“New Times, New Opportunities” first appeared on PoliticalAffairs.net on May 29, 2008. Read it on PoliticalAffairs.net.
Editor’s Note: Excerpted from CPUSA National Committee report, March 2008. Comments are welcome.
The political upsurge ricocheting across the country has no counterpart in recent decades. Its breadth and depth are remarkable. Its politics are progressive. It is framing the nation’s political conversation. It rejects the old racist and sexist stereotypes. It is a mass rebellion against the policies of the Bush administration. It is seeking a political leader – one who gives priority to “lunch pail” issues, appeals to our better angels and visualizes a country that is decent, just, united and at peace with the rest of the world. And it’s the necessary groundswell and kinetic energy for a smashing victory in November.
The setting of this upheaval is the Democratic presidential primaries. So far, the turnout has been far beyond anybody’s expectations. Records are being broken in nearly every state primary. Every sector of the people is marching to the polls. Young voters are grabbing the electoral bull by the horns. Twice as many Democrats have voted as Republicans, an ominous sign for the GOP this fall.
The high octane of this upsurge is simply breathtaking. In every place where people gather, the candidates, the primaries and the issues are the subject of animated conversations. If anyone thinks that issues are getting short shrift or that it is all about personalities, I can only guess that they are just watching, but not feeling and listening to the whirlwind that is blowing across the country.
Aren’t the most pressing concerns of the American people structuring the “give and take” of candidates as well as voters? This is anything but an issueless campaign. It contrasts sharply with the last presidential elections when the “War on Terror” took up nearly all the oxygen in the room.
Thanks to this surge, a woman or an African American is on track to become the presidential nominee. This reflects the growing political maturity of the American people. It should be celebrated as a great democratic achievement. Anything that is done to diminish this fact should be vigorously challenged.
In short, tens of millions of voters have turned the Democratic primaries and the November general elections, into the main, if not the singular, terrain on which millions hope to draw down the final curtain on the whole right-wing project and set the country on a new course. No matter whether voters support Obama or Clinton in the Democratic primaries, the political intent of their votes is clear: people want change and not any kind of change, but change that puts people’s needs before war-making, division, sleaze and corporate profits.
Struggles in other arenas will continue to be sure, but all of them should find their part in the great drama that is now unfolding on the stage of electoral politics. While an ending to this drama is still to be written, it is fair to say that a decisive people’s victory will reconfigure every arena of struggle to the advantage of the people’s movement. Any mass organizations or movements that don’t insert themselves in a full-blooded and practical way into this very dynamic process will be left behind by their own constituencies and by events. They will miss an opportunity that comes along rarely in political life.
Thus, every communist should become an active participant in this electoral upsurge, if he or she hasn’t already done so. The avenues are many and the possibilities are nearly limitless.
Let’s seize the moment.
While the working class and every other section of the people’s movement are engaged in this upheaval, it reaches well beyond their organized structures and constituencies. That it is more spontaneous than organized should startle no one.
Any upheaval of this magnitude is a work in progress and has a large element of spontaneity. The entry of people in their millions, and especially many who have been passive and disillusioned with politics up to now, cannot be explained solely or even mainly by the actions of the existing network of people’s organizations. Any mass upsurge has its own independent dynamic.
Triggering this one are a slow buildup of combustible feelings of injustice and insecurity and a deeply felt perception by millions that the 2008 elections could change their life prospects in deep-going ways. Like everything else in nature and society, a mass upsurge should be viewed dynamically, that is, in its contradictory motion. Life, to paraphrase Lenin, is always much more complicated and multifaceted than we can ever imagine. Theory, as necessary as it is, is only a guide to action.
Unfortunately, this lesson has yet to be fully learned by some on the left. Seeing little, if any, progressive potential in electoral politics or the Democratic Party, they have a difficult time taking proper measure of and responding to unfamiliar political patterns, such as the current upsurge in the Democratic Party primaries. It doesn’t fit, nor can it be easily shoehorned to fit, their political model of social change. Needless to say, we don’t share such views. In fact, this upsurge in the electoral arena is the main political vector of struggle for the year ahead.
To our credit, we said two years ago that the midterm elections and their results were a dress rehearsal for the 2008 elections. And at our National Committee meeting last fall we went further, saying that this year’s elections could set in motion a process leading to a new era of class and democratic struggle on much higher ground.
At the same time, we have to admit that we underestimated the fury and the scope of this surge. Nor did we anticipate the Obama phenomenon.
Youth and independents
One of the most hopeful aspects of this people’s surge is the entry of young people who either were not of voting age in the last election or were old enough to vote but chose not to do so. In injecting themselves en masse into the Democratic primary process, today’s younger generation is becoming an agent of change. Not since the sixties have we seen young people bring their energy and idealism to the political process on such a scale.
The beginnings of this change were evident in recent years. More young people participated in the 2004 elections and the majority of youth voted for Kerry. Furthermore, young people were a sizeable part of the anti-war movement as well as participants in other social movements. But what we are seeing today is on an entirely different scale and level of intensity.
The reasons for this qualitative change seem clear enough. Young people are saddled with enormous debt, horrified by the Iraq war and the pervasiveness of violence, alienated from the policies of division and intolerance of the Bush administration, and turned off by a political culture that is opaque, money driven and seemingly empty of higher ideals and aims. Sensing something different in Obama’s candidacy, they are flocking into the Democratic Party primaries in record numbers as organizers and voters.
Unlike some older people, the pressures and grind of everyday life haven’t yet worn them down. “Keep on keeping on” is not a slogan they embrace. “Yes we can” better captures their mood. They eagerly desire and embrace change. They not only imagine the possibility of another world; they imagine its realization in their lifetime.
Befitting their youth, they take inspiration from yesterday’s struggles but they are not prisoners to them. The Sixties, even the Reagan years, are history, not lived or vivid experiences for them.
Finally, the young are less inclined to be cynical. This election might not begin the world anew, but for millions of young people it is a first step.
Independents are entering this upheaval, too. For many of them the Democratic presidential primaries are where the action and fresh ideas are. The politics of yesteryear no longer resonate for them; they are looking for answers to stubborn problems such as the impossible costs of health care that weigh heavily on the quality of their lives. Not least, the working class, the nationally and racially oppressed and women are leaping into this upsurge in a way not seen for many years. Each of these constituencies went to the polls in record numbers.
What do voting patterns reveal? First, working people divided their vote largely between Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Kucinich and Richardson. To say that Clinton has garnered nearly all of the working class vote is simply wrong. For one thing, Black people are overwhelmingly working class and cast their vote for Obama. For another thing, Obama received the lion’s share of the working-class vote, understanding working class broadly, in many primaries and overall. At the same time, it appears that Clinton polled well among trade unionists, women workers and Latino workers.
Second, the African American people gave their overwhelming support to Obama. In nearly every primary, roughly nine of 10 African American voters cast their ballot for him. This is explained not only because of understandable pride in the possibility of electing an African American to the presidency for the first time, but also because Obama would represent their interests, unite our country and usher in a new era of fairness, justice and peace for all.
Third, most women voters supported Clinton, although younger women and African American women of all ages tended to vote for Obama. But what is really notable is the massive turnout of women of all nationalities, races and social circumstances. If one obvious reason was their deeply felt opposition to the Bush administration, the other was their excitement over the possibility of electing a woman president. No doubt both desires energized women to go to the polls and assure that women as organizers and voters will be a powerful force against the right in the fall.
Fourth, many white people, male and female, cast their votes for an African American. This might be the most notable feature of the vote so far, as quiet as it is kept by the mass media. In fact, from media reports it seems as if Obama has become the front-runner on the basis of the Black vote alone. But anyone who thinks about it for a moment knows this is ludicrous. Obama carried several states with small African American populations, and did well in the southern states and especially Virginia, where a majority of white voters supported him.
Furthermore, the millions of white people, the majority of whom were workers, who voted for Obama did so because they liked him – his manner, his style, his opposition to the war, his concern about lunch pail issues, his ability to unify our country along racial and other lines, his fresh appeal, his youthfulness and so forth.
Were some white men (not to mention other men) motivated to vote for Obama because they would never vote for a woman? Of course, but I suspect when voting patterns are studied more closely, greater explanatory weight will be given to the first set of reasons – that is, they cast their vote for Obama because they liked him.
Fifth, the Latino vote in its majority went to Clinton. But what is most striking is the increase of the Latino vote in the 2008 Democratic primaries. So far the Latino percentage of the overall primary vote is over 10 percent, whereas in the 2004 general election the percentage was 6.7 percent. In California, the Latino percentage of the Democratic Party 2008 primary vote was 30 percent compared to 16 percent in 2004; in Texas, 32 percent this year compared to 24 percent in 2004. Similar changes have occurred in other southwest states.
Equally striking is that in the primaries Latinos have voted Democratic over Republican 78 percent to 22 percent, while in the 2004 general election, the spread was much less, roughly 63 to 37 percent. With nearly five million Latinos voting in the primaries, it is becoming more likely that the Latino vote in November could reach 10 million or more and thus provide a cushion of four to five million votes for the Democrats over Republicans compared to less than two million in 2004.
The implications are obvious: the Latino vote is an essential and growing part of a larger effort to win a landslide victory over the right wing in the presidential and congressional races in November. One would never get this impression, however, from the mass media’s reportage of the primaries so far. Instead, the media spin is that Latinos flinched at the option of voting for Obama, because of anti-Black feeling. I can’t go into this in great detail, other than to say that we should take issue with this interpretation. The vast majority of Latinos voted for Clinton to be sure, but it doesn’t follow that they are anti-Obama, anti-Black. Most did because they liked her concern about economic issues, her experience, her familiarity and her connections with the Mexican American community and its leadership. Many have positive feelings toward Bill Clinton’s administration.
To bring more evidence to bear on this point, in recent decades Mexican Americans and Latinos have given support to African American big city mayors by clear and in some cases overwhelming majorities. Look at the facts: Harold Washington won 80 percent of the Latino vote in Chicago in his successful mayoral run in 1983; David Dinkins 73 percent in New York in 1989; Wellington Webb more than 70 percent in Denver in 1991; Ron Kirk big majorities in Dallas in 1995, 1997 and 1999. In Los Angeles, Tom Bradley got a good share in his first run in 1973 and clear majorities the next four times he ran. In addition, African American members of Congress in heavily Latino districts in Los Angeles and elsewhere get significant Latino support. And in Illinois, where Obama is a known entity, he has received strong support from Latino voters.Thus this divisive media spin should be vigorously contested.
Sixth, the youth and senior votes swung in different directions, with young people enthusiastically supporting Obama and senior citizens, except for Black seniors, casting their vote for Clinton. This is not too hard to explain. Older voters prefer a candidate who is a known quantity, which Clinton is. Obama, by contrast, is new on the scene. He doesn’t have the long-standing ties to the Democratic Party. His promise of change is appealing for many to be sure, and especially the young. But for others living on the edge, change can be unnerving. In hard times, we sometimes assume that working people are eager to roll the dice and say, “Come what may.”
As appealing and as seductive as that idea is to left-minded people, I am not sure the factual evidence for it exists. There are moments when ruptures occur and people embrace a radical path of action, but it is also true that in response to deteriorating conditions of life, some sections of working people have sought incremental, protective and less ambitious courses of action, some of which have taken a negative form. Instead of manning the barricades, they built fortresses to protect themselves in stormy times. This dynamic is something to consider.
My breakdown of the vote makes no claim to be comprehensive or in depth. Many categories of voters, for example, were left out who will surely have an impact on the election’s outcome – other nationally and racially oppressed people, Jews, and peace and environmental activists to name a few. Nor did I make a precise estimate of the degree to which or how sexist and racist attitudes influenced voting patterns. That still is to be done.
Nevertheless, voting patterns bode well for the general election. The turnout was far more than anyone predicted and never before on a national level have so many crossed racial and gender boundaries to cast their vote, boundaries that a few years ago seemed impenetrable. Moreover, where voters didn’t do so – say, white workers voting for Clinton, men voting for Obama, women voting for Clinton or Black people voting for Obama – their motivations can be explained more easily in a positive than a negative way.
The Obama phenomenon
The clearest expression of this developing movement pivots around the candidacy of Barack Obama, whose inspirational message and politics have captured the imagination of millions. So much so that many commentators and politicians use the words “transformational” or “transforming” to describe his candidacy – that is, a candidacy capable of assembling a broad people’s majority to reconfigure the terms and terrain of politics in this country in a fundamental way. The Obama campaign has not only brought new forces into the political process, it has also catalyzed new organizational forms.
The surge around Obama’s candidacy, much like the larger surge in the Democratic presidential primary, has a large spontaneous quality. But what makes it different is that it has the feel of “a movement.” Its supporters see in Obama someone who is without the baggage of an older generation of politicians, and who speaks to their desires.
I have heard political commentators say that Obama mania has no spelled-out political program, lacks organizational coherence and offers no guarantees it will continue after Election Day. Hearing such observations, I ask myself why on earth anyone would think this developing movement whose life span can be measured in months would be a well-oiled machine?
Anybody with any historical sense knows that movements in their early, and sometimes later, stages aren’t neat and tidy. Ideal types never find concrete representation in real life.
While this movement has its own dynamic, it is inseparable from the personality and politics of Barak Obama. While he is not a candidate of the left or someone we would endorse – since we don’t endorse candidates of either party – he is, nonetheless, a fresh voice on the political scene. His strategic and tactical concepts are broad in their sweep and his politics are forward looking. His appeal for change resonates with millions who are fed up with things as they are. And his desire to overcome divisions between Black and white, Black and brown, white and non-white, red state and blue state, immigrant and native born, Christian and Muslim, Muslim and Jew, blue collar and white collar, male and female, gay and straight, urban and rural strikes a deep responsive chord among Americans. After three decades of acrimonious rancor and division, people yearn for a kinder, gentler and more just country.
While much has been said about his own personal journey and its formative impact on his values and outlook, what has been greatly understated is that the struggles of the African American people and the larger movement against the right also have left their mark on his sensibilities and politics. Not since Bobby Kennedy has a leader stepped on the stage with as much promise to reconfigure politics and the underlying assumptions that inform debate and policy choices. His ability to articulate a vision, give voice to people’s hopes, and use the platform of politics to educate millions is extraordinary. On paper, it’s true that some of Clinton’s positions, not to mention those of Edwards and Kucinich, are better than Obama’s. But in many ways policy statements and party platforms are not the main things that should shape judgments about a presidential candidate’s potential or the prospects for change.
This is looking at politics too narrowly. It doesn’t take into account who can inspire and unite this massive upsurge, or who can articulate a moral and political vision to tens of millions, or who has the capacity to assemble political majorities in the post election period, or who has the ability to win a landslide victory against McCain and the Republicans in November.
On these counts, advantage goes to Obama in the eyes of many voters. That isn’t to say that Clinton wouldn’t be a worthy adversary to McCain. She would. Nor is it to suggest that she couldn’t win in a landslide. She can. But it would be much more difficult.
I also suspect that she would govern to the left of Bill Clinton’s administration, in large measure because the conditions and expectations are so different now. But I have heard it asked, isn’t Obama a bourgeois politician? Hasn’t he raised a lot of money from Wall St.? And isn’t he is a centrist and a creature of the Democratic Party? All of these assertions are worth discussing, but none of them can be easily answered with a yes or no reply. And even if they could, these questions by themselves wouldn’t necessarily tell us who Obama is, what his presidency would look like and how he would interact with the broader labor led people’s movement.
We don’t want to dispense with the categories of class and class struggle for sure, but we don’t want to turn them into frozen, lifeless categories either. Class and class struggle should be understood as dynamic processes and open-ended categories and not simply as a fixed relation to the means of production that inexorably gives rise to class struggle and consciousness.
Employed properly, class categories give us clues to attitudes, tendencies, predispositions and behaviors of political actors, whether one individual or a social group. But they don’t inscribe on these same actors a mental mindset and an irrevocable course of action. To claim they do leaves out the larger political, economic and cultural processes in which class formation takes place and turns Marxism into a dogma.
To illuminate this point further, let me mention three examples. If Frederick Douglass, the great African American abolitionist leader, posed more or less the same set of questions to Lincoln in the late 1850s and early 1860s and ignored the wider political environment and the interaction between that environment and Lincoln’s shifting views, he might well have remained with the wing of the Abolitionist movement that refrained from electoral politics, was deeply suspicious of the Republican Party, and attached little significance to Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
Or if William Z. Foster posed more or less the same questions to the “Blue Blood” aristocrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt just prior to the 1936 elections and disregarded the new dynamics of struggle taking shape at the time, including Roosevelt’s understanding of these dynamics from his own class viewpoint, he might have argued against our participation in the massive coalition to reelect Roosevelt and New Deal Congressional candidates.
Or if Martin Luther King posed more or less the same questions to Lyndon Johnson and overlooked the convulsions going on in the country and Johnson’s capacity to change, he might not have supported his election bid in 1964 – a landslide victory that undeniably and significantly contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, immigration reform and the War on Poverty.
In asking only narrowly constructed questions and in not considering the fluidity of the political terrain, the overall logic of struggle and the facility of the individual to change in each of these periods, the people’s movement would have cut itself off from openings and opportunities to secure historic victories in each instance. To employ a similar methodology today with regard to Obama runs the same danger.
Struggle for unity
For some time supporters of both Clinton and Obama have said unambiguously that they would rally around the eventual nominee. Assuming for the moment that this happens, it is easy to imagine the formation of an electoral movement that in its scope and depth has no equal in the 20th century. Moreover, such a broad-based political formation has the potential to inflict an overwhelming defeat on McCain and the Republican Party at the polls and to journey down a new highway.
Whether or not that happens, however, isn’t a foregone conclusion. Setting aside for now the divisive role of the right, tensions have cropped up in the Democratic primary contest making it far less certain that supporters of each candidate will seamlessly migrate to the other’s opponent in the event their candidate isn’t the standard bearer. To a large extent, the tensions did not arise spontaneously nor are they the inevitable product of the rough and tumble of the primary process.
How then do we explain them? Earlier I said it is a great tribute to the democratic spirit and sense of decency of the often-maligned American people that a woman and an African American man are contesting for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. At the same time, racial and gender prejudice have not been absent from the presidential primaries. This should be acknowledged and vigorously opposed as having no place at this uplifting moment in our nation’s political life.
All democratic minded people should have no truck with debasing images, double standards, demeaning words, small slights and false opposition of one form of oppression to another or, worse still, the privileging of one over the other.
All of them impede the struggle for equality and unity and weaken the struggle against the right by the whole people.
We should never forget that the struggle for equality and against racism and male supremacy in its ideological and material forms is as much in the interests of white and male workers as it is in the interests of nationally and racially oppressed and women workers. As Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never be free, as long as labor in the Black skin is branded.” Much the same could be said about the struggle against gender oppression.
It is precisely this that the ruling class goes to great lengths to obscure. Working class advance is always portrayed as a zero sum game, meaning the advancement of nationally and racially oppressed workers comes at the expense of white workers or the advancement of women workers comes at the cost of male workers or the securing of rights of immigrant workers comes at the expense of native born workers, and so on.
That your political adversaries on the right would exacerbate racial and gender tensions is to be expected. It has been, after all, the main way along with narrow nationalism that the extreme right has exploited white people’s feelings and resentments in order to mobilize them around their ruling class goals.
But what is unexpected is when someone you thought was on your side employs similar if not identical tactics, which is what the Clinton campaign is doing in the primaries. So that there is no misunderstanding, I’m not talking about her wider ring of labor, women, Latino and other supporters, nearly all of whom, I’m sure, object to such tactics as harmful.
The racialization of the campaign began with former President Bill Clinton in New Hampshire and South Carolina. In both primaries his assignment was to be the bad cop, no small part of which was to introduce a racial subtext in the charged atmosphere of the primaries.
After that episode it seemed to subside momentarily, in part because of the negative reaction to it. But the pause was only temporary. Going into Super Tuesday and since then, Clinton and her campaign have acted as if nothing matters except her nomination in August. Concerns about unity seem to have been cast aside.
There is a racial subtext to remarks such as only Clinton and McCain have the experience to be commander-in-chief, or “as far as she knows” Obama isn’t a Muslim, or when she offered Obama the vice presidency on her ticket, or when her TV ads show a blond young girl next to the phone ringing at 3 a.m., or when her campaign circulated tapes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the media, or when Bill Clinton said how good it would be if two candidates running for the presidency were both patriotic and loved their country – all of this panders to the American people’s worst fears and stirs the embers of racial feelings at a moment when tens of millions of white people are showing their willingness to transcend them.
The Clinton campaign doesn’t seem to realize what the stakes are in this election. They are playing a dangerous game. Supporters of both candidates should strongly insist that it cease its increasingly transparent attempt to polarize the electorate along racial lines. Unless resisted, this could turn a moment of opportunity and victory into a bitter defeat with all the demoralization, division, and name calling that would inevitably follow such an outcome. Thus, we cannot be silent.
Accommodation to racial and gender disunity in the name of unity is not a communist approach. Our strategic policy is to defeat the right decisively in this election. Only a united movement can do that.