Like rising waves foretelling the coming storm, shudders of alarm rock my leftish social circles at any thought of parting ways with our objectively right-wing president. Friends mention their disappointment in Obama’s policies, only to reaffirm their sense of a personal connection to him. An African American poet sends out an e-blast arguing that he’s just one Black man, not a magician, and we voters are at fault for not pushing him harder. Another friend, a white peace activist now in her late 80’s, invites me to a satirical revue that she gleefully promises will skewer the present administration, then adds–in tones that brook no argument–“Of course, we’ll still have to vote to re-elect Obama.”
At a meeting of union activists opposed to America’s wars, I ask: what does the group plan to do about the convergence of the upcoming election, traditional labor support for the Democrats, and the fact that said Democrats are now the Other War Party? Don’t go there! is the tenor of the response, in a chorus of “we can’t be confrontational” and “my union already has its plan drawn up–we’ll be knocking on doors for Obama, just like in 2008.” I’m reminded of the San Francisco fundraiser where Bradley Manning supporters serenaded the president with a “protest” song including the lyrics: “We’ll vote for you in 2012, yes that’s true, Look at the Republicans, what else can we do?”
I supported Barack Obama in 2008. I believed that we were at a very dangerous crossroads, with the Bush gang fully capable of some grotesque putsch, and I cast my vote in hopes of buying time. I even campaigned with my union on a couple of occasions. I did not like Obama’s centrist platform, and I didn’t expect him (or any mainstream presidential candidate) to go to the mat defending truly progressive policies. And still I didn’t anticipate anything like this level of sheer awfulness. I never imagined we’d get the “Four More Wars” that the satirical protest group Billionaires for Bush used to chant about in the wake of the Iraq invasion. (Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia–possibly I am leaving out some significant center of drone activity?) I didn’t foresee even the New York Times fretting that the president “is drifting toward establishing his own system of extra-legal detention and tainted questioning,” much less the CIA “black site” that The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill has unmasked in Mogadishu. I failed to guess that Obama would outdo Bush in his bid to enshrine a king-like executive. I didn’t think he’d appoint so many Wall Street insiders, or use the debt ceiling battle as a bully pulpit to preach austerity to the jobless while mounting a frontal attack on social safety nets.
I won’t be supporting the Democrats this time around. The real, never-ending threat from the radical Right is no reason to embrace repugnant measures, any more than the existence of Al-Qaeda authorizes violating constitutional rights and international law. And besides, most Lesser Evil arguments rely on a simplistic view of our political system, one that ignores the ways in which the Democrats’ habitual appeasement of the Right only furthers an ever more reactionary restructuring of our economy and discourse. Both of the major parties serve corporate masters, and the menace of fascism isn’t going to fade because we vote for a slightly more genteel approach to gutting the rule of law at home and abroad. Far from being “Lesser” and “Greater” Evils, the two political parties are more like Good and Bad Cops who work us over in tandem. You might prefer the one who doesn’t hit you, but you don’t get to pick. They only come in pairs.
These are my views; they are surely debatable. But rather than argue their merits in detail, I want to consider the implications of the striking lack of debate on the left end of the spectrum–the kneejerk “don’t go there” attitude that I’ve just described, a version of which The Progressive‘s Kevin Alexander Gray details in an essay on “Obama and Black America” (“If you dare to tell it like it is, you instantly and unsparingly get bashed and called a ‘hater'”). At least as bad as bashing is the pervasive, eerie silence about this president’s shameful record. As Tom Engelhardt puts it in a blog post entitled “The Militarized Surrealism of Barack Obama,” the fact that the president “regularly prostrates himself before this country’s special mission to the world” while invoking “God’s blessing upon the military” is typically “neither attacked nor defended…but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored.” Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald makes similar points in relation to domestic policy, noting liberals’ “stunning silence in the face of Obama’s efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.”
I believe that this stance among groups of people supposedly adept at critical thinking signals anxiety about something more important than any single presidency. It speaks to how this president confronts us–certainly not for the first time, but now at a deeper, more threatening level– with the brute facts of America’s identity and prospects. Despite all warning signals, it was tempting to have faith in the Obama of 2008 in large part due to the symbolic interaction of two emotion-laden events: the relief of an election that felt like political rebirth after democracy’s near-death ordeal in the Bush years, and the threshold we crossed in choosing an African American president. For many, this election seemed to mean that America had a chance to “be America again,” in the words of Langston Hughes (“The land that never has been yet–/And yet must be”). Thus the natural reluctance of progressives to read the writing on the wall once the new administration got underway.
Facing squarely the huge disconnect between progressive principles and Obama’s policies pushes us to relinquish whatever remains of the comforting illusion that we inhabit a relatively benign and stable political landscape within which to work for positive change. Looking hard at all the reasons not to vote for four more years means pondering whether the unholy alliance of monopoly-finance capital and a permanently hyper-militarized foreign policy has set our country on a malign trajectory that we can’t substantially alter. Perhaps we need to rethink the time-honored leftist move of invoking the Better America we once believed could grow from the seeds of labor struggles, the Civil Rights Movement, and other past democratic glories. (The latest such effort to mobilize a “progressive” nationalism, “Rebuild the American Dream,” was recently launched by former Obama aide Van Jones, with MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and others.)
If the really existing U.S. of A. can’t be reformed, it needs to be abolished. (I mean the republic-cum-empire, of course, not The People–whose ultimate welfare may depend not at all on preserving their status as “my fellow Americans.”) It seems, indeed, that humanity’s very survival may depend, in significant part, on dismantling the hubris and sense of impunity now indelibly inscribed within our national project. What if the beautiful vision of Langston Hughes’s poem–the empowerment of all who’ve been used and abused–is no longer to be furthered by nationalistic means? What about Human Dreams?
“I do not believe/our wants/have made all our lies/holy.” Audre Lorde wrote those lines in “Between Ourselves,” a poem from her classic The Black Unicorn (1978) that questions “easy blackness as salvation.” I don’t pretend to know what she would have to say about the 2012 election. But I cherish what she and her heroic peers in the generation of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, Second Wave feminism, and lesbian/gay liberation taught me about the political imperative of truth. Say it loud! Come out! Don’t be afraid to name the harshest realities. “Your silence will not protect you.” You can’t know your own strength, or who will stand by your side, until you take that risk.
Having said no to Obama and the Democrats, I’m not sure what action I’ll take during this election cycle. There are all kinds of possibilities: economic justice work in my local community, anti-war organizing, support for a third party. In whatever arena, I’ll need to be candid. I don’t believe our deeply felt wants–for community, for justice, or even for bare survival–can sanctify a litany of patriotic lies. I want America to come to an end. Equality and freedom are not–have never been–the private property of any nation-state. Let “Chants Democratic” ring out in the name of all.