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Want Hope and Change? Build a Real Left

Posted on Sep 6, 2012
AP/Chuck Burton

A demonstrator known only as “The Captain” is detained by police during an unscheduled protest march in Charlotte, N.C.

By Alan Minsky

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”—Dante, “The Inferno.”

The Dream

Barack Obama’s election in November 2008 was an epic, historic event, one that spoke volumes about the aspirations of tens of millions of Americans for a more progressive and just society. Four years on—during which time Obama has governed from the center-left to the center-right—it’s easy to forget that the president campaigned in the lineage of Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez (“Yes We Can!”) and the progressive side of the Kennedys.

In supporting this brilliant, young, intellectual internationalist who promised hope and change, people across this vast land were yearning for a better educated society; a less violent, more humane foreign policy; a more equitable distribution of wealth and power; and, of course, for a country that truly was moving beyond its heinous history of racism. Sure, even the most die-hard Obamamaniacs understood that one flick of a magic wand could not generate such transformation. But it remains an undisputable fact that the raw emotion and feverish support for Obama’s campaign were grounded in the wish, held close to the heart by millions, that MLK’s visionary dream could at last be fulfilled.

This was a good thing, a very good thing. It was a reminder that even in the cultural and economic wasteland of 21st-century America, we are surrounded by souls working for a better, more just world.


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Almost four years on, the apologists’ choir reminds us incessantly that Obama inherited the worst mess of any post-World War II president. Yet there’s no denying, given the clear contradictions between his campaign promises and his major decisions (starting hours after he was elected), that all those millions working for real change had invested their hopes in a candidate substantially more moderate than “the dream.”

Sure, a few die-hards cling to the ’08 aspirations, muttering the refrain “if only Obama could do what he really wants.” But most supporters here in Charlotte, N.C., have accepted that Obama 2012 is a status-quo candidate. His quandary is that he needs to win back the support of the millions who wanted so much more. If one is consumed merely with the horse race, this would form the simple backdrop to Obama’s speech Thursday night. The bigger picture, generally avoided by the sports announcers who constitute the political press corps, is far more interesting.

When a president is operating in the context of a titanic, unrelenting economic crisis—one that finds most American households stretched to their limits, crushed by debt, working more hours than ever, with the meritocracy’s promise of the benefits of education ringing more hollow than ever—the table is set, and has been set these four long years, for a ringing endorsement of a visionary alternate strategy. It’s something our great orator failed to deliver.

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”—Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

The Rank and File

Upon my arrival in Charlotte at the top of the week, I was impressed with the stark contrast between the Democratic National Convention delegates and those who had attended the Republican convention a week earlier. Inside and outside the hall, the vast majority of the Democratic convention’s rank and file were clearly from the middle class, ethnically diverse, gender balanced and not in any way part of the American elite. Admittedly, as the week went on, a few more coats and ties turned up with floor passes. But my sense remained that the popular base of the party was actually represented here, in marked contrast to the country club set I’d encountered in Tampa, Fla.

I struck up conversations wherever possible: with an Asian-American woman and her companion from Wales; ladies from the Feminist Majority; a documentary filmmaker seeking air-conditioned relief in Panera’s; African-American members of the UAW; and countless others. I began an informal poll. Support for public education and teachers? Check. Lowering the cost of higher education through public subsidy? Check. Addressing the Social Security crisis by raising the salary cap? Check. Support for the public option and single-payer health care? Check, check. Is the wealth divide too great in the country? Check. Dramatically increasing taxes on the wealthy? Check. Only the questions of ending foreign wars and legalizing marijuana were ambiguously met: some firm endorsements mixed with “I support the president’s position on these things.” 

After a day of surveying the Democratic rank and file, I feel confident in saying that these attendees are largely American social democrats who support humanist public policies that do not genuflect on the altar of the free market and, as such, lie markedly outside the debate within almost all legislative assemblies in the country, including Congress.

I also inquired about whether people would rather have Paul Krugman instead of Larry Summers and Robert Rubin as the president’s chief economic counsels. Here the answer was split three ways: Most commonly, people thought they didn’t know enough to respond, a few concurred they’d rather have Krugman and two said, “If Obama went with Krugman, he’d either be impeached or shot.” Many didn’t know who Summers and Rubin are.

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