Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Politics is a Battle for Position: More Thoughts on the Election

8 Nov

As relieved as I am about the outcome of the national elections, I can’t get the thought of how much we’ve lost in order to “win” out of out my mind. Something an old colleague of mine told me in the 1980s keeps popping into my head: politics is a battle for position.

What he meant by that, I think, is that political fights are won or lost based on how one is positioned vis a vis the public, and relative to one’s opponents. He told me that in order to help me wrap my then relatively inexperienced mind around the idea that fighting the religious right by calling them supremacist bigots was a losing strategy. To the mainstream, religious rightists looked like church-goers exercising their religious freedom and right to speech by protesting abortion and gay rights. To get folks to listen, we needed to pivot and talk about democratic values.

On Tuesday (in addition to deploying a tactically brilliant campaign), Barack Obama won re-election because the GOP blundered spectacularly in the battle for position.

For 50 years the GOP fought to reposition itself among voters as something other than the folks who brought you the Great Depression. They did so by placing their political fortunes in the hands of a coalition of radical factions whose most powerful appeal is among white males. That move was a winner. It positioned them to win the presidency for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But, while conservative white males are still influential, that influence is declining. Romney losing on Tuesday with 59% of the white vote was a clear indication of that reality.

But, too late now. That right wing coalition the GOP built dominates the party’s presidential nomination process. That’s why right wing ideologues with no business working for government much less running for president like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were each briefly GOP frontrunners. Moderate Mitt only won by turning sharply to the right (and being the only one with a real campaign).

And on Tuesday, we, or some version thereof, won. And yes, the influence of people of color, younger voters, and women in this election may be the first few rays of light indicating a new day dawning in American politics. Maybe.

However, there’s another side to this story. It goes something like this.

The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time. There were a few gaps along the way. The Watergate scandal gave us Carter, Ross Perot gave us Clinton in ’92, and the Iraq War and financial crisis gave us Obama.

The one legit presidential win for the Dems since Johnson was Clinton’s second term. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 and re-election in 1996 by figuring out that the Dems had lost the battle for position in a white dominated electorate when it traded white southerners for the black vote. When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.

Under Clinton’s leadership, the Dems moderated their message and pivoted on key issues. The Secretary of Explaining Stuff  conceded to racist attacks on welfare, reforming it by imposing benefit caps and a work requirement, but without providing a meaningful path to livable wage employment nor addressing what would happen to those who were pushed off the rolls by those caps without first finding decent jobs. Clinton also gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to devastating the Mexican economy, NAFTA did a whack job on American workers and crushed the small farm economy in the U.S. And it was under Clinton’s watch that Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the basic architecture of the economic bubble that finally burst in 2008 was built.

Clinton also showed American voters that a Democratic president could be just as much of a hawk as a Republican one when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, better known as “regime change,” and led Operation Desert Fox. The Iraq Liberation Act was the trail head leading to the Iraq War.

This is some of what it took to win on Tuesday. Each time the GOP took a step to the right, the Democratic Party stepped to the right to capture the territory it left behind. And the Dems kept moving to the right until, by November 6, 2012, it had made itself nearly indistinguishable from the GOP of the 1970s, with key exceptions on social issues that, as fortune and careful polling would have it, anticipated generational and demographic change.  But those positions do not represent the kind of justice great movements formed to achieve in the years before the rise of the right.

So was Tuesday a new dawn in American politics? Only if we treat the election as the beginning and not the end of our fight, and use the rays of hope it cast to find a path to justice.

On Obama, Drones, Deportation, Austerity, and the Vote

11 Sep

My last post, about why I voted for Obama-Biden in ’08 and will again, inspired some pretty strong criticism. Since most of the commentary has been off-line, and many points of criticism that deserve air time were raised, I’m taking another stab at this to get more of you in the discussion.

First, I have to admit that it was unfair to equate resistance to voting for the Obama ticket with simple disappointment based in unrealistic expectations.

I know there’s more to the protest against Obama from the left than that – much more. A strategy of countering terror with terror, “secret” drone wars, a record number of deportations, and massive expansion of the national security state, not to mention inaction on mass incarceration, and an austerity agenda are not small matters.

Moreover, the analysis that drives much of the critique from the left is not to be taken lightly. Folks aren’t just disappointed; they are concerned about Obama being, as Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report puts it, “not the lesser of two evils, but the more effective of two evils.”

In some respects, I agree. The combination of Obama’s relative social liberalism and the symbolic significance of his status as the first Black president has the affect of marginalizing critics of the repressive aspects of his agenda, especially among communities of color. And the right’s racist attacks on Obama aren’t helping matters.

And there’s more. Check this Democracy Now! video out for a taste of what’s being debated.

But, I’m still voting for Obama.

I respect that some of you will not. But I don’t believe that Obama is the “more effective of two evils.”

Here’s why.

First of all, I think that assessment may be based in an under-estimation the evil of the agenda of the other side, and just how effective they may become at institutionalizing it.

For instance, there’s that unaccounted for $2.1 trillion increase in defense spending proposed by Romney. That’s a major expansion of the war budget, and given the Ayn Rand inspired vision of the most insurgent faction of the GOP, my guess is that it won’t all be invested in the traditional military. A Romney-Ryan administration could, I believe, redefine what we mean when we say military industrial complex.

Moreover, that Randian vision I referenced takes the notion of elitism and corporate control of everything to all new levels. I’m pessimistic about the prospect that this brand of evil would inspire more effective opposition.

In place of that hopeful vision, I have the memory of hundreds of families I worked with as a social worker. I will never forget a girl whose father punished her for cutting school by putting her hand on a red hot electric stove element. What will become of people like her and her father, who suffered from mental illness but didn’t have the insurance coverage he needed to have it properly treated, if, say, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell were to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services?

And, on that subject of cabinet members, consider another Secretary of the Interior like James Watt, a Reagan appointee, who summed up his use-it-up-before-Jesus-returns approach to forest management with the statement, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns…” Or, consider Mike Huckabee as Director of Homeland Security.

But beyond all my perhaps alarmist fears, there’s another reason I believe that Obama as president is the lesser of two evils. That’s my sense of where the two political parties and candidates fit within the context of other political factions, trends, and movements.

Among them there’s the right wing.

If you think evangelical and white nationalist rightists have revealed their whole agenda with racist anti-immigrant attacks, and campaigns to eliminate reproductive rights and human rights (like the right to be LGBT), you’re under-estimating them. The white nationalist faction has a far more radical racist agenda than “papers please” legislation. And to many of the religious right, Islam must be eradicated to make the world safe for Christianity, and support for Israel is based in the belief that the end times are triggered when Israel completely consumes Palestine.

Neither faction should be in a position to more directly influence federal policy.

And in terms of social trends, one of the most concerning is the one toward libertarianism among Gen Y. This tendency is the flip side of their broad support for same sex marriage rights, among other anti-authoritarian leanings.

The more powerful the libertarian right, the more likely it is that this tendency will become a dominant one among Gen Y. From positions of greater authority, it’s just plain easier to take exotic ideologies and turn them into common sense.

But there’s more.

There’s another reason I fear the GOP. That’s the disorganized state of the U.S. left which has yet to formulate a popular ideological alternative to either the cultural right’s traditional values nor to mainstream neo-liberalism. Leftists need to build a broader base and develop a popular language of protest, and one that doesn’t sideline race with a purely class based approach to justice. Until we do, I fear that allowing the GOP to take control will polarize the country around issues on which there are still too few on our side.

Why I Voted for Barack Obama and Will Again

8 Sep

A lot of folks I think of as leftists have told me they are considering not giving their vote to Barack Obama in November. They say they feel cheated that the actions of his administration didn’t live up to the soaring rhetoric of his campaign, and are opting out in protest.

I’m no Democratic Party loyalist, nor am I uncritical of the President. But their disappointment to the point of opting out frustrates me nonetheless. My frustration can be summed up by the question, “what in the world did you expect?”

It speaks to an uncritical liberalism not worthy of the left to assume that by electing a Black liberal to the presidency we would experience a revolution of values and priorities in governance. As leftists we know, or should know, that the institutions of government in the U.S. only allow change to occur in increments, and always within the parameters of the interests of those who control those institutions.

This is what I believe Derrick Bell meant when he wrote,

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an ultimate act of defiance.

I’ve used that quote often because I believe in it. It is, to me, a statement relevant to the condition of all oppressed people in America. The system of governance under which we live, and the elites who control our institutions of power, both public and private, will never voluntarily concede to the demands of justice. In order to win justice, we need a complete reorganization of power.

To expect a reorganization of power via the election of a president is simply unrealistic. It is a notion based in the magical thinking that if  enough of “us” are elected to government, we can overcome the limits of our institutions and create “change we can believe in.

Obama is just a man, barely a liberal much less a progressive, and the party he represents, the office he holds, and the institutions to which he is accountable will never allow any such magic to be conjured.

But I did vote for Obama-Biden in ’08, and I will do so again this year. Why? For a couple of reasons.

First, I believe the Republican Party has become the instrument by which a growing right wing movement hopes to exercise unjust power of a sort far worse than the horrors we are witnessing at this moment. If voting for a Democratic ticket slows them down, even slightly, and preserves the political space within which we can use the time we steal to do something, to organize ourselves, to seek an alternative or at least duck and cover, I’m there. I don’t care how many IDs I have to produce or how long the line.

Secondly, while Obama-Biden may only represent a difference in degree and not in kind from Bush-Cheney, McCain-Palin, or Romney-Ryan, I’ll take those degrees of difference. I’ll take them because, even from my perch in my very comfortable and well-stocked home, I know those degrees are measured in terms of human suffering.

It may not be the revolution of values and action that I am working for, but that work requires opportunity, certain freedoms of expression and of movement, and I may sound paranoid by saying this, but I feel those freedoms threatened, and more and more each day. Voting for Obama is just a tactical maneuver to be sure, but politics is made up, not just of vision, but of tactics.

Is It Apartheid Yet?

1 Aug

Lately friends of mine have been talking about the U.S. heading toward apartheid in response to white fears generated by census reports predicting demographic changes that are likely to erode white power. They point to various attempts to disenfranchise voters of color and marginalize us socially and economically as evidence.

My general reaction has been, “your kidding, right?” I mean, we beat legal apartheid in the courts and on the streets in the 1960s.

But folks say I’m taking the term too literally. They tell me I need consider de facto apartheid – a condition in which whites, even as a minority (though credible sources contradict census predictions and argue that a white minority is not in our near future), are able to rule by creating separate and unequal conditions for people based on race without resorting to explicit racial codes.

Okay, so maybe we’re just trapped in an argument over semantics. After all, we already have a system of minority rule, right?

For instance, the majority of us wanted the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. Regardless, we lost on that issue because a (white) minority interest opposed to the public option controls Congress.

And then there’s the wildly disproportionate targeting of Black men in the war on drugs, even when whites use drugs at the same rate as Blacks and are, by far, a bigger driver of the illegal drug trade. That seems like a pretty clear demonstration of how bald faced racism can drive public policy and institutional practices in spite of constitutional guarantees of equal protection. All you have to do is avoid certain trigger words and, at least to our courts, it’s not racism.

Advocates of the de facto apartheid scenario also point to efforts to economically marginalize people of color via attacks on government assistance and educational opportunity programs. It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that leaders of both parties are far less responsive to poor people than to folks with money, so economic marginalization accrues to the political disadvantage of communities of color, right?

Attacks on government are also attacks on government employees, a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color, reflecting the historical reality that government was (and is) one of very few avenues to good employment for many minorities. Government also plays a regulatory role, including by policing discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Then the prophets of doom ask that we consider conservative efforts to disenfranchise communities of color, especially Latinos and African Americans. By aiming the war on drugs at Black communities and making drug possession a felony that can cost you your voting rights, many states have gotten around the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which prohibit denying ballot access based on race.

And Republican Voter I.D. Laws take things a step further. They know full well that this will have a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color. In fact, that’s the whole point of these laws. In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), has gone so far as to describe Voter ID as a way to “allow Governor Romney to win the state…”

Good point. And don’t get it twisted, the Republican Party is the party of white power.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that 89% of Republicans were white. 2% were Black, 5% Latino, and 4% were “other race.” Of white Republicans, 60% identify as conservative. And, according to a more recent Pew Research Center report, the trend is toward Republicans growing more popular among whites since the election of Barack Obama (while either losing support or holding steady among voters of color).

Put it all together and those fearful of de facto apartheid might be onto something.

But, in spite of all of these arguments (and folks offer many more), I’m not joining the choir on this one yet. To me, it matters not whether the white elite (what we used to call the white power structure back in the day) are plotting (or bumbling into) a form of de facto apartheid because, well, it doesn’t seem to me to increase the urgency of resistance nor change the way we ought to go about it.

But where we agree is on the matter of Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and economically disadvantaged Asian Americans being systematically marginalized, socially, economically, and politically. And that is cause for alarm, especially because most of our leaders aren’t talking about it, opting instead to go along with the post-racial (or colorblind racism) consensus that the best way of addressing racism is to avoid talking about it.

The Othering of Barack Obama and the Growing of a Movement

26 Jul

Liberal political reporting regarding the Republican’s campaign strategy of exploiting racism to defeat Barack Obama is giving me a serious headache.

I’m sure you’ve heard the rhetoric. Romney’s now said that the Obama philosophy is foreign (which is equated with dangerous). His campaign surrogate John Sununu went further, saying that President Obama needs to “learn how to be an American.”

Liberal news makers are calling this what it is – pandering to racism. But by reducing this kind of pandering to a campaign issue (as if the cure for the racism that makes it effective would be to re-elect Obama), reporters and pundits are trivializing its consequences.

The Republicans’ use of coded racism needs to be seen in the broader context of racist politicking and our particular moment in history.

For instance, we ought to consider rising, hyper-reactionary Islamophobia and the Bush (and now Obama) war on terror. Widespread fear of Islam is driving the growth of a repressive national security state and war machine that is coming at us from the top-down, while simultaneously inspiring a jihadist racism among conservative Christians from the bottom-up.

And, then there’s racist anti-immigrant politicking more generally. That’s a top-down and bottom-up phenomena, too. Conservative politicians scapegoat immigrants for our economic problems, promoting racism and distracting us from the real causes of our woes. Meanwhile, their racist rhetoric is contributing to the rise of a xenophobic worldview at the community level that is contributing to a rapid rise in vigilante white supremacist groups, as evidenced by the SPLC’s report that white nationalist Patriot groups have experienced an almost ten-fold increase since 2008.

Coded racist attacks on public assistance programs and so-called entitlement junkies are causing an uptick in racism as well. These attacks suggest that we, and especially Blacks, have become too dependent on economy wrecking public assistance programs. Some even double-down on this argument, suggesting that this dependency is being fostered on purpose. In this scenario, capitalism-hating left-wingers are promoting programs that get the poor hooked on socialism.

And then there’s a rise in model minority stereotyping of Asian Americans. This rise in stereotyping that suggests that the quality of life and financial success of Asian Americans is rising while the rest of the country is in decline. To make matters worse, this is happening at the same time as we are seeing a rise in Asia bashing, especially targeting China and India.

Finally, in this by no means exhaustive list, there’s the generalized anxiety among whites concerning the changing U.S. demographic. As we tilt toward 2042, when the U.S. is predicted to become a majority people of color nation, conservative white folks are reacting in a way that builds upon the angry-white-man reaction to African American civil rights gains.

And all of this at a time when folks of all races, and especially middle class white folks who believe themselves to be entitled to better, are righteously angry over our terrible economic and political situation.

In this context, the Romney/Republican attack matters because it is the most visible and well-financed effort to use racism to organize white middle class anger for political gain. These aren’t marginal right wingers, but they are using what started out as marginal right wing arguments and, by doing so, legitimizing them and the radical right wing forces who are attempting to use them to build a potentially violent racist movement.

It’s time for racial justice advocates to step up our game.

I won’t pretend to know the right strategies for every community, but I will suggest that Asian American civil rights groups are particularly well positioned to speak out and be heard on this issue. Asian Americans can draw upon our own experiences of exclusion and internment to put contemporary efforts to label people of color as foreign, dangerous, and disloyal in the context of our own long history of persecution.

President Obama – Not Ahead of the Curve

15 Jun

Today President Obama acted by directive to provide a 2 year “deferred action” on deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. I’m overjoyed at the change. But am I grateful? Nope. I say it’s about time and, BTW, not enough.

No doubt the directive was prompted by the fact that the Republicans were about to announce a proposal via Marco Rubio meant to build support for the Republican Party among Latino voters.

I know that the Rubio proposal was just a political maneuver with no teeth. I’m not lauding Republicans. But never doubt that they, not human rights advocates, drove this decision. This had to do with the Obama team winning the Latino vote in the upcoming election by outflanking the other side. We deny this at the expense of our ability to get ahead of our national leaders; to get behind the wheel of our policy agenda and not just consign ourselves to the role of political backseat drivers.

The directive was the issue driving discussion on the Dylan Ratigan show today. In the discussion on air, liberal pundit Krystal Ball touted the President’s “courage” on social issues, citing his recent statement of support of same-sex marriage as “ahead of the curve.”

I was frustrated with the too little and, for many, too late directive, but I’ll admit that Ball’s statement was what got me writing. Ahead of the curve on same sex marriage? Courage in regard to immigrant rights? I call b.s.

I mean, if the order today and Obama’s statement in support of same sex marriage are ahead of the curve, we need a new curve.

On the issue of marriage, is the President ahead of the curve by evolving to support in an election year when young voters, overwhelmingly in support of same sex marriage, will be a factor at the polls? Only if that curve is drawn by pollsters, and not by the moral imperative at stake in this issue.

And concerning the deferred action on deportation? I won’t call it courage to finally provide temporary relief for a problem requiring a permanent solution, and years ago.

According to the ACLU:

In 2010…363,000 immigrants [were held] in detention in over 250 facilities… Among those locked up for months or years are survivors of torture, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, families with small children, the elderly, individuals with serious medical and mental health conditions, and lawful permanent residents…who are facing deportation because of old or minor crimes.

In the immigration system, 84% of detainees have no lawyer. They are denied bond and can be held indefinitely. Many are detained for years without ever going to court to determine whether their detention was legal to begin with.

And those with past convictions are not the whole story. In fact, they are a red herring of sorts, distracting us from the fact that nearly half of those deported in 2011 had no past criminal conviction. Their only “crime” was crossing the border without papers. And once arrested, their human rights were not a consideration. Apparently in the U.S., the self described human rights champion, the only people counted as “human” and therefore eligible for rights consideration are citizens.

Krystal Ball should be ashamed of herself, calling out POTUS for being “ahead of the curve.”

How many same sex couples have been dissolved by death, with the survivor being excluded from the last moments of life of their loved one? How many have been excluded from wills? How long have same sex couples had to tolerate being treated as second class citizens, their basic humanity debated, while POTUS evolved?

And how many immigrant families have been torn apart, parents separated from children, husbands from wives, while we’ve waited for this temporary reprieve?

Why do we allow this kind of horse trading on matters of basic human dignity and human rights? And when those with the power to do something act, why does the “curve” get set at the point where they decide to act, and not along the lines of the lives of those for whom these decisions have life changing consequences?

It’s time for us to move the baseline on courage in America. If we don’t, I’m afraid of where following that curve will lead us.

Obama Comes Out of the Closet

10 May

When President Obama came out of the closet with his support of same sex marriage (first stated as an Illinois State Senator in 1996), it was a bright spot in a difficult week for LGBT people. The cynical nature of his “evolution” on the issue got an eye roll out of me, but it also got a tear and a cheer.

Coming one day after the passage of North Carolina Amendment 1, Mr. Obama’s statement in support of same sex marriage, perhaps the most politically touchy subject affecting same sex couples, was a calculated political risk taken at a critical time in the career of our nation’s first black president. It was historic.

And, speaking as a gay man, it was also about damn time.

I’m 50 years old. As a child in the 1960s, I could never have imagined this moment. Homophobia was so commonplace in those days that it was not just normal, it was considered righteous. Adults and children alike bullied boys they perceived as gay.

I was no exception. I grew up isolated, picked on, occasionally assaulted, and without hope for the future. I knew I was “different,” and I was sure that adulthood would hold nothing good for me. And as childhood was no walk in the park, I frequently contemplated suicide in the manner of small children, picturing the regret that my tormentors would experience at my funeral.

By my teens, contemplation turned to action. I figured out how to butch up enough to deflect the bullying of my elementary school years onto other victims, but I lived with a secret, terrified at being found out. I turned to drugs and alcohol, taking the slow road to self-destruction. Eventually, I flunked out of school.

As a working-class boy of color, my family and community meant everything to me. Without the support of these social networks, how was I supposed to get work, make a family, and have a rewarding life? Yet, I knew I would be rejected if I came out. When finally it was made clear to me that my immediate family was aware of my sexual orientation and that I was to “never bring it into the house,” I knew it was time to cut out on my own.

But where was I to go? The organized part of the gay community looked awfully white to me. I grew up in a community in Hawaii that was almost entirely, very nearly militantly brown. Turning to a white community for comfort would be perceived as a betrayal of my family. It felt like a form of betrayal to me.

All of that might just be TMI, but I share it because my story is not unusual. It is, in fact, pretty typical of the experiences of LGBT people of color of my generation.

Over the years, I made a life for myself as a political activist and community servant. I created a community among those who believe as I do in the importance of human rights, racial and gender justice, and sexual freedom. Life did indeed get better.

However, like I said, I’m 50. I’ve waited a long time to hear my president acknowledge that I am fully human and therefore as deserving of rights as anyone else. For 50 years, I’ve waited to hear my president say that regardless of his private religious beliefs, I should be able to share in the same rights of citizenship as straight people.

I lived through the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I helplessly watched friends die as our federal government stood idly by because the disease first appeared in the U.S. among gay men. As an out gay activist my 20s and 30s, death threats, hate mail, and the occasional stalking were part of my “normal.” For most of my life, I’ve had no protection from discrimination in housing and employment based on my sexual orientation. As a former Oregonian, I lived through five statewide ballot measure races in which the morality of my very existence was questioned, and my most basic rights put up for a vote.

I know I should be grateful, but, as far as I’m concerned, every day we continue to debate the relative humanity of other human beings is a day spent reinforcing a way of thinking that is an affront to the humanity of all of us. So, I’m not saying thank you. I’m saying what I believe to be on the minds of most LGBT people of my generation. It’s about damn time.

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