By Alan Minsky
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”—Dante, “The Inferno.”
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.
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.
In sum, I came away from these encounters with the rank-and-file attendees with the sense that these are fine people with whom to start building a serious social justice movement in the United States, but …
The Lowest Circle of Hell
“Know that as soon as any soul betrays, as I have done, his body by a demon is taken from him, who thereafter rules it.”—Dante, “The Inferno”
In Dante’s “Inferno,” the deepest darkest pit of hell is reserved for those who betray others. Thus, Judas, Brutus and Cassius are condemned for eternity to be continually eaten alive by the three-headed Beast.
So, let’s play Dante. Who among our contemporaries wins the hot seat besides Lucifer? Whose deceptions do the greatest damage? I’m guessing you have a sense where I’m going with this.
The GOP is pretty upfront with its intentions, especially when it comes to economic policies. OK, maybe Republicans don’t really believe the part about how the wealth generated will reach the masses, but they’re pretty clear about not taxing the wealthy while deregulating and privatizing everything in sight. In Dante’s hell, these are more or less middleweight sins. Greed lands you only in the fourth circle, charlatans in the fresh air of the eighth. Dick Cheney reversed decades of denial and embraced torture publicly. Honest chap lands in the seventh circle.
Now, imagine the American middle class is the Jesus or Caesar of our time. Et tu, Summers? Who have you deceived with a kiss, Robert Rubin, chairman of Citigroup in between stints with the Clinton and Obama administrations? Bill? Barack?
In 1999 Bill Clinton, under the guidance of Summers and Rubin, signed legislation eliminating the Glass-Steagall Act, perhaps the most important piece of financial industry regulation in American history. This move is widely seen as paving the way for the financial collapse of 2007-08 that sparked the current Great Recession.
Wednesday night at the Democratic convention, Clinton said the Republicans want “to get rid of those pesky financial regulations designed to prevent another crash and prohibit future bailouts.”
Furthermore, while the Democrats decry Paul Ryan and his embrace of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, they have forgotten to mention that during the Clinton years, Rubin was “joined at the hip” (according to former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr.) with die-hard Randite and Republican darling Alan Greenspan, working together to block oversight of toxic financial derivatives.
Would the rank-and-file Democrats—defenders of the middle class, lovers of Bill and Barack, kept in the dark about the minutiae of economic policy—ever have supported these policies that boosted the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent? If not, that’s some serious betrayal.
Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears
Midway through Tuesday, I was still marveling at how much of an inversion the Democratic convention crowd was from the Republican one. In Tampa, the Republicans’ populist base was invisible, and Romney’s base, the country club set, dominated the inside and outside of the convention. Throughout Monday and the morning Tuesday, all I’d seen across Charlotte was the middle- and working-class base of the Democratic Party.
Then, as I was walking only a few blocks from the convention hall’s entrance, the heavens opened and the rain poured down for the umpteenth time. I ducked under an overhang outside one of the steel and glass corporate towers of antiseptic downtown Charlotte.
When I turned around, I noticed a crowd gathering inside Bar Cocoa that didn’t look like anything I’d seen yet. There they were, plain as day: the American moneyed elite in its natural habitat, an exclusive, climate-controlled gourmet eatery.
Once I was through the revolving doors, I saw that Bar Cocoa was attached to the huge lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which was packed with men and women in their best-tailored Wall Street suits. I’d found the Democratic Party’s high rollers, a world away from the union marchers of Monday’s Labor Day rally.
I slipped through the crowd, and no one seemed to particularly mind my presence. Whereas among the rank and file, any person was just as likely to strike up a conversation as a snoopy journalist like myself, in this packed, sprawling Ritz-Carlton lobby restaurant, the millionaires were less forthcoming. Near the main entrance, there was a sign for a DNC Finance Committee event on which contributors were referred to as “financiers.”
Later, I would run into four young students, unpaid interns wearing Finance Committee badges. I asked them about it. They were very forthcoming. Their job was to shuttle the big donors wherever they wanted to go. They frequently had to remind the donors that if they were only at the mega-donor level, they were not allowed entrance into the super-mega-donor suite. “And no, you don’t get to sit with Obama tonight,” they would say.
At the Ritz-Carlton, I tried to listen in on a few conversations; I couldn’t make much out, though I did hear two men talk about the party’s relationship with AIPAC. I finally decided to ask a few questions directly of a tall young man schmoozing among the high rollers with his jacket off. As I began to ask some of the same questions I’d bounced off the rank and file the previous day, two other men started to listen in. Among the three of them, they were sympathetic to the progressive positions that were supported by the attendees I had spoken with earlier. But in marked contrast to the enthusiastic responses I’d gotten Monday, these men qualified their remarks, citing the political reality in the country and in Congress. One even said, “We’re operating in a different era than when public financing was readily available for social programs.”
Meanwhile, the rain had ceased. I left the hotel, planning to return Wednesday to dig for more information, wearing a suit jacket to blend in. As I approached the convention hall, I heard the blare of an activist loudspeaker. I soon saw the women of the peace and social justice group Code Pink, chanting at the delegates entering the hall about getting money out of politics. As I’ve known Code Pink founders Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans for years, I approached them, suggesting a great place where they could continue their chants. We marched together back to the Ritz-Carlton, merrily sauntered through Bar Cocoa and into the main lobby, where they pulled out their loudspeaker and began a spirited chant about getting money out of politics. They wound their way across the floor, to the dismay and occasional amusement of the suits. They were then chased out the front door by security.
So there they were in the Ritz, some of the rulers of the Democratic Party. Did the rank and file even know they were around? Who they are and what their politics are precisely, is difficult to say. I live in Los Angeles, where many of the wealthy entertainment industry folk who’d supported the Democratic Party in recent years actually harbor some seriously radical beliefs. It seemed rather unlikely that the same was the case with this crowd.
The rank and file I encountered on the streets knew, in a visceral way, that the right-wing drift since Reagan has been unrelenting. The Ritz-Carlton crowd, the big-money element of the party—so many fewer in number than the rank and file—are more than acclimated to the post-Reagan reality. However much more socially liberal this crowd may be than major Republican donors, it is the phenomenon of big money controlling the Democratic Party, as much as any development in recent years, that has generated the widespread sense that the American electoral system is little more than a charade guaranteed to produce political confirmation for the brazen plutocracy this country has become.
The following day, I ran into a friend of mine, an activist from Southern California, right outside the Ritz-Carlton. I know, from having attended many fundraisers, that this person knows a lot about the politics of the Democratic Party elite. She confirmed that my sentiments were roughly correct, but the people at the posh hotel were not the ones rubbing elbows with the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council. They apparently were staying at another hotel; she thought it might be the Westin. Furthermore, all the people at the Ritz-Carlton had changed their mind about money in politics since the Citizens United ruling. Recognizing that they could never compete with the war chests of corporations, the days of wealthy individual donors as the big-money kingmakers of the Democratic Party were fast becoming a quaint memory of the 1992-2008 era. Chances are that this crowd, a legacy of its relationship with the Clintons and the ’08 Obama campaign, still exerted tremendous influence over the party’s policies, certainly more than the thousands of rank-and-file members in Charlotte. But the Democratic Party of today will almost certainly follow the money. Somewhere in Charlotte, the Obama team is meeting with its corporate donors, no doubt assuring them, given Romney’s huge advantage in this regard, that their public policy wish list will be fulfilled should the incumbent get a second term.
What the mainstream passes off as acceptable political dialogue in this land is obscene. Everyone knows the system works for the few. Everyone knows the economy collapsed on the backs of the people a few years ago, and that the very criminals whose exploitations led to the crash are, if anything, doing better now than they did before the crisis, while everyone else suffers debilitating anxiety about making ends meet on a melting planet.
When Occupy burst on the scene in October, Bill Maher heralded its arrival by stating that for the first time since he had been hosting political talk shows, the full range of serious ideas about society could now be discussed. Everything was finally on the table.
I’m in Charlotte and was in Tampa to perform a play called “Mr. Satan Goes to Wall Street.” The play was born in reaction to the press’ demand last fall that the Occupy movement state succinctly what it stands for. Occupy had differing political tendencies that were active within it, and the playwrights felt the best way to represent them was through developing characters that embody these valid, competing beliefs. “Mr. Satan” strives to be an effective allegory about the struggle to build a viable, socially just alternative to the current political system. In particular, the play asks the question of whether the progressive pro-New Deal American left can form a coalition with radical anti-capitalists (as attempted in Occupy), in the belief that such a combination can attract significant, even majoritarian, support in an era in which neo-liberal capitalism is in free fall around the globe.
Pity my predicament of these past two weeks: to be traveling with a play that performs in exile, at the margins of the grotesque spectacle of choreographed conventions and the hollow platitudes that pass for American political discourse.
Toward a Real Powerful Left
It’s time to unclench our teeth, breathe out and really assess where we are. It’s fine to catalog the sins of Obama, but it’s a largely meaningless parlor game unless we offer a coherent vision—in which many different political tendencies can participate—that outlines a winning strategy for a real, powerful left. And we must not have any illusions about how much transformation will be required—first for such a vision to compete as viable, and second for real social change to commence.
Attending both political conventions with a mind for investigating who really holds the reins of power betrays, in all its naked glory, that America has truly become—or maybe it always has been and remains—an oligarchy, papered over with a thin veneer of democracy. Someone in Obama’s position could only ever be there because he has figured out how to present himself as an attractive leader to the people who really rule this country or he’s been hand selected by a subset of the elite as the perfect frontman. In this regard, there’s an uncanny continuity from Reagan through Obama.
Does this mean that Obama is a horrid soul? Who’s to say? Perhaps he has concluded that he can take the helm of the leviathan and do some marginal good. After all, there is no powerful social justice movement to overturn the status quo; who knows, maybe Barack and Michelle would join us if there were. But really, such speculation is largely superfluous. None of us can read another person’s mind. The truth is, we are all living in a globalized economic system where power and wealth are accumulating into fewer hands, and the financial shocks of the past few years have only accelerated this process.
Hope is so 2008.
So we readers of the left blogosphere desperately have to move beyond registering poignant critiques of the evils of Romney and Ryan, and the betrayals of Barack and Biden. When political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, the rest of us have virtually none of it. We need to stop turning a blind eye to this reality, study history and understand what it takes to build a movement that captures the imaginations and hearts of the tens of millions who, only four years ago, exhibited a deep desire to change these conditions and improve their lives. Real change, in contrast to hologrammatic optimism, requires real courage.
Hope and Change
“Strange things are happening like never before … like courage becoming befuddled and nonfundamental.”—Bob Dylan, 1993
At long last, a silver lining: There is nothing that Obama or Biden or Romney or Ryan is really going to give to the rank and file of this country that even comes close to what they need and want. And there are only so many more swings of the pendulum that people can be fooled by. Then again ... The rank-and-file attendees of the Democratic National Convention are fine people with whom to start building a serious social justice movement in the United States, but ...
... But, indeed. The kindheartedness and generosity of spirit I found in Charlotte are inspiring, but if these people’s political activity still revolves around Obama, aren’t they missing the bigger, more important picture? Sure, but when there’s no other game in town, ameliorating the system so it causes less damage is not something that should be entirely dismissed. Would I vote for someone other than Obama in a swing state? I live in California so it’s not an issue, but I know come early November if I were faced with a choice between the only two candidates who could win and they were in a neck-and-neck race, I’d vote for the less reactionary one. But I’d never lose sight of the fact that the two main political parties are too far down a path to address the nation’s problems in the way they must be addressed. This is not to say we’ve lost hope, not if we recall that the major political parties have never really been the vehicles for progressive change. The New Deal, the Great Society, hell, even the right to vote in this Godforsaken political system were won not by politicians and their big-money backers, but by tremendous social movements that rocked the world. We need hope and change; it’s up to us to produce them.
Alan Minsky is at the Democratic National Convention with a production of the musical comedy “Mr. Satan Goes to Wall Street.” Researcher Meleiza Figueroa provided assistance from an undisclosed location.
A demonstrator known only as “The Captain” is detained by police during an unscheduled protest march in Charlotte, N.C.