the last number of months, as the political Right has intensified
its vicious campaign against President Obama and some of his reform
efforts, there has been increasing frustration in progressive circles
with the failure of the Administration to regain its stride and
move a counter-offensive. A Washington Post op-ed
by Peter Dreier and Marshall Ganz [“We have Hope; Now where’s the
30, 2009] summarizes both this frustration but also offers a
useful critique. That said, I believe that it is worth offering
two additional concerns.
first is historical. The outrageous activity that we are witnessing
on the part of the political Right is not a new phenomenon. The
political Right in the USA has demonstrated time and again an ability
to engage in brutal, defamatory and highly repressive activity since
the formation of this country. Such activity, of course, includes
the highly repressive McCarthy Era, but it also includes periods
such as the notorious 1919 Red Scare, with the repression of the
Left and progressives soon followed by the Sacco & Vanzetti
sham trial and execution. The 1930s was not all fun and games,
despite the activity of a well organized political Left. Union
organizing efforts were regularly attacked, and not just through
harsh language. The appearances of employer-sponsored paramilitary
outfits like the “Black Legion” were aimed at undermining the efforts
by workers at self-organization. And, who can forget the notorious
Father Coughlin, the right-wing radio priest?
is a tendency to overlook these moments in US history, particularly
on the part of white activists. There are myths regarding periods
of normal bi-partisanship and rational discourse that allegedly
contrast with today. While there are differences between today
and earlier periods, we should keep in mind that today’s political
Right stands on the shoulders of their predecessors, having new
technology but often conveying very similar messages.
is it about today’s Right? Among other things they are “irrationalists.”
Just so that there are no misunderstandings, this does not mean
that they are simply irrational, which many of them are. Instead,
the message that much of the political Right articulate is drawn
from an ideology that has no relationship to the truth, scientific
investigation, history or critical reasoning. Instead, the appeal
is to frustration, anger, resentment, myths and scapegoating. Again,
this is not particularly new when one views the history of the political
Right in the USA.
we are seeing, however, is an attempt to overturn the entire history
of the 20th century by the political Right. A few years ago, a
right-wing commentator suggested that government needed to be reduced
to the size and role that it occupied at the time of President McKinley
(circa, Spanish-American War, 1898). Such a suggestion, as outrageous
as it sounds, is only the tip of the ice-berg. What the political
Right, and particularly the right-wing populists, aims to accomplish
is not only to narrow the scope and role of government, but to beat
back the various advances by progressive social movements. In this
sense it is almost misleading to refer to them as “conservatives,”
a term that generally suggests going slow. Rather the right-wing
populists, including but not limited to crypto-fascists, wish to
turn back the clock totally, albeit with slick language and suggestions
of race neutrality, only to cover a far more devious set of objectives.
second point or concern is that the Obama administration has been
very slow to respond to the intensity of the campaign being carried
out by the political Right. Part of this may be a reflection of
underestimating the nature of this right-wing, white backlash against
his election (and all that it represented). Part of this may also
be a reflection of the fact that his is an effort to reform neo-liberal
capitalism not, at least at this point, to challenge neo-liberalism
(even in the name of defending capitalism!). Thus, combined with
Obama’s personality to begin negotiations from the middle and to
seek bi-partisanship, he and his administration have been quite
reluctant to go on the warpath against the irrationalist Right.
on the progressive side of the aisle have been pointing to the fact
that something needs to be done in the face of this right/white
backlash. The assumption is that we must lay out a set of tactics
for President Obama to choose from such that he can take the lead.
I would suggest an alternative course.
the wake of death of Senator Ted Kennedy I found myself thinking
about the relationship of the Civil Rights Movement to President
John Kennedy. Using the logic of many of today’s progressives,
the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement would have been appeals
to President Kennedy. That was, in fact, exactly what the Civil
Rights Movement did NOT do. The Civil Rights Movement had a set
of objectives, with the idea of outlawing Jim Crow segregation at
the center. Demands were placed upon President Kennedy, but the
movement did not wait for Kennedy to act. Instead, they created
an environment in which he had to act.
is a critical lesson today. Progressive forces should not be waiting
for President Obama to act. Many people realize this implicitly,
such as those who continue to demand Medicare for all, despite the
fact that President Obama removed that from the table. Yet in the
face of the irrationalist Right, progressives must mobilize on different
fronts. We see evidence that this is happening, but we need to
up the tempo. The developing campaign against the inflammatory
right-wing pundit Glenn Beck is a case in point. Pressuring his
sponsors to drop him is of incredible importance, yet we must go
further. Progressives must debunk, in the public arena, everything
that comes out of his mouth. We must put him on the defensive such
that regular, everyday people question his sanity and not just the
accuracy of his remarks.
the face of the disruptions of the healthcare town halls, there
could have been greater progressive mobilization. While it was
great that Congressman Barney Frank took on some of the idiots,
progressives needed to be inside and outside these town halls, not
only holding signs but blocking attempts at disruption. Frankly,
if we have the numbers, the irrationalist Right will shrink, but
they will not shrink simply because we plead for rational debate.
They are not interested in rational debate; they are interested
in destabilizing the Obama administration and blocking any efforts
at progressive change.
other day I had a discussion with a progressive individual who attended
one of those town hall meetings. He noted that otherwise reasonable
people seemed quite willing to believe completely irrational and
illogical assertions from the political Right. In periods of crisis,
such a phenomenon arises from the deep, sort of along the lines
of a red tide coming ashore. Regular people are looking for answers,
and they tend to look for answers that correspond to the belief
system which has shaped them. This is what makes the language and
message of the right-wing populists so tempting.
the Right cannot rely on Obama. It necessitates a level of self-reliance
among progressives that focuses on identifying the nature of the
crisis; moving real struggles for significant structural reforms,
struggles that involve regular people rather than lobbying campaigns;
and efforts to expose and crush the political Right. The Right
must be understood at a mass level for what they are, harbingers
of hell. That will only happen when progressives offer genuine
alternatives and mechanisms for achieving them.
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3 , 2009
published every Thursday
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Est. April 5, 2002
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