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Dispatch: The Eye of the Needle at America's Future

Stirling Newberry's picture

This is a dispatch from paleo politics America. The America that pounds in nails at work, and pounds the pavement at election time. The America that answers phones at work, and answers phones at campaign time. The America that takes out the trash at work, and is ready to take out the trash from Washington, if only they can know how. It is the America that teaches school, and is politically schooling a President who has strayed from his base. The Democratic Party is America's labor party, and that party is laboring under a political paradox.

The first thing that happened to me this morning was running to three attendees who are steel workers, the comment "we want to make things in America." The reality is that 20 years of globalization are now reaching a clearly visible end. The benefits of high legacy wages and lower prices are coming to an end, the next generation faces wage cuts, and savage cuts in public services.

The legacy of the global era is having fed the future, to the present. We are that future. That's easy to say, in that criticizing the short sighted decisions of the past, however it is much harder to change the present.

Robert Borosage faced the conflict, and worked to thread the needle: on one hand, he has a President of his own party, and a demographic wave that was rallied by that President, but that President is not of his movement, nor of his ideology. On one hand he must praise the President, on the other hand, he must cast himself as the heir to Martin Luther King Jr. Suddenly a white man is saying that he is playing Martin Luther King Jr., to Barack Obama's LBJ.

It is not a corner that turns easily, in that there is little evidence that Administration is willing to spend an ounce of political capital. It is a reality that Borosage is well aware of. He peppers his remarks with Civil Rights metaphors, because the young activists in the audience are deeply tied to the President as part of their identity.

What lies beneath the festivities here, is that the older activists are angry, they voted for Change, with a capital "C," and they know that it did not happen, and the younger activists, who live in change, and are disappointed at the changes that have occurred. It is the eye of the needle to be threaded, an older base that has a historical ruler to measure against, and a younger group that has not yet lived through a political cycle. It does not feel the same sting, because it has not seen the flurry of activity that a crisis can bring.

This event is then, not really an event, but a cynosure: people are doing what they do, only in the same place. Ryan Grim is pressing people for what they expect, looking for the next snap quote, Arianna Huffington is delivering lines, Borosage is soothing feathers and busy being a kind of uncle to the movement, who retains a respectability even has he gets out the poker chips and prepares to initiate a new generation into the fine art of political brinksmanship. In the exhibit room Progressive Punch's founder is showing people how to use the site, the NEA is passing out literature.

What is creating this cynosure, is organized labor. What is underlying the dynamics of this conference is the reality of the President as wearing many hats. While Obama is indisputably the President, and indisputably the head of the party, his leadership of the party and the country is being challenged, and most specifically, by labor.

This is not surprising. It is labor that has born the brunt of the down turn, it is labor that did not get EFCA, it is labor that saw little from health care reform – and even more so labor unions. It is labor that is being told, again, to wait their turn. It is labor that has a channel, however, of money and muscle, to challenge the political operation of Obama. Obama has handled the press well, which has seldom strayed far from his narrative, and given him a more positive coverage than his high 40's approval might otherwise afford – far better than Bill Clinton received at the same time. However, Obama has not only not delivered on policy, he has had a tin ear politically. That tin ear has translated into stinging rebukes in primaries. These rebukes are of a piece with the moment, where the populist flanks of both parties are angry at the DC core. The small business class has scalped a Republican Senator in Utah, driven Crist out of the GOP in Florida, and Arlen Specter moved from the Republican Party because he thought he had a better chance there than in a rematch against Toomey.

Labor's political positioning problem is the conference's raison d'etre. On one hand labor will not get far by antagonizing Obama. Nor will it recruit new young people by frontally attacking a man who is, or in many cases was, their icon. On the other hand, the undercurrent is a very real anger at the failure of the Administration to directly attack the legacy political economy of the neo-liberal era. It is labor that is putting the heat on Lincoln. It is organized labor that underlines repeatedly their electoral muscle.

More dispatches from AFN later...

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

it's just that guys like that need some imagination sessions with outside the box folks, who can make them less scared. they don't always have to rely on traditional social-political pathways to survive rough economic times.

nice report. have fun. start lots of fires, snicker.

Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

There is a great deal of disappointment and anger at the "Yes, We Can't" President. The comment feedback has been strongly against what has not happened, and wondering what is to be done.

The question you hear here is. "What can we do?"

This is because many of the people here are real. The Vibe people looking for ways to push out stories such as HIV in women, the census, voting patterns. But the other weight is "how do we pay our bills?" Organizations are starved for money, and this means that they spend more and more time to raise money, and less and less to make a difference.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

... "Labor will not get far by antagonizing Obama" true.

Being oppositional to Obama is, IMHO, the smartest thing labor can do.

Submitted by lambert on

are deeply tied to the President as part of their identity."

* * *

That's probably true (see the ongoing Annals of Career Progressive Idiocy) but I don't think it's true for the young in general. For one thing, for "young activists" I'd substitute "young apparatchiks" -- because I bet a big percentage of them have jobs -- being "activists." Nice work if you can get it... .

Because of where I'm located, I have a good deal of contact with college age and slightly older people. And I don't see that Obama's part of their identity in the slightest. What they're worried about is jobs and debt, specifically, college loans. (And very few of them are worried about "entitlements.")

So I'm advocating throwing the "young activists" under the bus. Sauce for the goose, and all. If you make Obama, or any politician, part of your identity, that's a prime reason not to let you anywhere near sharp tools or serious work. Start over with young working people who don't even know what Web 2.0 is. There are probably a lot more of 'em.

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

and elected the most bigoted, rightwing president the Democrats have ever had. I throw the misogyny right in their lap and let them know that they are no better and no different than the racists who voted for Strom Thurmond. They really hate that. But I like making them sputter.

They all say the same thing..."but he got health care reform passed and even Clinton couldn't do that". Bust 'em on the misogyny, and 100% of the time that's where they go. Pathetic little twits. Obama's brings the stupid and the ugly.

Submitted by MontanaMaven on

I went to the CAF three years in a row when I decided to become active again after a 20 year absence. But it was too D.C centric for me and too party oriented and not enough of a real movement. The same speakers and panelists were there every year I went. While there was an occasional burst of brilliance from a Gar Aperovitz, most of it was about messaging. And yes, the majority were young "apparatchiks". They were there to network and to advance in politics no matter who was in power. Proud to be technocrats and pragmatists, they lacked the passion I had seen in the 1960s and 1970s. And the rest of the crowd were old activists who had been doing community work for 40 years in addition to their real jobs. And those hippies are right to be angry. All that work and all that optimism down the black hole created by vampire squids and Gulf Oil Monsters. MLK Jr. would be saddened by all this. He died defending garbage workers right to be treated like humans. He called for a whole new system, not just some mild reforms.

So, yes, Stirling, stir it up. Labor is the answer and an alliance with our Latino and Latina working brothers and sisters would scare the crap out of the DLC status quo. Go for it. Kick the apparatchiks under the bus and grab the energy that is out here in the hinterlands and in the cities.

Labor is getting nothing now from Obama. Worse than nothing. So what have they got to lose in becoming a new and real Labor Party? Thomas Jefferson said that the political divide would always be between aristocrats and democrats. But we no longer have that divide in the parties. We have two aristocrat parties. We need a People's Party; a party that embraces the radical and true father of the Revolution, Thomas Paine. A Party of Common Sense.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

a black man with a tin ear for politics could never have made city council in a majority white district, nevermind President of the US.

It is going sour now on Obama because being an Executive is different from being a legislature.

Even so, I bet Obama is reelected, for the same reason Harry Reid will win, because the Republicans cannot hide the crazy.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

DC, I just can't figure out what you're disagreeing with. (I'm rushed and may just have missed it.) If you could point me in the right direction, I'd be obliged.

What you say makes sense, I just don't see its context here. (My fault, prob.)