Let's nominate Chris Hayes: Imagining the new activist, Democratic base

The president and his base are disconnected — for good reasons. Here's why, and a new agenda to save the party

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 8, 2014 3:29PM (EST)

Chris Hayes                  (AP/Virginia Sherwood)
Chris Hayes (AP/Virginia Sherwood)

There is rarely a single reason for anything in human affairs, and the Democrats' sweeping losses in the midterms are no exception. Most concretely, the Senate electoral map was arguably the worst one Democrats have faced since World War II—certainly the most unrepresentative, as Patrick Egan explained at the Monkey Cage blog. It was the most unfavorable electorate they could have faced. Democrats also failed to take advantage of Obamacare’s success, which upset GOP plans to run their entire campaign against it. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put it:

The Republicans always thought this would be another Affordable Care Act referendum election and then it clearly became the case that they no longer had the politics in their favor. And rather than seeing Republicans retreating as a sign of weakness and attacking, Democrats and Republicans came to this weird kind of truce in which the central political debate of the last six years was just thrown out the window by everyone.

On top of that, Republicans were not the least bit fazed by running out of their expected ammo. They simply decided to keep attacking Obama non-stop, regardless of what they were attacking him for. They even ended up attacking him for not having appointed an Ebola czar! And, of course, as I’ve already explained—Obama’s race played into deep divisions within the Democratic Party reflecting decades-long trends that no individual, not even a president, can do much to change.

But President Obama is also to blame for a wide range of policy positions and actions that have directly or indirectly worked to demobilize the Democratic base. Perhaps most important, he has failed to revive the economy for those who need it most and are most important for Democrats politically. The economy has done just fine for the Mitt Romneys of the world. But not for anyone else.

As my former Open Left blogmate Ian Welsh pointed out, “Two Charts Show Why the Obama Economy Sucks.” The first shows the portion of the working-age population that's working. It was hovering around 63 percent before the Great Recession, and has been between 58 and 59 percent since late 2010. The second shows median household income, falling from over $56,000 in 2007 to roughly $52,000 in 2011, about where it's been ever since. These two charts show why the headline economic numbers showing a recovering economy fail to register with the American people. It’s not the people who are mistaken—it’s the pundit class that’s out of touch, clinging to an outmoded set of increasingly misleading statistics.

You can make any excuse you want for Obama—blame anyone else as well as him, there’s plenty of blame to go around—but the grim facts remain. If he were raising hell about them every day, it might not matter for the Democrats politically. Harry Truman’s 1948 victory comes to mind in this regard. If Obama were fighting mad, and fighting on the side of those being left behind, things would be a whole lot different than they are today, and people still might believe in his promise of hope and change. But he’s not doing any of that, which is a huge part of why the Democrats did so poorly. They had no clear sense of who was on their side—when it should have been obviouos who was against them.

Naturally, there’s more to the Democrats' current condition than just those two charts can tell. But one way or another, the same sad story of base demobilization repeats itself with only minor variations from one issue to another. The big picture here is simple: The Bush Administration represented a total failure on two fronts—first, a failure of conservative ideology, and second, a failure of American elite rule. But instead of opening up space and striking out beyond the confines of misguided elite rule, Obama’s presidency was premised on trying to heal the schisms within elite rule—a task that was not only misguided in its purpose, but also doomed to fail on its own terms, as shown most starkly by figures such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers.

In a toxic political environment, Obama’s desire to heal still stands in striking contrast to that of his enemies, but the problem remains that he wants to heal the wrong thing—healing elite rule would not heal America, even if it were possible. Elite rule is what ails America, it’s what we need healing from. Nothing shows this more clearly than Obama’s own fumbling and quickly abandoned attempts to deal with the issue of economic inequality, despite delivering one “historicspeech declaring it a “defining issue of our time.” Writing for The Baffler last July, Kathleen Geier summarized the speech’s problems thus:

Truth be told, it was never clear how serious Obama ever was about fighting inequality. Though his big inequality speech marked a step forward, as many of us noted at the time, it also contained serious omissions. The economist Max Sawicky observed that much of that speech didn’t actually concern inequality. Rather, it was about social mobility, which is something entirely different.

Writer Anat Shenker-Osorio pointed out that perhaps the most glaring omission of all in Obama’s inequality speech was a simple one: a villain. To hear Obama and the Democrats tell it, inequality is something that just happened.

This is the kind of profound fumbling that lies behind the figures in Welsh’s two charts. But you can find similar profound fumbling virtually everywhere you look. Here’s just a small sample of the examples to be found.

1. Vastly expanding the scope of Bush's "long war" strategy, merely debranding it, rather than ending it and replacing it with a progressive alternative.

It may be hard to remember, but the only reason that Obama had a shot at being elected president in 2008 was that he opposed the Iraq War in 2002, and Hillary Clinton simply would not seriously rethink her position. And yet, seeing the problem as the Iraq War alone was always problematic at best. Our response to 9/11 went far deeper than that. Perhaps Bush’s greatest blunder was responding to 9/11 as a call to endless war stretching decades into the future, rather than recognizing it as blowback, a result of endless war in the past. And that is a mistake that Obama has continued, with only relatively minor tweaks.

But pleasing the conservative blogosphere by keeping Bush’s secretary of defense was hardly a sign that even this scaled-back ambition would be met. Obama launched his first drone strikes within days of taking office, declined to prosecute war crimes—invoking the Nazi’s own Nuremberg defense—and ended up jailing whistleblowers who tried to expose crimes, instead. He has used the Espionage Act six times—twice as many times as all other presidents combined, and it’s now reached the point where we’re fighting “secret wars” in more than twice as many countries as Bush envisioned—up to 134 at last count.

People may not have a clear-cut idea of what Obama should have done instead, but there’s a widespread sense of disappointment and disillusion. The online antiwar activist core that helped make Obama’s candidacy viable in the first place is now quite estranged from him, whether or not they have anywhere else to go. And Rand Paul is seriously trying to lay claim to them.

2. Pushing through a conservative, corporate-friendly model of health care reform, excluding the more popular progressive alternative of a public option.

Republicans’ hysterical, often delusional opposition—death panels, anyone?—has largely obscured the true nature of Obamacare, particularly how conservative it is compared to what progressive activists wanted, and what’s proved most effective in the rest of the industrialized world. But it traces back to the Heritage Foundation, which first came up with the individual mandate in 1989; it was largely based on Mitt Romney’s adaptation of Heritage Foundation ideas in Massachusetts; and was “enhanced” with hundreds of Republican amendments during the legislative process. In the end, the public option, which candidate Obama openly supported, was cast aside with barely a thought.

A short history overview by Michael Tomasky notes the public option’s origins in the work of Jacob Hacker, as well as the key role of Roger Hickey, with the Campaign for America's Future, in selling the idea, first to single-payer advocates as a "pragmatic compromise" and then to the Democratic presidential candidates as a popular progressive policy stance. As Tomasky explained:

In other words, the public option was itself a compromise position, got it? It was a way to tell single-payer advocates, OK, listen, we want single-payer too, but political realities are such that this is the best we can get, and if we get this and it works well and people see that, maybe it will serve as a step toward an eventual single-payer system. John Edwards took it up first, but Obama and Clinton signed on quickly.

What difference does all this make in the grand electoral scheme, if it’s only a matter of obscure political history? Quite a lot, actually, given that the single-payer advocates were the only organized constituency on health care that the Democrats had leading up to the 2008 election. The fact that their ideas, aspirations, insights and concerns were so thoroughly sidelined means that a potentially powerful progressive constituency has been effectively fragmented, disorganized and dissipated. It may be very hard to measure what isn’t there, but in this case, what isn’t there is truly substantial.

3. Foot-dragging on fighting global warming and promoting alternatives.

Early efforts to get significant climate action through Congress failed—and one certainly could find fault with Obama for that, though he’s certainly not alone. But what about actions that were entirely up to him? In September 2010, Bill McKibben and other activists with 350.org tried to get Obama to reinstall solar panels on the White House, as a symbolic statement in the fight against global warming, which would give a big boost to a planned a “global work party” with over 7,000 events in 188 countries. McKibben wrote about the solar panel effort here. As he explained, the action was a creative response to an inside-the-Beltway failure:

The inside-the-Beltway green groups took what seemed to be the route of least resistance: a very tame piece of climate legislation larded with special prizes for special interests. They worked it as hard as it could have been worked--and in the end it didn't even come close. The fossil fuel industry and their allies in D.C. barely had to break a sweat shooting it down.

As a result, McKibben concluded—well in advance of the midterms—that no federal action would take place for at least two years, which in turn meant little chance of international action, either. "So what do we do with those two years? I think we use them to build a movement, which explains the solar panel we're hauling south from Maine."

So here you had President Obama with a perfect opportunity to give a hand to community organizers, who in turn were trying to give a hand to him on one of his most important issues. It should have been a no-brainer. Put the panels back up—simple. But Obama didn’t do it. In a devastating post mortem, McKibben wrote: "Asked to do something easy and symbolic to rekindle a little of the joy that had turned out so many of us as volunteers for Obama in 2008, they point blank said no."

Writing about the episode here at Salon, Andrew Leonard said:

They made it into the White House, but then got stonewalled. When the college-age activists accompanying McKibben asked why the administration wouldn’t do the “obvious thing” and put solar panels on the White House, they couldn’t get a straight answer.

To their queries, the bureaucrats refused to provide any answer. At all. One kept smiling in an odd way and saying, “If reporters call and ask us, we will provide our rationale,” but whatever it was, they wouldn’t provide it to us.

Refusing to give a straight answer to activists representing your base is certainly a great way to demobilize support. But that was just the beginning. A few weeks later, as 350.org’s global work party neared, the Obama administration publicly reversed itself—again without explanation. Energy Secretary David Chu announced:

As we move towards a clean energy economy, the White House will lead by example. I’m pleased to announce that by the end of this spring there will be solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House

Not exactly speedy action, but good news, anyway, right? And yet, on June 21, 2011, as that spring ended, “Where are the White House solar panels Obama promised this spring?” McKibben asked. The panels did eventually go up—more than two years later, in August 2013. If almost three years of dissembling and delay doesn’t serve to discourage and demobilize an activists base, it’s difficult to imagine what would.

One could easily cite many more causes of frustration and disappointment with respect to global warming, but Obama defenders could claim there were “pragmatic” limits that critics were unfairly ignoring. But there are no Republicans or even Red State Democrats in this story. Just the most massive mobilization of climate activists in history—and the Obama administration treating them with contempt.

4. Repeatedly pushing to cut Social Security and Medicare as a part of a "grand bargain" to reduce the deficit, despite the fact that such cuts are deeply unpopular with all Americans—even conservatives—but are especially unpopular with the Democratic base.

As a candidate, Obama did nothing to signal his interest in cutting these two pillars of the American welfare state, yet on the eve of his inauguration he gave interviews that left the impression that he thought he had a mandate to cut them, in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” a notion I severely criticized at Open Left at the time. A Washington Post story I quoted from noted:

President-elect Barack Obama will convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" in February designed to bring together a variety of voices on solving the long term problems with the economy and with a special focus on entitlements, he said during an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors this afternoon.

"We need to send a signal that we are serious," said Obama of the summit.

Those invited to attend will include Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), ranking minority member Judd Gregg (N.H.), the conservative Democratic Blue Dog coalition and a host of outside groups with ideas on the matter, said the president-elect....

Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices--particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare--should be made on his watch. "We've kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road," he said.

Not included in his plans were any representatives of the Democratic base, for the obvious reason that they were utterly opposed—along with the vast majority of the American people. It was obviously not something that Obama had run on—if it had been, then Hillary would have easily defeated him. Yet, somehow, he thought he had a mandate. Nothing much came of his efforts at the time; there was too much urgent need for massive stimulus spending, and too much GOP hostility to allow a bipartisan deal. But after the 2010 midterms, Obama’s deficit-cutting juices got flowing again—with predictably bad results, as Jim Newell recently noted here. Then, as the 2012 election loomed, Obama returned to his populist rhetorical roots, only to reverse himself once again in early 2013.

Blogging at The Nation in April 2013, John Nichols wrote, “President Obama’s plan to include Social Security cuts in his budget plan is well summed up by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as a ‘bitter disappointment.’” That same month, historian Eric Zuesse referred to my Open Left diary in his story, “Obama’s entitlement plan was four years in the making," with the subhead “President’s desire to cut Social Security was public before he even took office. Why did so many turn a blind eye?”

There have been many twists and turns in the story, but two things have resurfaced over and over again—first, Obama’s tenacious budget-cutting obsession, and second, a broadly shared unwillingness to look at it. Neither of these is any good at all for nurturing the health of the Democratic base. They are anathema to it.

5. Continuing Bush's top-down war on public education.

Diane Ravitch is an education historian, author and activist who once believed strongly in much of what flies under the banner of “school reform”—until the real-world results convinced her otherwise. A former assistant secretary of education under G.H.W. Bush, no one can seriously accuse her of being a wide-eyed radical. And yet, she has emerged as the most prominent critic of Obama’s education policies—along depressingly familiar lines: They are virtual carbon copies of George W. Bush's policies. And she’s anything but alone in raising this criticism, as she has repeatedly pointed out in her writings.

In July 2009, Ravitch wrote:

The great mystery of education policy today is why the Obama administration is embracing the Bush program. I recently wrote in Education Week (June 10) that it is time to kill the Bush-era No Child Left Behind program. The overwhelming majority of teachers agree with me. Those who educate our kids know that NCLB is a failed program that is not improving our schools but rather turning them into test-prep factories and dumbing down our kids.

Almost two years later, in March 2011, Ravitch wrote:

Over the past year, I have traveled the nation speaking to nearly 100,000 educators, parents, and school-board members. No matter the city, state, or region, those who know schools best are frightened for the future of public education. They see no one in a position of leadership who understands the damage being done to their schools by federal policies.

They feel keenly betrayed by President Obama. Most voted for him, hoping he would reverse the ruinous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of George W. Bush. But Obama has not sought to turn back NCLB. His own approach, called Race to the Top, is even more punitive than NCLB.

Another two years later, in May 2013, Ravitch wrote:

Remember when candidate Obama in 2008 spoke of hope and change. That encouraged many educators to believe that No Child Left Behind would be ended, tossed into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Sadly, President Obama built his Race to the Top right on the flawed foundation of NCLB, and made teaching to the test a necessity.

As the for-profit charters proliferated, he said nothing.

As radical governors destroyed collective bargaining and teacher due process, he said nothing.

As cyber charters grew, garnering huge profits but terrible education, he said nothing.

As vouchers spread, he said nothing.

As privatization accelerated, he said nothing.

The very idea of a “race to the top” refutes the principle of equality of educational opportunity.

If the fundamental criticism hasn’t changed much over the years, the way that it resonates—which matters enormously for base mobilization—certainly has. The growth of resistance from below was charted this past July by Jeff Bryant (a Salon contributor), in a piece tellingly titled “Education ‘Reform’ Loses the Netroots.” In 2009, he wrote:

The first Netroots Nation I attended, Pittsburgh in 2009, was mostly a celebration of the Obama victory the previous year. But as events rolled out the rest of that year and into 2010, it became painfully obvious that the new White House would maintain – actually even increase – a disastrous policy agenda carried over from the George W. Bush administration for the nation’s public schools. Public schools activists looked to Netroots Nation as a venue where progressives could push back.

We had our work cut out for us.

Bryant cited 2011 as a “turning point,” when he led an impressive panel titled “Engaging Progressives in the Fight for Public Education,” in which he said “we warned attendees of the dangers of current education policies and urged attendees to get involved in the growing movement to take back our public schools.”

Finally, this year, he wrote:

Six panels on education topics – ranging from curriculum standards, to student suspensions, to student loan debt, to reclaiming the promise of public schools – presented a unified front against current “reform” policies and for a vision of equity and excellence in public education.

Indeed, the dialogue at the meeting made clear the term “education reform” has become a pejorative in the progressive community.

That’s what’s happening with the activist base. But the battle is still fiercely raging in the party at large. In California, a “reform” candidate, running as a Democrat backed by massive outside spending, came within a few points of defeating incumbent Tom Torlakson in the contest for California superintendent of public instruction. For the first time ever, it was the most expensive statewide race in California for the general election cycle. The war against public education is still raging full force—and President Obama is still on the wrong side. Is it really any wonder Democrats are having base mobilization problems in light of that?

I could go on, of course. You’ll surely notice that I’ve said nothing about immigration. All you have to do for that is Google “deporter in chief.” But the point I want to make is that immigration is not the exception in the Obama era—it’s the rule. By trying to bend over backwards to not anger conservatives, Obama has ended up severely demobilizing his base—discouraging would-be donors, activists and voters alike. It’s a pattern that the Democratic Party can simply no longer endure.

The most basic message there is in politics is “You matter. I hear you. I’m paying attention.” It’s the message that has to be sent—and received—before any other message can get across. You cannot build or mobilize your base while sending exactly the opposite message. And yet, under Obama, that is precisely what Democrats have done, in a vain attempt to win crumbs from people who utterly despise them. The time to change that is right now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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