The 2012 Elections: Tragic Dilemmas, Left Possibilities

by Joseph Schwartz
Democratic Left - Summer 2012

The 2012 presidential election poses a tragic dilemma for the U.S. Left. On the one hand, the Obama administration disappointed labor, youth, and communities of color who mobilized to elect him by failing to advance an anti-corporate recovery strategy in 2009 when the Democrats controlled Congress. More of the same would leave the working class mired in economic malaise, while Wall Street has fully recovered. On the other hand, a victory this fall by Mitt Romney and a Republican party in thrall to the radical Right would threaten all the social gains of the last century.

The first tragedy is that the Obama administration embraced the policies of the “liberal” wing of Wall Street, putting Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and other Wall Street cronies in charge of economic policy rather than adopting a bold program for rapid economic recovery. Had Obama used his electoral mandate to push for stronger stimulus, a massive public jobs program, tough re-regulation of the financial industry, and major aid to foreclosed and underwater homeowners, the recovery would have been far less anemic. Obama’s concern for losing Wall Street alienated much of Main Street; his continued failure to relieve distressed homeowners means that millions of American families will struggle with massive debt for years.

On the other hand, the mass constituencies of the Left (organized labor, feminists, people of color, and LGBTQs) fear that a Republican presidential victory could roll back the gains of decades of struggle. Much of the fervent hostility to Obama is fueled by a Right-wing racial populism. The Republicans’ main electoral slogan will be: “Time to take back OUR country,” appealing to vulnerable white working class people’s suspicion that their distress is due to an administration that favors poor people of color. That’s far from the truth, but in politics perception is reality. Consequently, some white working class “Reagan Democrats” will return to the GOP fold.

Thus, some of DSA’s closest allies may carry water for a centrist Democratic president who failed to lead the country in a progressive direction. This spring, the major international unions dutifully lined up behind Obama’s re-election campaign, despite his earlier failure to fight for labor law reform, because Romney actively opposes labor rights in the public and private sectors. Most LGBTQ and feminist organizations will mobilize for Obama, given his endorsement of same-sex marriage and the Republican “war on women” threatening reproductive freedom. Exploiting the gender gap will be central to many progressive Democrats’ fall electoral hopes. Even some healthcare activists will support the President. While “Obamacare” represented a huge subsidy to the private insurance industry, its legislative defeat (or overturning by the Supreme Court) might take the principle of universal health care coverage off the political agenda for another decade.

The weakness of the Left and labor meant that Obama faced little grassroots pressure in 2009 to govern from the Left. Until the Occupy movement emerged in the fall of 2011, where were the movements against foreclosures and unemployment comparable to those of the early 1930s? Even FDR only enacted progressive reforms in response to pressure by mass movements from below.

DSAers can mostly avoid the tragic electoral choice faced by the mass constituencies in this presidential race, as we are a small radical organization which does most of its activist and educational work in social movements. Topdown presidential campaigns are not an effective venue for fighting dominant corporate ideology. But what the Left and popular movements can accomplish is constrained by state power. Thus, many of the mass constituencies of the Left will mobilize for the re-election of the President. Obama still enjoys strong support in the African-American community, despite the criticisms that radio host Tavis Smiley and DSA Honorary Chair Cornel West make of his silence on the inner-city poor or the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino youth.

Until the U.S. Left builds real organizational capacity at both the national and local level, we’ll often face unpalatable choices in mainstream politics. How could we begin to redress this situation? DSA and its allies in the labor movement and communities of color must work to link the youthful, disproportionately white, anti-corporate energy of Occupy to a broader anti-corporate coalition. We should press our friends in labor about the importance of building a national political organization that is pro-labor, but not controlled by labor, to engage in not only protest and community organizing but also electoral politics. This movement will need to run its own candidates – in Democratic primaries or as independents – to channel the grievances of underemployed and indebted college graduates, and the multi-racial, de-unionized workers of the new “precariat” (workers without stable career paths or decent wages and benefits).

For most Americans, electoral politics will be the primary form of politics this fall. Therefore, DSA locals and YDS chapters should seriously consider working in progressive Congressional and state legislative races. In Ohio, left-liberal Sen. Sherrod Brown will face a tough re-election battle, as will Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota. Several DSA locals have been aiding the re-election of veteran leftist Rep. John Conyers in Michigan and independent socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vermont. Most DSA locals or YDS chapters can identify a progressive candidate to work for as an organized, visible DSA group in their areas.

At candidate forums and othr public venues, DSA locals can use protest tactics to inject the crucial issues at candidate forums and other public venues that most candidates will not raise: progressive taxation, public investment in infrastructure and alternative energy sources, and major cuts to the wasteful “defense” budget. Here we can use materials from our educational projects around the massive resurgence of poverty (the 50th anniversary project: The Other America IS Our America) and the critique of the bipartisan neo-liberal economic policies of fiscal austerity, regressive tax cuts, and economic deregulation (the GETUP project: Grassroots Economics Training for Understanding and Power). Local activists should contact the national office for details about both projects.

The absence of an organized, “federated” Left (with national, state and local affiliates) meant that last year’s uprising in Wisconsin was not replicated across the country. If Occupy links up with grassroots movements fighting against state cuts to crucial public goods, such as higher education, then that insurgent energy can be linked to fights over state policies that affect millions.

The future of the labor movement depends in part on state legislative races, as the Right has prioritized passing more state right-to-work laws and attacking state employee collective bargaining rights. ALEC, a Right-wing policy network that focuses on influencing state-level politics, has made it clear that their goal is to kill the American labor movement as well as the right to vote for the young, the elderly and the working poor. We must prioritize fighting voter suppression laws: the Right is trying to deny a basic right won by the sacrifices of millions of abolitionist, feminist, labor, and civil rights activists over the past two centuries.

Whatever the outcome of the 2012 elections, when the automatic cuts to discretionary programs required by the summer 2011 budget agreement hit this December, we should be out in the streets. We will need a powerful mobilization this fall and winter to demand that the rich and corporations pay their fair share and that the hugely wasteful military hardware budget be cut. These revenues could then support not just the funding of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but also of federal job training and anti-poverty programs, revenue sharing with the states to reverse the brutal cuts to public services, and direct public employment programs to end the ongoing jobs crisis.

Though the presidential election presents DSAers with a difficult choice, we can deepen our commitment to building a multi-racial, labor-based, grassroots progressive coalition that can influence state power and turn back the austerity politics of the center-Right in both major parties. If we do that, we may eventually achieve sufficient strength that we can vote for what we want, rather than having to vote against what we fear.

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