Look to the Future, Not the Past - One Lesson for 2010

Look to the Future, Not the Past - One Lesson for 2010
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Forget The End Of A Decade Hype, What Should Progressives Do Now?

Lets drop all the decade hype. I know we tend to structure history in ten year swallows: The 60's, the 70, the 80's etc. It is all so neat and so clean but, alas, not quite true.

The decade that began with the new millennium, doesn't really end unto the end of 2010, and that's not this year, even though we may want it to.

History doesn't self-package itself to fit a Greatest Hits song compilation. The 1950's with its anti-communist craziness and nuclear arms race started after the war, in the l940's and didn't end until Eisenhower's famous warning about the military industrial complex which is still with us all these years later. It was Ike who legitimated tricky Dick Nixon whose ride was just beginning. Tricky was devious but also an environmentalist and smarter than we gave him credit for.

The 60's as an era of drugs, sex and rock and roll didn't get going until mid decade as the Vietnam War's impact drove a whole generation into opposition. The 60's stayed with us, sparked by FM rock radio, until Nixon imploded and the war ended in l975.

Soon punk and disco brought on the Me generation and led us to Jimmy Carter's "malaise" and then to the rise of Ronny Raygun. When the left splintered, the right organized, putting in place a network of think tanks to take over. The conservatives drove the 80's until Clinton's centrism snuffed the spirit of the sixties in a 90's even as it appeared to be embracing it. It's the Economy Stupid led to deregulation and the crisis we are now coping with.

That led us to the neo-con emergence, and the stolen election of 2000, stolen by aggressive GOP tactics and Democratic incompetence.. With the help of various turncoats and oppositional media assets--like Fox and talk radio--they reenergized their movement by adopting 60's tactics while waging a culture war against 60's values.

Al Gore, now seen as an agent of climate change, blew that election and in the process blew up the power and personage of a political chameleon/wannabe messiah named Joseph Lieberman, a civil right activists turned sleazy opportunist and health care reform killer. He's still with us, like gum on a shoe, more obnoxious to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Pary than ever, as a new year begins.

Barack Obama's election seemed an anomaly, but clearly it was disgust with his predecessor that drove him from obscurity to the presidency. Obama's "outside-inside" strategy inspired millions of new voters. He organized, rallied new voters, used social networks and invoked change orieted slogans with more symbolism than substance.

But once in Office, the office took over, co-opting his populist inclinations and burying his grass roots movement in a miasma of paralyzing pragmatic centrism rationalized as the 'politics of the possible.' Supporters became recipients of emails, not potential activists to lobby for his agenda. He allowed his "Army" to dissipate while he moved into using the Oval Office as a bully pulpit. His followers were demobilized as he gave speech after speech.

Obama realized that the Bush era had not ended in the bureaucracies or in the media and halls of Congress. To undercut its lingering impact, he moved right possibly to later move left. He embraced some of Bush's tough-guy national security boilerplate. He got along with Pentagon power by going along. Compromise began to become his mantra. Miniscule reforms were presented as great victories. Withdrawal from Iraq was delayed as was the closing of GITMO. He seemed to be on a short leash as the real power brokers checked and check mated initiatives.

Had he become a Bush 2? Many think so. Was he selling out or buying in? Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that Obama is a knee-jerk liberal who believes in working within institutions for change. According to Douthat, "that makes him...an odd bird who seems a Machiavellian willing to cut any deal juxtaposed with the soaring rhetoric of fairly ideological big government liberalism." The problem with institutions is that they rarely change without media scandals or outside pressure.

It was not that the he owed anything to "the left," once his radical preacher Rev Wright and one time buddy Bill Ayers had became albatrosses. He was now trying to appear non-partisan and non-ideological, but progressives read into his victory much more than was ever possible to achieve, much more than even he pledged. He took the liberals for granted with lip service, not major policy shifts.

As the blogosphere blathered and the unions splintered, there was very little leverage or organizing underway to reach out to his campaign activists. As the right built people power, the left built polemics. As his opponents--those that hated him and denied his legitimacy--- seized the initiative, the Obamacrats moved into defensive bunkers keeping up appearances, one step forward, two back. They cultivated Congressmen, not constituencies.

Once he realized that the most "powerful man in the world," only had the power to propose while Congress disposes; once he realized that the right not only would not play bi-partisan games and that the GOP had been taken over by the bully boys; once he realized that they would intimate their own to enforce "discipline;" once he realized that they would not even accept the legitimacy of his election or citizenship; once he realized that to survive he needed to embrace the Pentagon's logic and the dictates of the Wall Street donors who had backed him....

Once he realized he was virtually alone in the Big House (yes, that is a metaphor, too, for a prison), the die was cast. He was captured, with a noisy chorus of naysayers on the right and left limiting his options.

He was trapped by the logic of his choices and the limits of his vision.

Which is not to say he was ever a man of the left. He told us that he would escalate the Afghan war during the campaign. He showed us where he stood on the economic collapse with his appointees like Summers, Geithner et.al. To fight off the right, he needed the center and the media on his side. He is by nature cautious and cunning, moving step by step, winning some battles, losing or giving up others. He knows that a president can't pitch a perfect game. He's a perception manager, not a street fighter. For many he is a big disappointment.

For others, the question is 'did you expect Che Guevara?'

The challenge now is not to walk down memory lane but to strategize about building the future in an imperfect world. What lessons can we learn and apply? How can the progressives reenergize an outside-in strategy, how can they/we start re-framing issues, building a base and then mobilizing it? Will there be a return to the streets or more co-optation by the illusions of power in the suites?

Perhaps the disillusion now building on the left will lead to more direct challenges to the Obama style and approach. On the other hand it could lead to fatalism and a dropping out of politics by people who were mesmerized by his charisma and naïve about how politics really works. . If that happens, the right will dominate the discourse and try to retake the Congress.

We have seen this before -- with Lyndon Johnson forsaking butter for guns, with Bill Clinton taking refuge in the corporate center. The media is central to this because liberals, who have more money than conservatives, have not invested in media institutions to reach out to the mass audience. They have not rallied, for that matter, to the realization that the US needs channels like Al Jazeera to build awareness about the larger world on television where parochialism and propaganda is rife.

So a new strategy is needed, to remake the Democratic party into something more democratic, to resist the power of big money in politics and to readopt a populist message along economic lines to champion the millions out of work before they become millions out of hope.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.orgHis new book is THE CRIME OF OUR TIME on the financial crisis as a crime story, a subject he is also covering in a new film called Plunder. See plunderthecrimeofourtime.com. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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