absence of a progressive bloc.  Antiwar and antimilitarist movements, as we’ve noted elsewhere, are unlikely to gain traction without being integrated into a progressive bloc[8].  And without some larger progressive formation, left visions for an alternative to capitalism will have not relation to the political options and language available to most people in the US.  Liberal forces, meanwhile, are likely to bend their programmes away from radicalism and towards the center where they will gain a hearing in the halls of power.  

In the 30s and 60s, the twentieth century high-water marks for the left, the progressive bloc built itself around a leading force:  the CIO in the 30s, and the Black Liberation Movement in the 60s.  These movements were able to develop enough political influence and a broad, transformative vision of US society; their pull served as a counterweight towards the usual tendencies toward fragmentation and they were able to draw in allies and achieve enormous victories.

Right now, no group is playing that leading role; it is possible, furthermore, that the emergence of a progressive bloc will emerge from completely different political dynamics.  Few things are certain, which is another way of saying that, as in 2008, anything is possible.

[1] And many did not.  This author believed Obama to be a centrist, but thought his election signaled the defeat for the worst sections of the elite, most committed to militarism and neoliberalism, and created possibilities for change.    These notes are a revisiting of that view.

[6]Minnite, Lorraine C. and Piven, Frances Fox.  “The Other Campaign:  Who Gets to Vote.” New Labor Forum, Spring 2012. 

[8]“New Moment, New Movement”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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