Election 2012: Abandon all hope?

Lance Selfa looks at what's on offer in the 2012 elections

IN THE 2008 presidential election, the watchword was “hope.” Although the Obama campaign turned “hope” into a marketing slogan, it captured well the feelings of millions who were fed up with years of war and frightened by the onset of an economic meltdown. Millions genuinely viewed President Obama’s election as a cause for hope, looking forward to the “change we can believe in.”

Four years later, much of that hope is gone. It’s given way to fear: fear of economic decline, fear of deprivation, fear for the future. And fear for what a future under a President Romney or Gingrich would bring.

That’s the chief reason why the 2012 election is shaping up as a traditional “lesser of two evils” choice between Obama and whomever the Republicans manage to nominate. Despite the fact that President Obama has disillusioned millions of his most ardent 2008 supporters, the majority of them are preparing to pull the lever for him and other Democrats in November.

It’s no surprise that many of the main bastions of liberal Democratic support have lined up behind Obama. Already the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association have endorsed Obama for reelection. But liberals have also tried to reshape the message of the “Occupy” movement as de facto endorsement of the Democratic ticket. Typical was Liz Novak’s call, issued in In These Times on January 4, to “occupy the electoral process":

The Occupy movement has a window of opportunity during the 2012 elections to shape our country’s policy debates. Will the movement abandon its anti-politician stance and work to push big issues (ending corporate personhood and reducing inequality) into the electoral process—and from there head into the legislative arena?

President Barack Obama does not offer a plan for the comprehensive social and economic transformation envisioned by the Occupy movement. But as his poll numbers falter, Democratic strategists will turn to the base to build a get-out-the-vote operation for November. This gives progressives an opportunity to leverage their demands and place economic inequality at the center of the political debate. Electoral politics cannot be the only front of our efforts, but to abandon that front in 2012 would be to cede power to Tea Party reactionaries.

Novak manages to put the “lesser evil” case in the most positive way possible. Occupy can have an impact on the broader society, she argues. But in case anyone gets too carried away with what’s at stake in 2012, she raises the specter of Tea Party reaction winning the day. 

Novak’s argument is the latest in appeals to social movements to “move from protest to politics” that liberals have raised to every genuine social movement since, at least, the 1930s labor movement. These appeals have a reasonable sound to them, but if followed all the way to their end, they refocus a movement on electing Democratic politicians instead of on organizing at the grassroots. That’s why socialists have often called the Democratic Party, the “graveyard of social movements.”

No one can deny that the GOP primaries will produce a neoliberal and religious right ideologue to oppose Obama. At each of the innumerable Republican primary debates, the candidates seemed to go out of their way to stake out the most extreme conservative position possible. 

In the midst of the gravest economic crisis in seventy years, where half of Americans have fallen into poverty or are hovering just above it, the Republican “debate” careened from peddling snake oil (Herman Cain’s regressive “9-9-9” tax plan) to highlighting far-right positions on social issues (Perry’s pledge to reinstate the ban on gays in the military) to bashing immigrants and poor people (Gingrich’s endorsement of child labor). 

At the time of writing, it appeared that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would emerge as the Republican standard bearer. If a Romney-Obama race comes into view, the Republicans won’t have any trouble getting most conservatives to support Romney. “I don’t think there’s going to be some sort of stop-Romney movement in any way, shape or form,” conservative strategist Greg Mueller told Politico. “The Obama fear factor is going to rise to the top here pretty soon.” And Romney, who is twice as wealthy as the last eight presidents combined, can be relied upon to shamelessly promote all of the “free market” policies that are at the root of the current economic crisis.

Obama’s early 2012 increase in popularity aside, the Republicans know that Obama is a vulnerable incumbent. Having presided over a jobless, anemic recovery from the depths of the crisis, the Obama administration has lost the benefit of the doubt with majority of the country. It can’t credibly ask for a second term on the grounds of having improved the lives of working Americans. Median household income has fallen in every year of Obama’s administration, with African Americans, young people, and the elderly suffering the biggest declines. In fact, income decline accelerated in the recovery after the recession officially ended in June 2009, according to a Sentier Reseach study. 

Obama’s actions in office have dampened the enthusiasm of millions who voted for him in 2008 with expectations of “change.” So the Republicans have a good shot at winning the presidency if they can nominate a semi-credible candidate. If the election is close (as it appears it will be), expect liberal calls for getting behind the Democrats to be urgent, if not hysterical.

But if unions, community groups, and organizations of the oppressed make reelecting the president and other Democratic politicians their top priority for 2012, they are making a mistake. For one thing, the relentless assault against their constituencies—from austerity-driven cutbacks to crucial social programs to union-busting—won’t take an election-year hiatus. And Democrat-led attacks on the public sector in states like California and Illinois have differed only in type, rather than in kind, from Republican-led attacks in states like Wisconsin and Indiana.

At a more general level, our side has to challenge the notion that to prevent living and working conditions from getting much worse, we have to support a status quo that is clearly unbearable for millions. We have only to look at the experience of the last four years to demonstrate that. 

Obama’s administration began with high expectations and a strong public mandate to shift the course of US politics. But in 2010, conservative revanchists, riding a Tea Party wave, seemed to repeal the 2008 election. It was tempting to explain this sudden shift to the right with a reference to all of the standard Washington explanations: the bad economy, an uncooperative Congress, a fickle public, weak advisers and strategies, and all of the rest. While each of these may play a part in the explanation, they avoid a more fundamental point about the nature and role of the Democratic Party—especially in a time of systemic crisis as the United States faced in 2008. 

In his book Democracy Incorporated, political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted that inflexion points in American history produce elite calls for “change,” that could be “mitigative” or “paradigmatic.” Whereas the former opts to trim around the edges to restore a fundamentally sound system, the latter attempts to recast political and economic relationships in more fundamental ways.  In many ways, the Obama administration’s failures could be tied to this distinction. Millions voted for Obama hoping for a decisive (or using Wolin’s term, a “paradigmatic”) shift in Washington politics and policy. But Obama and his elite backers were more interested in restoring the capital to its pre-2008 “business as usual.” They continued many of the unpopular policies the Bush administration had established: the wars, tax cuts for the rich, and Wall Street bailouts, most prominently. At the same time, they appeared strangely passive in the face a massive jobs crisis.

Assuming power as the economic crisis hit with full ferocity, the Democrats were destined to face a difficult situation. Since Democrats “owned” Washington, they were first in line to receive blame from voters looking for help from rising unemployment, poverty, and foreclosures. The voters perceived that “the government” wasn’t doing enough, and “the government” was run by Democrats. So they paid the political price.

Obama’s Wall-Street friendly economic policies are not the only things that have discouraged many of his supporters. Seeking to present himself as a “post-racial” president, the Obama White House shied away from championing policies that would help racial minorities and the poor; his administration has deport undocumented immigrants at a greater rate than his predecessor, and has spent hundreds of millions beefing up border security; and the environmental movement has been disappointed by Obama’s support for oil drilling, nuclear power, and by his failure to seriously address the issue of climate change.  As the radical environmentalist Jeffrey St. Clair drew up the balance in 2011: “On the environment, the transition between Bush and Obama has been disturbingly smooth when it should have been decisively abrupt.” All of these disappointments meant that many voters who went for Obama in the presidential election stayed home in the midterm election.

If the Democrats had launched a bold jobs program or proposed a genuine national health program, they would have at least provided an answer to critics who charged them with ignoring the public’s needs. But this would have presupposed a Democratic Party that was willing to use its governmental power to reorder the status quo of the last generation, rather than just give that status quo a new lease on life. As a party that reflects the interests of big business, the Democrats are committed to the items on the capitalist wish list: sustaining business profits to “create jobs,” cutting the deficit, and, eventually “entitlement reform.”

Obama tried to straddle the contradiction at the heart of the Democratic Party—a big business party whose most ardent, activist supporters oppose much of the big business agenda—with a stance that appealed to “bipartisanship” and a reasonable approach to national problems. While this may soothe elements of the Washington establishment, it’s exactly the opposite of what the climate of economic and political polarization demanded. The attempt to hew to a “centrist” course in the midst of a crisis that demanded radical solutions ended up pleasing no one—and opened the door to a comeback for right-wing policies that the 2008 meltdown should have discredited forever.

As he gears up for re-election in 2012, President Obama is positioning himself as a “fighter for the middle class”—placing jobs and tax fairness at the center of his campaign. This new rhetoric may give his supporters in the liberal Democratic infrastructure something to market other than fear of a Republican victory. But we shouldn’t be so gullible. 

One might pose the obvious question: Where was all this concern about jobs and ending tax breaks for the rich during the first two years of the Obama administration, when Democrats held large majorities in Congress and could have, presumably, passed real legislation to create jobs? Even after realizing that the 2009 stimulus measure didn’t bring down unemployment to the extent the administration hoped, it never seriously considered a 1930s-style jobs program.

Even if the White House underestimated the depths of the jobs crisis, that can’t excuse the jettisoning of a central promise of its 2008 campaign—ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Nor the gutlessness of Democrats in Congress who refused to even consider raising taxes on the rich despite its overwhelming popularity.

And it can’t excuse the White House’s obsession during last summer’s debt-ceiling debate with wringing from Republicans a “grand bargain” of $4 trillion in long-term deficit reduction—including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. That’s why it’s hard to take seriously the White House’s more recent $3.6 trillion deficit reduction proposal that supposedly protects Social Security because it demands higher taxes on the rich. At the same time, the plan cuts Medicare. If Obama is re-elected, expect the “grand bargain” to return with a vengeance.

In facing up to the situation that confronts us in 2012, we have an advantage over 2008—a heightened level of struggle. This is a product of both the depth of the economic and political crisis that is driving people into resistance and the galvanizing effect of the Occupy movement. In a few weeks, Occupy did more to bring the issues of income inequality and social class into mainstream political discussion than the Democrats had done for years.

From early 2011’s “Wisconsin uprising” to the Occupy movement’s rapid spread from city to city across the United States, millions of working people have been spurred to action.  While the Democrats will try to co-opt the message of Occupy for their own ends, they’ve already shown what side they’re really on.  Democratic mayors led the military-style assaults on Occupy encampments in city after city, and Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already pushed through new city ordinances making it easier for police to crack down on protest in the run-up to the NATO-G8 summit in May.  In the election year, the Democrats and their satellites may try to shut down social protest, but it is unlikely that they will be able to succeed completely.

In addition to making a principled case against lesser evilism, socialists should also be able win support for the idea that our movements need to keep protesting and organizing, no matter what is happening in the election. No doubt many of those involved in Occupy and other movements will vote Democratic in November. But in the meantime, activists who make a case that we needed to continue to struggle, and not dampen down action in anticipation of the election, can win the day with large numbers of activists. Such initiatives are the best way to give concreteness to our belief that the alternative to the ballot box—and an untenable status quo—is the struggle from below.