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The Limitations of Presidential Politics for Progressives


This essay on Obama campaign staffers finding his likely approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline deeply disturbing and conflicting is really interesting, not because of what the story says but because of the unsaid implications. Basically, Obama’s Organizing for Action group attempts to translate the energy from his campaign into lobbying for policy victories. That’s fine, I totally support it as an idea. But of course the reality is that the hope and change of the Obama campaign–even the second campaign–simply doesn’t translate for progressives who want to see their policies enacted. I don’t know if we will ever have a president who has the ability or the desire to implement the precise policies I want. That’s especially true of someone like Obama, who regardless of the insanity of the opposition is still a politician who trusts Arne Duncan and Ken Salazar and Larry Summers.

So it’s not at all surprising that the staffers would be torn between their love of the president and their realization that the pipeline is almost certainly going to be build. What is interesting about it is that progressives would actually believe supporting a president is the way to create change in American society. Of course, what actually makes change is pressuring politicians from both inside and outside the system to enact change. Supporting a president’s policy agenda only makes sense when it is also your own policy agenda.* Otherwise, you want to push the president. So even if it isn’t going to change the world to get arrested over protesting Keystone, it’s a significant step. More significant would be taking that energy in supporting Obama and joining organizations that would make him do the right thing on the issue. There are lots of environmental organizations that need fresh blood, particularly smart people with real political experiences**

This all relates to points I’ve been trying to emphasize now for 2 years. I became a hated person by some progressives during the election because I stated that voting for President Obama was a necessity and that playing around with third party candidates was a disastrous idea. What we have in 2013 is a generation(s?) of people who are so tied in with the national political game that they see the presidency as not only the site of change but as the place to make a moral stance. They define themselves politically through who they voted for in the last presidential election. They believed in Hope and Change in 2008 and are shocked to find out the system doesn’t work that way.

I on the other hand believe that presidential elections are vitally important because of court appointments and executive authority that matters on issue ranging from National Labor Relations Board appointments to public land policies. But ultimately, the presidential election is the site where you consolidate your gains or cut your losses from the last four years. If you’ve organized and pushed the Democratic Party to the left, you will see that through the presidential primary season. If you haven’t, you won’t. The place to make the moral stand is not the election–it’s all the rest of the time. The presidential election is where you make the moral compromise. The rest of the time you yell and scream and organize to drag the lame person you elected where you want them to go.

I feel that if more people understood this–and connected it concretely to how change has historically happened in the United States–that as a coalition of movements, we’d all be a lot better off.

* Admittedly, this is often a grey area with significant room for necessary compromises when it makes sense.

** They need idealistic hippies too, but they already have those.

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