“That’s Politics”: Reflections on The Election Trap, Grassroots Activism, Presidential Narcissism, and Health Reform in the Age of Obama

Three weeks ago, The New York Times ran a front-page story on the difficulty that the Obama White House was experiencing in getting its supporters to fight for the president’s "embattled health care plan" with anything like the passion and numbers voters and activists demonstrated in getting Barack Obama elected. The story was titled "Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grass Roots."  It was sent in from the largely working-class town of Muscatine in the pivotal presidential-electoral state of Iowa, where Obama’s defeat of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on January 3, 2008, made the viability of his quest to become the nation’s first black president crystal clear.



Their "Political Hat…Doesn’t Come Out for Three Years"


"People came out of the woodwork for Obama during the campaign, " one older Obama supporter  told New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, "but now they are hibernating…Now it is hard to find enough volunteers to fight the Republicans’ fire with more fire."


Bonnie Adkins, a leading Muscatine Obama activist in 2007 and 2008, could induce only ten Democrats to attend a potluck dinner in support of Obama’s health care effort earlier this summer. She told Zeleny that "The enthusiasm is not there like it was a year ago. Most people, when they get to Nov. 5, put their political hat away and it doesn’t come out for three years." (J. Zeleny, "Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grass Roots," NYT, August 15, 2009, A1),


Politics goes out the window after the general election and elicits little excitement until the next big presidential spectacle rolls around again – three years later in Iowa and New Hampshire , where the candidates begin touring in the spring prior to the year of the general election.


It isn’t just ordinary Democratic citizens and voters who seem to move off politics once the election is over. Zeleny interviewed more than a dozen "campaign volunteers, precinct captains and team leaders from all corners of Iowa , who dedicated a large share of their time in 2007 and 2008 to Mr. Obama."  These former Obama activists told the Times that "they supported the president completely but were taking a break from politics and were not active members of Organizing for America" (OFA)  – the Obama campaign’s supposedly "grass roots" pressure group based largely on the organizing database that the Obama operation developed during the primary and general election campaigns.  OFA claims to have 13 million members and employs 44 state political directors across the nation.



"That’s Politics:" The "Election Trap"


The Times story struck me as a graphic illustration of how Americans have been led to misunderstand meaningful democratic politics.  Many of us have been bamboozled into seeing the only such politics that matters as being about little more than making small choices in the narrow-spectrum, mass-marketed, corporate-crafted election spectacles the power elite stages for us every four years.  Real issues, public policy, and the need for regular ongoing popular movement and pressure at the day-to-day grassroots level get lost in the fog induced by the hypnotic, colored-lights election dramas, heavily focused on the heavily advertised images of crafty politicians who understand very that their chance at fame and power is owed to what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson called "the unelected dictatorship of money," which "vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime" (E.S. Herman and D. Peterson, "Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond," Electric Politics, July 22, 2009). Having engaged in some brief popular excitement involved in helping install one of two business-sponsored candidates in power, the citizenry is induced to go back to sleep and leave relevant matters of governance to the proper state-capitalist authorities – people like Donald Rumsfeld, Lawrence Summers, John Ashcroft, Robert Rubin, and Timothy Geithner. Reduced to the status of a corporate-managed electorate, it is no longer expected to actively participate in "the world’s greatest democracy" in any particularly relevant ongoing way.


As Noam Chomsky wrote on the eve of the 2004 elections, "The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.  Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population.  A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t, it’s only a small part of politics."



In the election," Chomsky argued, "sensible choices have to be made.  But they are secondary to serious political action.  The main task is to create a genuinely responsive political culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome…The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that they can’t be ignored by centers of power." The real task of movement-building, Chomsky noted, is "cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years"(N.Chomsky, Interventions, San Francisco: City Lights, 2007, pp. 97-100).


Progressive are no less immune to movement-weakening of candidate-centered politics.  Indeed, they are highly prone to recurrent falls into what the noted left social critic Charles Derber calls "The Election Trap" – the belief that serious progressive change is mainly about voting.  It’s a great blunder for, as Derber notes, "the main catalysts for regime change in America have not been parties glued to the next election, but social movements that operate on the scale of decades rather than two- and four-year electoral cycles.  Political parties have historically become agents of democratic change only when movements infuse the parties with their own long-term vision, moral conviction, and resources"(C. Derber, Hidden Power ( San Francisco : Berrett-Koehler, 2005. pp. 6-9).


Electoral politics provide no meaningful "alternative or a shortcut to building those movements," the prolific left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. noted nearly two years ago. "Building them," Reed added, "takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power" (A. Reed, "Sitting This One Out," The Progressive, November 2007).


Since at least the late 1970s, the American right has been more astute than what passes for a left in the U.S. when it comes to understanding the pitfalls of the "election trap" and building between movements between and across elections. The recent month of congressional town hall meetings on health reform, with the hard right exerting significant obnoxious but apparently effective pressure (far beyond the right’s actual base of support in public issue opinion) while liberals in former Obama strongholds can muster only small gatherings for the president’s health reform efforts is a case in point.



"Well, Which is it?" A "Crap" Plan "Manacled to Private Insurers"


Of course, we shouldn’t go too terribly far in presenting Obama’s difficulty garnering "grassroots" support for his health reform package (whatever that package really is) as an epitome of the Election Trap that has so long plagued America’s so-called left.  Another problem behind the president’s failure to "ignite" his "grass roots" on the health issue is that his health care ideas are overly complicated, uninspiring, and corporate-captive – hardly the stuff to inspire meaningful citizen engagement.  If the administration was sincerely interested in a national health care reorganization that would cut costs, cover all Americans, and achieve mass popular support, the obvious and simple policy to advance would be a government-managed, single-payer system. Consistent with the Clintonian "business liberalism" (cloaking itself as "get things done" pragmatism) that has characterized the Obama White House from the outset, however, the main "health reform" bills circulating through Congress in Obama’s leave the leading cost-private insurance corporations in basic power alongside an unimpressive, watered-down, and apparently dispensable (as far as Obama and other leading Democrats are concerned) "public option" [1] for people unable to afford private insurance.


The left progressive labor journalist and policy writer Roger Bybee worries with reason that Obama and the Democrats plans, "manacled to private insurers," will "deepen public cynicism about the possibility of getting substantive help with their increasingly desperate health care situation."  The Obama Democrats’ "reform" measures seem all-too fated to repeat the experience of "HillaryCare" during the 1990s, when the Clinton administration’s sickeningly complex and market-driven, corporate-serving scheme crashed and burned, discrediting the cause of real reform for many years. It’s all yet another example of what Team Obama calls progressive "pragmatism," seeking to provide supposedly post-ideological clothing for standard service and surrender to corporate power. [1A]


Earlier this summer, the nation’s senior black congressperson, John Conyers, referred to Obama’s health reform plan as "crap."  According to Conyers, author of a longstanding single payer health insurance bill supported by more than 80 congressional Democrats, Obama’s stance on health care is a pathetic surrender to the corporate and financial elite, one that going to cost the president "big time." "There is no one more disappointed than I am in Barack Obama," Conyers said.


The ranks of the disappointed, we recently learned, include Obama’s own former physician David Scheiner, who has gone public to denounce the president’s proposal to leave private for profit insurance and drug companies in charge of our health care future.


When Obama gave an uninspiring prime-time press conference in support of his health reform last July, much of the public didn’t follow his logic on why it should support his corporate-captive version of "change."  All too common and understandable was the reaction of Rowena Ventura, 44, an uninsured worker who had just moved her ailing mother into a house she shares with her disabled husband "You see," she said, gesturing at the president on her television, her comments also captured on the front page of the Times, …"you see," she said, "[the president's] saying he wants to continue private insurance, but then he says they’re part of the problem. Well, which is it? It’s just ridiculous" (K. Sack, "For Public, Obama Didn’t Fill in Health Blanks, NYT, July 23, 2009, A1).


Rowena Ventura is right. So are John Conyers and Dr, Scheiner. It is ridiculous.  You can’t have meaningful health reform without removing the for-profit insurance vampires from the equation.  Obama knows this himself.  He said as much quite explicitly late in his career as a state legislator during a speech in downtown Chicago, given perhaps before he had completely subordinated himself – on the name of "getting things done" (with thing # 1 being getting elected to national office and staying there as long as possible) to Herman and Peterson’s "unelected dictatorship."



Critical Distinctions Beyond Faux-gressivism


Serious progressives need to distinguish between more than just the politics of "quadrennial electoral spectacles" and the politics of progressive, bottom-up social movements. They also need to make further and related critical distinctions between (a) seriously progressive, social-democratic issues that are worth fighting for (i.e., single-payer health insurance or "Improved Medicare for All" on the model of Conyers’ bill) and (b) those that are too business-friendly to deserve support and between (c) authentic bottom-up popular organization and (d) fake social movements that are actually top-down operations run for and by political operatives loyal to existing concentrations of economic and political power.


It’s bad enough that U.S. political culture and it’s candidate-obsessed "election trap" routinely divert popular forces away from the building of autonomous social movements dedicated to fighting oppression from the bottom up.  Advancing that diversion and co-opting social movements has been one of the Democratic Party’s critical roles and missions – one of its leading services to capital – since the 1890s (see Lance Selfa’s 2008 book The Democrats: A Critical History [Chicago: Haymarket], pp. 87-125, for an excellent account).


Obama has tried to take that role to a new level.  Both before and since the election he and his team have attempted to merge their quest for political power with the (deceptive) imagery of a progressive social movement, seeking to sell precisely the "shortcut" that Dr. Reed counsels true progressives to adamantly reject. Obama the primary candidate loved to say that "change happens from the bottom up, not from the top down" (words that have rarely if ever passed through his lips since he reached the top) and claimed that he was asking citizens "not to believe in me" but "to believe in yourselves" – in, that is, the citizenry’s ability to bring about "change." Liberal primary voters were inundated with advertisements heralding his short-lived and uneventful career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. (The ads deleted Obama’s years working with far-right Republicans [the Federalist Society] at Harvard Law,  perhaps the ultimate ruling class finishing school, and his early post-college gig [very possibly arranged by his former Columbia professor, the noted imperialist Zbigniew Brzezinski] at Business International Corporation, a New York "consulting" firm known to have provided cover for CIA operatives.  [Brand Obama's marketing campaign also left out the fact that young Obama became quickly dissatisfied with community organizing, deciding that it would make him a failure on the model of his father before choosing to attend Harvard Law and climb the ranks of the political elite]).  During the endless Iowa campaign, progressive Democratic and Independent voters were sent fliers telling them – quite deceptively – that they could join the antiwar movement by Caucusing for Barack Obama. 


Now we have "Organizing for America," seeking to co-opt popular activism into a "grass roots" movement on behalf of health reform for and by the big insurance and drug companies and their big financial backers. The White House can pretend all it wants that OFA is a "grass roots" entity but the deeper truth evident to any serious investigator is that, like the big money Obama election campaign, it is very much a high-tech top-down operation designed to coordinate the electorate/citizenry in accord with the perceived political needs of Team Obama and the corporate and financial elites he represents.


Meanwhile the arch-reactionary wing (the right wing talk radio mob/industry and Fatherland/FOX news primarily) of corporate media and supposedly responsible members of the Republic Party absurdly accuse the corporatist president of being a far left "socialist," maybe even a communist, and a black-nationalist white-hater to boot! It’s the kind of nonsense one might expect in a totalitarian madhouse – the natural downward and dangerous destination of a "corporate managed democracy." [2]


"What Works…For Me": The Progressive Potential of Presidential Narcissism


A postscript on what to expect from Barack Obama on healthcare.As I suggest in my latest article in Z Magazine ("Corporate-Managed Democracy: Health Reform in the Age of Obama," September 2009), the president’s main goal is simply to pass something he can put on his resume and claim to have achieved, thereby securing (he hopes) his viability for a second term and his legacy as the first president to deliver on Democratic presidents’ common campaign promise (made by presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton if memory serves) of universal health care. The need to "get something done" is certainly one of the key lessons that Team Obama is taking from the 1993-94 "HillaryCare" fiasco I doubt that there are any strong limits of the extent to which Obama-Emmanuel will be willing to dilute meaningful reform – the already too-weak "public option" is dispensable – in order to claim legislative triumph.


This, I should add, was Obama’s modus operandi in Springfield , Illinois (where he served as a state senator from 1996 to 2003): resume- and "consensus"-building through watered-down, faux-gressive legislation. [3] One example among many was Obama’s role in killing a bill he originally helped champion for "universal health insurance" in Illinois . By May of 2004, he had helped certify the bill’s demise.  Working with Republicans and insurance corporation lobbyists who extolled him for honoring their interests, he succeeded in watering down Illinois’ "Health Care Justice Act" to mean little more than the setting up of a panel to research the supposedly mysterious question of how to provide universal coverage – a panel that gave the private insurance industry significant influence in how the issue would be approached. Under an amendment that Obama wrote, Boston Globe reporter Scot Helman noted in the summer of 2007, "universal healthcare became merely a policy goal instead of state policy." As Helman learned, "Lobbyists praised Obama for taking the insurance industry’s concerns into consideration" as he crafted the legislation."  By the recollection of health care activist Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois , "in this situation, Obama was being a conduit from the insurance industry to us."  According to Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki in the summer of 2007, Obama’s experience with the Health Care Justice "showed him that real change comes not by dividing but by bringing people together to get things done." [4]


With Obama, in my experience (which goes back to the late 1990s in Illinois ), it is generally a mistake to look for deep philosophical or ideological principles beyond the narcissistic pursuit of power and perceived "greatness."  Obama’s oft-declared concern to find "what works" in the world of politics and policy needs a two-word supplement to capture the reality of what he seeks: "for me" – "what works for me."  As the South Side Chicago congressman Bobby Rush told New York Times reporter Janny Scott in the summer of 2007, "Obama believes in Obama. And frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side." [5]


I might put in a word on "its [potentially] good side." The diagnosis of narcissism (fairly epidemic among elite politicians) might actually be perceived as an "optimistic" assessment from the standpoint of progressives seeking more leftward policies from the current administration. If Obama could be convinced that his quest for a second term (and perhaps Mount Rushmore) will be fatally undermined by his continuing allegiance to the elite business class and that only an actual shift left (fake-progressive public relations puffery having proved inadequate to keep his liberal and "left" base passionately on board) might rescue his legacy, one could perhaps imagine "the Conciliator" [6] taking something of a mid-1930s (Franklin) Rooseveltian turn of sorts. As part of their regular and ongoing practice beneath and beyond the "quadrennial electoral extravaganzas," progressive activists and citizens might collaterally help Obama shift his "pragmatic" and narcissistic calculations away from corporate-regime politics and closer to popular-democratic politics.  Or maybe – no, probably – not. Either way, the tasks remain much the same at the real grass roots.


Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).







1. In the New York Times this morning (I am writing on Tuesday, September 8, 2009, two mornings prior to Obama’s much-anticipated health care address to a joint session of Congress), we learn that "Mr. Obama is expected …to describe a public option as his preferred way to ‘keep insurance companies honest,’ as he often puts it, and encourage better coverage at a lower cost. At the same time, he will make clear that enactment of health care legislation should not hinge on whether it includes the public option, a message sure to anger liberals, including many in the House."  Furthermore, "remarks by the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs…reflected an effort by the White House to play down the importance of a public option to the larger overhaul. Mr. Gibbs said a public option would not affect most Americans — up to 180 million — because they already have insurance through employers."  Jackie Calmes and Robert Pear, "Health Compromise Floated Before Obama’Speech," New York Times, September 7/8, 2009, read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/08/health/policy/08health.html?ref=todayspaper



1A. See Kevin Baker, "Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again," Harper’s Magazine (July 2009).  For some more details on the limits of Obama’s approach and "public option" (what MSNBC’s Keith Olberman calls "Public Optional"), see Paul Street , "Corporate-Managed Democracy: Health Reform in the Age of Obama," Z Magazine (September 2009).


2. It’s what I expected when in June of 2008 I penned the following in the preface to my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008): ‘I added the finishing touches in the writing of this manuscript in early June of 2008, as Hillary Clinton stepped down from her quest for the Democratic nomination and it became clear that Obama would be running as the Democratic presidential candidate against John McCain in November. Most of the research for this book was conducted between the publication of Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope (which marked the de facto beginning of his presidential campaign) and late April of 2008. By the time this volume hits the bookshelves, I am aware, its portrayal of Obama as a relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory, and Empire-friendly "centrist" will strike some readers as counter-intuitive. The nation’s still-potent right-wing Republican attack machine will already be regularly and unreasonably assailing Obama as a "far left" candidate, a "socialist," a "black nationalist," and a dangerous "anti-American" enemy of God, Country, the Family, and Apple Pie! Obama will also be subjected to no small measure of ugly racial bigotry. The racial fears and bias and toxic color prejudice – already evident across the Internet as I draft this preface in early June of 2008 – that his presidential candidacy will arouse will sometimes make it seem like the Obama phenomenon represents a real and substantive challenge to racial hierarchy in the U.S……’These unpleasant facts will make it more difficult than it would be otherwise to understand the Left critique of "the Obama phenomenon" that comes in the chapters that follow. It will also compel many of this book’s readers and in fact the book’s author to defend Obama against ridiculous, reactionary, and racist assaults. I nonetheless stand behind the often unsympathetic portrayal presented here, claming my right to walk (criticize Obama from a left-democratic perspective) and chew gum (defend him against racial bigotry and outrageous rightist misrepresentation and abuse) at one and the same time….’ The phrase "corporate-managed democracy belongs to Alex Carey, Taking the risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty ( Urbana , IL : university of Illinois Press1997 , p.139. It can be found also in Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism ( Princeton , NJ : Princeton University Press, 2008).


3. See David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power ( New York : HarperCollins, 2007), pp250-251; Paul Street , "Statehouse Days: the Myth of Obama’s ‘True Progressive Past," ZNet (July 20, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18224.


4. Scott Helman, "In Illinois , Obama Dealt with Lobbyists," Boston Globe, September 23, 2007


5. Janny Scott, "In 2000, A Streetwise Veteran Schooled a Bold Young Obama," New York Times, September 9, 2008, A1.


6. Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?" The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

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