Photo by @mjbThis week Cornel West broke out in hives over his inability to get an invite to the inaugural, under cover of a progressive Obama critique arguing that Obama had a thing for whites and jews and against “free black men”. Both Melissa Harris-Perry and Adam Serwer skewered him and rightfully so. This isn’t the first time West has cloaked a personal beef with the cover of progressive politics, and it probably won’t be the last.
But now West becomes, along with Tavis Smiley, the convenient Obama hater. Those of us with legitimate critiques of Obama, legitimate questions on how to respond to him given rampant unemployment and foreclosures and a raging black health crisis, are now lumped in with a crusty old man who’s mad because he doesn’t get a call back. It sounds funny when I write it that way, and it is…if you don’t know anyone dealing with foreclosure or with job loss or with looming college tuition bills or retirement.
Dealing with West isn’t and shouldn’t be the point. This isn’t and never has been about West’s pouty ass.
Rather this is about what are our responsibilities as citizens (and in my case as citizen-intellectuals) in an age where we have a family that looks like the “model” black family in the White House simultaneously as we have a black unemployment rate that hovers around 40% in some places. Some argue that our primary responsibility is to support the President and what he’s trying to accomplish. My friend Ryan Mack for instance goes so far as to say that Obama critics like West and Smiley should be quiet, given the potential effect their rhetoric may have on black voters. People like Al Sharpton argue that we should instead direct our ire to Congress.
I disagree strongly in both cases. In the first case it isn’t clear that any of the Obama critics have the type of pull Mack and others believe they have. At the very least it isn’t clear to me that someone struggling with foreclosure will be less likely to vote for Obama if West tells them not to. Secondly I believe that we have a responsibility as citizens to ask for what we want LOUDLY. Our form of government has enough troubles already–if we don’t demand what we want and fight for it aggressively there is even less of a chance we actually succeed.
In the second case while fighting against Congress is all well and to the good, there isn’t a great deal of “fight” black people can do here. Many of us if not most of us are–because of segregation–already represented by fairly liberal blacks. What good will taking John Conyers to task do for Detroiters given his extremely progressive record? The President on the other hand, represents ALL of us…and his bully pulpit far outweighs that of the House and the Senate put together.
Now one argument that becomes prominent here is the “no alternative” argument–the argument that because of a combination of conservative obstructionism (both outside and inside the Democratic Party) and public opinion, Obama can’t really do much more than what he has–and on the surface what he’s done (begin to regulate banks again, restructure health insurance, resurrect the auto industry, KILL BIN LADEN) is impressive. We should acknowledge Obama’s difficulties and work hard to give him a second term.
This argument under appreciates the power the President wields. Even under conditions of severe obstructionism the President can and in the past HAS used his position to at least make it possible in the future to expand our political options. He can win even when he loses in a few critical ways:
- He can win by establishing the grounds of debate, paving the way for future political success
- He can win by galvanizing undermobilized populations
- He can win by exposing his enemies
- He can win by demobilizing his opponents forces
What this President has chosen to do, fairly consistently, is lose poorly, acceding valuable ground to his and our opponents. And even more to the point he has consistently deployed the negative counterfactual to explain his decisions. <—this link is really worth checking out because I think it gets to the crux of the matter. When he was running for office, Obama consistently asked us to imagine ourselves as more than what we were. After being put IN office Obama consistently asks us to imagine how worse off we would be if things were different. One narrative builds, binds, and grows…the other? Not so much. Obama supporters point to all the good Obama’s done. This misses the point–we’re not simply judging him on what he’s done (although I have yet to meet a single person who was able to escape foreclosure because of Obama’s policies). We’re judging him on his ability to expand our concept of what is politically possible.
So are there models of politicians willing to point us towards another reality? Even given how state budgets are being hamstrung by the neoliberal shakedown I believe it is there we can find the most purchase. And in the wake of Elliot Spitzer’s unfortunate fall, there comes another….