My friends on the left

Barack Obama is unique among recent Democratic presidential candidates in terms of the support he has mobilised and his relationship to his base. Win or lose, his supporters will need to stick around and organise, argues Gary Younge, as he analyses their dynamic and their role in determining Obama's prospects

September 30, 2008
13 min read

Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.

Shortly before Independence Day on 4 July, Barack Obama felt the sting of his own rhetoric as it boomeranged and struck him as he drifted to the right. The issue was a spying bill that would have given ‘retroactive immunity’ to telecom companies that have been involved in spying on US citizens. This was a flip-flop. Obama had once promised his supporters that he would filibuster any bill that contained immunity – but now he was going to the senate to vote for it.

His supporters first got angry, and then got organised. They started a networking group on Obama’s own website opposing his new stance. The numbers swelled to 16,000. Twice the size of any other user-created site on his portal, it started slowing down traffic. The group’s open letter literally used Obama’s inspirational words against him. On the campaign trail he had repeated the late June Jordan’s dictum, ‘We are the ones that we have been waiting for’, to rouse his supporters into action. Now it was his detractors’ turn: ‘As you have said time and again senator, “We are the ones we have been waiting for”, and we are here, working to bring about real change in Washington.’ Obama responded, explaining his volte-face and saying he ‘expects to take his lumps’ on his site. A week later, with concern mounting that he was ditching his commitment to troop withdrawal from Iraq, he was forced to address the same constituency again.

Shifting to the centre

‘Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the centre,’ he told a crowd gathered at a town hall-style meeting in Atlanta in early September. ‘The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me … And some of this is my friends on the left … ‘

‘I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp,’ he said. But, he noted, he does not believe that the active hand of government is a replacement, say, for parental responsibility in education. ‘I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith,’ he said. ‘That’s not something new; I’ve been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look’ – at which point he waved his hands around his head – ‘centrist is not true.’

There are two points about this exchange that are worthy of note. The first is that Obama believes he has ‘friends on the left’ who need addressing. For the best part of the past two decades the entire raison-d’etre of Democratic candidacies has been to demand a full-scale retreat from the left. Were this Bill Clinton or Al Gore (the candidate not the activist) they would have taken this an opportunity to trash the left and prove their centrist credentials.

The second is that there is a sizeable amount of active, critical support for Obama that is mobilised both for his election and for progressive politics. Where those two things appear to be in conflict they are at least as committed to the latter as to the former.

This is the most important and interesting thing about Obama’s candidacy so far – his relationship to his base.

Obama the candidate is a fairly mainstream, progressive Democratic Party figure. Much of the uncritical adulation heaped on him as the last great hope for the American left is quite misplaced. On the issues he must confront both at home and abroad his agenda is inadequate. At home, the economic situation is dire. One in seven US homeowners has negative equity – the biggest percentage since the Depression. Meanwhile, mortgage repossessions are at their highest rate since records began in 1979 and unemployment has leapt to its highest rate in five years. Obama’s economic policies will barely make a dent in a crisis of that magnitude.

Abroad, his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq is mitigated by his desire to send them to Afghanistan instead. The day after he clinched the nomination he went before the pro-Israeli lobby to declare himself a ‘true friend of Israel’ and promise that ‘Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided’. (This is astounding, given that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.) None of this will help the US fight terrorism, establish peace, improve its diplomatic standing or keep its citizens safe – all things that much of the electorate quite reasonably desire.

Given these shortcomings there are also some on the left who insist that to treat Obama’s candidacy as anything other than that of a mainstream Democrat is to indulge the euphoria of his fans: as his positions are no different to those of, for example, Kerry or Gore, he deserves no more investment or support. To pretend otherwise, they argue, is to set people up for disappointment.

The problem with this position is threefold. First, this is no ordinary time. Americans are desperate for a shift in direction. A culture not given to national malaise is seriously in the dumps. Just 15 per cent believe the country is on the right track, according to a recent poll – around a third of the figure following the election of Bush in 2004 – and almost half believe the country’s best days have been and gone. For the past 18 months almost every opinion poll that has asked Americans about their country’s direction has produced some of the most pessimistic responses on record – a more extended period than anyone can remember since Watergate. Inflation is up, real wages are down and, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, ‘common sense is at an all time low’.

Second, Obama’s detractors from the left need to show that they can come up with some alternative path that could galvanise so many people against the Bush agenda. The US left has been decimated over the past 30 years. It cannot be rebuilt by fiat, but only by a long and difficult process of engagement.

Third, Obama’s base is quite different both in composition and its level of involvement. During the primaries he managed to galvanise two dormant constituencies who between them create an almighty electoral bloc – black people and the young. His victory wasn’t solely down to them. But it was their unprecedented mobilisation that gave him the edge and literally transformed the electoral map by introducing new voters into the process who had previously remained aloof. Between them the young and the black increased their share of the Democratic primary electorate by 25 per cent this year compared with 2004. There is considerable leverage there that the party establishment cannot ignore.

Why they went for Obama, rather than Hillary Clinton, is not a mystery. But it was not obvious either. In the end he only beat her by 4 per cent of the vote. For African Americans there is a degree of racial solidarity – although that bond is not as automatic as many imagine. After eight years of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, black Americans have recent, painful experience of those who look like them not representing their interests. Unlike Jesse Jackson, for example, Obama was not produced by the black community but presented to it.

It stands to reason, then, that their attitude to him was originally ambivalent but morphed first into race-pride when it was clear he had a chance of winning and finally into anti-racism as the Clinton campaign became more racially-divisive.

US presidential politics do not provide a huge amount of opportunity for thoroughgoing examinations of policies and platforms. Alongside the traditional demographic allegiances related to class, race and region, there is an indefinable element that both pervades and infuriates.

The appeal of any presidential candidate is based on a ‘gut reaction, unarticulated, non-analytical, a product of the particular chemistry between the voter and the image of the candidate’, argued Richard Nixon’s speechwriter Raymond Price. ‘[It’s] not what’s there that counts, it’s what’s projected.’ And that projection, he continued, ‘depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself’.

That element, carefully mediated through handlers, talking heads, talking points and marketing, won’t win it on its own. But without it, victory is tough. There was something about the stiff, studied demeanour of Gore or Kerry that was difficult for people to identify with, even if they are no more elitist than Bush and, in reality, probably a lot less so. Covering the 2004 elections, I never met a single person who was enthusiastic about Kerry. He received more votes than any Democrat in history because they hated Bush.

A marked and clear shift

Obama is different. There is a definite and deep connection. He is the only living politician I have seen emblazoned on t-shirts and with posters up in homes and stores, apart from Nelson Mandela during South Africa’s first elections in 1994. One crucial reason may be that he represents a marked and clear shift from the generation who have been misleading America for the past few decades in general and from Bush in particular.

To some he is the anti-Bush – conciliatory, worldly, curious and refined where the current president is belligerent, parochial, indifferent and oafish. The child of a single mother who worked his way up through community organising as opposed to the scion of a wealthy family who was handed it all on a plate.

Whatever the basis of the connection, the fact is that Obama’s candidacy has unleashed at least eight years of pent-up frustration at an administration hell bent on pilfering the US economy and debasing its constitution, and at a political class intent on abetting it. The Obama campaign likes to call its supporters a grass-roots movement. It is half right.

It is certainly grass-roots. Thanks in no small part to the campaign’s mastering of new technologies, the campaign has been able to draw in new people and involve them meaningfully at the most basic level. It has set up field offices in every state, has an impressive voter registration drive staffed primarily by volunteers and has a funding base that, while still reliant on money from huge corporations, has a broader base of small individual donors than ever before. Lots of ordinary people literally have a stake in his victory.

But it’s not a movement. At present Obama has galvanized two significant demographic groups and many others to back his candidacy. But his campaign has no purpose or meaning beyond his election. In its current form, once he wins or loses it will cease to exist. It operates not from the bottom up but from the top down. Yet, as the interaction over the spying bill suggests, this relationship is extremely fluid. The potential for his supporters exists in the very rhetoric and technologies he attracted them with in the first place.

We have been here before – and the lasting effects were important. When Howard Dean stood in 2004 his anti-war, web-based insurgency took the Democratic establishment completely by surprise. Dean lost. But his supporters continued with the mission of trying to reform and reinvigorate the party. His candidacy gave voice and force to a disparate group of activists, bloggers and other progressives who were opposed to the war and frustrated by the Democratic leadership’s reluctance to really push for an end to it.

Many of those who gathered around the Dean candidacy did not stop after he was ejected from the race, remaining instead to help build a sizeable and vocal progressive wing in the party that bore real results in 2006 when the Democrats took back both Houses of Congress. These are not social movements – their work is almost entirely limited to the Democratic Party. But nonetheless these campaigners have displayed a vibrancy and efficacy that would be the envy of the Labour left here in Britain.

Whether this will translate into electoral victory is an open question. John McCain, invigorated by the adoption of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and aided by the way this has helped to distance his candidacy from the Bush old guard, could certainly win. Some white people – more than admit it to the opinion pollsters – are still not prepared to vote for a black candidate. And who knows, until election day, how many black people, young people and Latinos – historically three of the least likely groups to turn out but also the bedrock of Obama’s base – will actually show up and vote? Obama’s aim is to win by expanding and transforming the electorate through voter registration. If they turn out he could take it by a landslide, but if they stay at home then he could be crushed.

Obama had a commanding 59-32 per cent lead among Latinos according to polls in early September (Bush took 44 per cent of the Latino vote in 2004). For all the hoopla about the nomination of Sarah Palin, moreover, he continued to lead McCain by seven points among women (Kerry beat Bush by just three points).

Obama needs 18 more electoral college votes than Kerry mustered to take the presidency. As the conventions drew to a close there were two states that Kerry won where Obama was facing a serious challenge – New Hampshire (four electoral college votes) and Wisconsin (ten votes). There is one state – Iowa (seven votes) – that Bush won narrowly where Obama now has a commanding lead. Overall most of the states in contention are ones that Bush won and McCain must defend while Obama is on the attack.

Win or lose, the transformation that so much of Obama’s base seeks in US foreign policy, economic direction and civil liberties cannot be achieved by votes alone. If he loses his supporters must be there to mobilise against any attempt to build on the Bush agenda, just as the Christian right was there to block progressive measures under Bill Clinton. If he wins they will need to exercise sufficient leverage for him to realise the limits to what he can concede to lobbyists, the military and big business without losing the support of his base.

The potential to expand and build a broad progressive front to check and reverse the reactionary excesses of the past eight years has opened up as a result of Obama’s run for office. To achieve their goals, his supporters must not stand still after election day.

Gary YoungeGary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian, a columnist for the Nation and the author of Another Day in the Death of America.

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