“From his community organizing days to the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama has always put pragmatic deal-making above ideology, even when it angered allies.” —Chicago Tribune reporter James Warren from his article ‘Get Over It: This Is Who Obama Is.’
I am not disillusioned with Barack Obama. Unhappy, yes, but not disillusioned. Having observed Barack Obama from his earliest days as a successful politician, I naively thought that people outside of Chicagoland understood his background as a community organizer. In the grit and grime of Chicago street level politics, deals are struck are all the time among bitter foes. Deals are also often trampled on and forgotten when the power relationships shift.
Way back in the heady days of 2008 during the campaign, I wrote a blog post entitled “We’re Not Electing a Messiah.” Some of the Obama supporters around me were starting to get a little scary. They watched Obama on TV with their thousand yard stares and their habit of clapping loudly after everyone else had stopped. They were looking for a Messiah. But a Messiah is not what they or this country needed. Messiahs have a way of coming to a bad end. The Romans dealt with them by crucifixion. In the USA of the 1960’s, they were dealt with by assassination.
One of our greatest labor leaders was the socialist Eugene Victor Debs. Debs had no illusions about Messiahs.
“If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”
So if you think you really..really… need a Messiah, trust me you don’t. Because if you lose your Messiah, you’re lost without a plan, a map or a destination. People listened to the soaring speeches of Barack Obama and totally misunderstood their purpose. Soaring speeches are the stock in trade of successful generals and politicians everywhere. They do not ennoble either war or politics.Their purpose is to fire up the troops so they can land on Omaha Beach in face of withering enemy fire or to embolden campaign workers so they venture into potentially hostile neighborhoods to canvass for votes.
This is not to say that the words of those speeches have no meaning beyond a battle or an election campaign, they do. But we cannot expect either generals or politicians to make those noble words a reality. That is up to us, we the people. It’s in all of our sacred documents and in the soaring speeches—- if you just take the trouble to actually read them.
A Community Organizer on the South Side of Chicago
You also can’t expect a community organizer to make those noble words a reality either. Chicago community organizing is Obama’s background. It is where as he says, he became a man. But how did his Chicago experience shape him and what kind of man did he become?
The ideas of legendary Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky were Obama’s inspiration. Saul Alinsky, despite what Glenn Beck may have told you about him, was no revolutionary, but a pragmatic deal maker whose flamboyant tactics and militant stances were designed to get working class people to the negotiating table where deals could be struck and community improvements won. Alinsky was no cheerleader for the capitalist system, but he accepted it as the American reality. He would bend and break the rules to get what he wanted, but he was not about to switch to another game.
But Alinsky was not the only model for community organizing in Chicago. Another was the revolutionary approach championed by Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois Black Party until his assassination in December of 1969. Hampton had no problem with winning reforms, but he saw these as being steps toward a socialist revolution that would be led by a multi-racial alliance of revolutionary organizations. He was assassinated by the Chicago police in 1969. Trying to break down Chicago’s rigid segregated politics was bad enough. Calling for a socialist revolution from the desperately poor West Side of Chicago was a capital offense.
Despite what you may have heard at your local tea party, Obama was no follower of the Fred Hampton model of using community organizing as a base for socialist revolution. In the hothouse world of Chicago community organizing, its easy to bump up against socialists and communists. They’d been part of the Chicago scene since the 1800‘s. But Obama was an Alinsky man, minus Alinsky’s in-your-face persona and media savvy theatrics. Obama, for example, never threatened to unleash a thousand live rats at City Hall like Alinsky once did.
Barack Obama began his 3 year career as a community organizer in 1985, during Chicago’s infamous “Council Wars.” Chicago had elected its first black mayor, a progressive politician named Harold Washington. Led by “Fast Eddie” Vrodolyak, racist white aldermen tried to block everything that the Washington forces proposed. Chicago was dubbed “Beirut on the Lake.” That was a bit unfair. Council Wars was fought with nasty language, political favors, bribery and only occasional violence and vandalism. Compared to the violent Chicago street politics of earlier times, it was almost civil.
Council Wars had an ugly public face of white supremacy, because it was about how Chicago’s public funds would be divided. Chicago racial politics were always seen as a zero sum game, so if resources were allocated to the poorest black and hispanic working class communities, these would have to be taken away from the somewhat more affluent white working class communities. That Harold Washington’s rainbow coalition(which contained a fair number of actual socialists) wanted to expand the size of the working class pie and share it equally was seen as pie in the sky by many.
With Harold Washington’s progressive administration in power, Obama did not have to deal with the crude violence of an earlier time in Chicago politics. City Hall was friendly and there were a lot of people fighting for the progressive Harold Washington agenda. He could sit down and broker community deals even with the nastiness of Council Wars in the background. He could also gain a great deal of insight into the fractious and divided Chicago Left. In Chicago there are more varieties of leftists than there are species in the Lincoln Park Zoo. This intimate knowledge of the American Left would serve Obama well in his climb to the White House.
When Obama moved down to Springfield as a state senator, he was entering a den of thieves, some of whom were headed to the Illinois penal system. Yet, even amidst the corruption of the Illinois state legislature and later the cesspool of Washington politics when he became U.S. senator, there was still a certain rationality to the unseemly bribery and horse trading. It was about the allocation of power and what the players could bring to the table. The racial component of this division of power and who was allowed to sit at the high stakes table was obvious. It was a game that Obama had learned to play in the rookie leagues of his community organizing days.
It was a dirty business, but still business. Deals could be cut, horses traded, compromises made and life could on, much as it had in his South Side Chicago community organizing days. This was true even while America was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that were seen by many in Washington as just another business venture to gain control over oil or reap government contracts over the bodies of the dead.
The Presidential Campaign of 2008 and the American Left
During the Depression years, the fiercely anti-communist mine workers leader John L. Lewis had battled the communists in a bloody war for control of the miners union. In the coal fields, the term “war” is not a metaphor, it is a war. Later John L. Lewis hired legions of communists to help him organize the great industrial plants that were to become the heart of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). When asked how such an anti-communist as Lewis (he was a Republican), could do that Lewis, famously answered, ”Who gets the bird? The hunter or the dog?”
Saul Alinsky knew that story because he was a close associate of John L. Lewis. I’m sure the scholarly Barack Obama knew it too because he sure knew the American Left from its liberal minded to its communist minded. Money could be had from his contacts on Wall Street and Corporate America. He could draw upon the American Left to build his army of volunteers.
After the heady days of the 1960‘s The American Left (and I use the term broadly here) was desperate and demoralized. The horrors of the Reagan-Bush years and the betrayals of the Clinton years were followed by that Lord of Misrule, George W. Bush. Obama knew exactly which buttons to push with the right promises and a series of inspirational speeches. Volunteers poured in, their hearts afire. Nobody asked what the terms of that deal were. Nobody read the fine print. I was in Chicago the night he clinched the nomination. There was a line that stretched for blocks to get into Grant Park. The after-party took up the entire Chicago Loop with dancing in the streets. The Inauguration had the largest attendance in US history on that cold Washington day in 2009.
The Morning After
Leftwing activists with a flair for history used to debate whether Obama would be another Lincoln or another Roosevelt, those transformational presidents who guided the USA through its darkest hours. People discussed how the Left could pressure him so that he could beat the economic royalists at their game. Lincoln had the abolitionists to push him. Roosevelt had the labor rebels doing the same.
But if anyone thought the American Left would have a strategy and hit the ground running on Day 2 of the Obama Presidency, they were in for bitter disappointment. Maybe it was the hangover from all of the inspirational speeches and the emotional roller coaster of the campaign. In any event, the American Left was flopped out on the couch with its party hat still on & plastic champagne glasses littering the floor.
This was obvious during the health care debacle. The American Left was caught flatfooted, picked off base like a bush leaguer who had been mistakenly promoted to the majors. For all of their money, the best that the health care industry and their allies could do was mobilize a few thousand screaming mimi’s to go and shout incoherence at the TV cameras. But where was the Left? Did the American Left seriously think that they could have a revolution in health care without actually making that revolution? The Left finally did mobilize for health care reform, too little and too late. The media war was won by the Rightwing who threw armed tea parties in celebration.
When Obama took single payer off the table and used the public option as bait, he was sending the Left a message. Sorry, your name’s not on the guest list. Come back when you’re older, kid. You’re fired. You see Obama was organizing different communities now: Wall Street, the Pentagon, Corporate America, the intelligence community, our far flung but increasingly threadbare imperial empire, our nervous allies and our potential economic foes. There were deals to broker and horses to be traded, but the lessons he learned on the streets of Chicago would all come into play.
What kind of clout could the American Left bring to this table? Zero. It’s small size and its divided leaderless nature just didn’t make the cut. It was not all the Left’s fault though. The abolitionists of Lincoln’s time had a civil war with which to pressure Lincoln to free the slaves. The labor rebels of Roosevelt’s time had sit-downs, general strikes and the actual threat of proletarian revolution to get Roosevelt’s attention. They got their place at the table because they had real clout.
“When you are in a coalition and you’re comfortable. You know you are not in a broad enough coalition.”—Bernice Reagon
The fractious and divided American left should get used to the idea that the non-revolutionary Left and the revolutionary Left are on the same side, they just play different positions. The non-revolutionary Left tends to get caught up in the day to day grind of slow incremental reform and legislation. That needs to be done and that’s their main job anyway.The revolutionary Left is supposed to have the vision thing, generating and propagating the ideas and strategies that sound crazy now, but will be considered commonplace 5-10-20 years from now. The revolutionary Left is also supposed to be experts on strategy when mass uprisings break out, which they do with the unpredictable power of a Midwest tornado. If everybody does their jobs with reasonable competence, the American Left grows stronger and genuine reform becomes more possible.
It’s like the old days in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King had a friend in Malcolm X. Cuz you see, King’s people could always say, “Well, you might not like our guy very much, but you see, there’s this other guy that you are going to like even less, so maybe you ought to give a listen.”
Obama may have been associated with Harvard and U of C, but his school of politics was the South Side of Chicago. If you understand that, then you understand a lot about Barack Obama. I don’t like most of the compromises he makes, but I am not particularly disillusioned by them. Sure I’m pissed at him, but I don’t take personally. He can’t break my heart because we never had that kind of relationship.
In the world of this former South Side Chicago community organizer, it’s how much power you bring to the table that counts.
If the Left wants a place at the table, bring some power. Don’t get mad. Get even. Even up that power relationship and your voice will be heeded. The more power, the more heed. The math is surprisingly simple.