Last Sunday, Glenn Greenwald wrote:
I've been genuinely mystified by the disappointment and surprise being expressed by many liberals over the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed of pure Beltway establishment figures drawn from the center-right of the Democratic Party and, probably once he names his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, even from the Bush administration -- but not from the Left. In an email yesterday, Digby explained perfectly why this reaction is so mystifying (re-printed with her consent):
The villagers and the right made it very clear what they required of Obama --- bipartisanship, technocratic competence and center-right orthodoxy. Liberals took cultural signifiers as a sign of solidarity and didn't ask for anything. So, we have the great symbolic victory of the first black president (and that's not nothing, by the way) who is also a bipartisan, centrist technocrat. Surprise.
While there's certainly some truth to this, I believe it's clearly overdrawn, since a good many people were convinced that Obama's policies were already quite progressive--he was against the Iraq War, remember?--and it wasn't just cultural signifiers they were depending on. We've certainly had no shortage of such commentators here making such arguments. And Wednesday, Nate Silver weighed in with what purports to be a fairly comprehensive sorting of Obama's policy initiatives into their ideological positions, showing a huge overall tilt in the progressive direction. I think Nate's categorization is somewhat questionable, but I do think that the impression he has is one that is widely shared: Obama appears quite progressive to many who have supported him, and that is a major reason why they have felt little or no need to pressure him. Digby is correct in saying that there's misperception involved, but it's just not as simple as she indicates.
A further complicating factor is that there's no obvious relationship between holding out for a policy promise and choices involving personnel. I'm definitely not saying that policy and personnel have no relationship. I'm saying it's something that needs to be understood in terms of a larger framework.
In short, I think that there's a good deal that's problematic with Digby's comment--and yet, I think the main thrust of it is absolutely correct: The left gave Obama a pass, so pleased with what he had to offer that they put little energy into asking for more, while established Beltway/special interests showed no such reluctance.
|The difference in attitudes is striking: Progressives say, "Wow! A friend! That's sooo cool! We have a friend! A friend! A friend! Let's bake them some cookies! Let's bake them a million cookies!" (Any similarity to Chief Wiggum is purely coincidental. Trust me on that.)
OTOH, the Versailles establishment attitude is a bit different: "What are friends for, if not to ask favors? $100 billion here, $100 billion there, that's change we can believe in!"
Put simply, progressives need an attitude adjustment. Politicians are not our friends, any more than tv characters are. They are not going to bring killer pasta salad to our BBQ, go to the beach with us, or help us break into our home when we've locked our keys inside. They may be our political friends, but (a) that's a whole different kind of thing, and (b) it depends on actions, not words, and not just one or two actions, but rather a pattern of them.
Second, progressives need to learn about political power. They need to learn about building it for the long term. They need to learn about investing in building power over the long haul, as opposed to simply spending wildly to avoid being utterly crushed in the next election. This is what hegemonic struggle is all about: building power across a range of institutions, so that their normal functioning produces the sorts of outcomes you want.
In this election, people spent wildly to support Obama, after decades of neglecting to build cross-issue hegemonic structure. As a result, when the rightwing hegemonic structures, in their triumph, produced the spectacular multi-issue failures of the Bush Administration, leaving the nation in ruins, progressives had lots of ideas, lot's of energy, lot's of passion, but not a lot of powerful institutions and institutionalized power to push their alternative vision of what should be done about it.
In short, I'm saying that our problem wasn't a failure to ask Obama for anything in return for our support. Our problem was that we hadn't organized ourselves in advance to even be in a position to do that.
That's why, moving forward, we have to be a lot smarter about prioritizing what we do. Building cross-issue hegemonic power needs to move up to the top of the list. What do I mean by "cross-issue hegemonic power"? I mean everything from grassroots organizations to think tanks and tv networks that deal with a variety of issues in an inter-related fashion expressing a more-or-less unified guiding vision. And not just political institutions, but cultural and social ones, as well. Because hegemony is very much about shaping basic cultural outlooks and understanding, about shaping what counts as "common sense."
In short, my take on all this comes from my long-time contention that the left is incredibly weak in building hegemonic infrastructure. This weakness, in turn, is reflected in the very existence of this debate, as well as Obama's centrist strategy, as well as many particulars entered on all sides. This will also be seen in my follow-up look (later today or tomorrow) at Nate Silver's categorization of Obama's policy positions. Many of the things Nate sees as distinctively "progressive" actually have much broader support, while many things I think of as progressive aren't on the menu at all. This can only happen, I would argue, where there is no strong institutional progressive presence that can define what counts as progressive not just for itself, but for political discourse in general.