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youth selection 2008

The Obama Campaign: How Best to Deal with It -- Or Not

The following discussion reflects one going on in many places in a variety of forms. Chris Lowe was spurred to write by a comment by Carl Davidson, that leftists shouldn't be criticizing Obama for not organizing a left electoral movement, but that they need to 'get off their butts' and do it themselves. Lowe seems to argue that the way forward is to pull back from the election, or avoid it in the first place, when Davidson argues that the way forward is THROUGH the election, gathering strength along the way. There's lots more to be said, but this is a start.
Obama at 2002 Antiwar Rally
Obama at 2002 Antiwar Rally


CD: Chris Lowe's piece [posted to a CC-DS List, and quoted here below, piece by piece ]raises a number of critical questions, so I'm going to give it a detailed response.

CL: The idea "not a movement, but a fan club" seems to have originated with Doug Henwood:  http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/17069

CD: It's not original with Henwood, but has been raised by a wide number of pundits and academics, some of whom should know better.

CL: Of course Davidson is quite right that it's not Obama's job to organize a social movement. He's running a campaign to be president. And that's just the point, isn't it?

CD: The social movement emerged and exists, both to Obama's surprise and ours, certainly in its scale. He is already organizing a campaign within it; our task is to organizing something more than a campaign, particularly independent grassroots progressive base organizations that can last beyond a campaign, capable of both electoral and mass action.

CL: I disagree, however, that Senator Obama has issued an invitation to organize a movement or facilitated it in any way. On the contrary, he is encouraging potential financial donors to give directly to the Obama campaign and not to independent Obama-supporting organizations. Though I doubt they've been asked, there seems every reason to think they'd feel the same way about human energies -- apply them directly to the campaign, not to movement-building.

CD: Suggesting Obama should be fundraising for us is silly. But the invitation I noted is in practically every Obama speech, when he declares change comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and that he wants our participation, not only in the campaign, but also on the issues after he's in the White House. It's a call for participatory democracy that contrasts sharply with both Hillary and McCain. Then he combines it with a litany of every major movement-antiwar, civil rights, labor, women. True, he doesn't say contact UFPJ and set up a local chapter, and give you the phone number, but what more do you want as an invitation to organize from a guy running for president?

CL: (And I have to say that Mr. Davidson's memory of Jesse Jackson's role in efforts to turn the Rainbow Coalition into a more permanent vehicle for progressive movement organizing is much rosier than my memories of the views expressed by many activists at the time.)

CD: I was involved in those efforts in that Jackson campaign, which is where my ideas on this where shaped. Believe me, for all it's talk, the left flubbed that one, far more so than Jesse.

CL: With due respect to Carl Davidson, I believe it is the job of Progressives for Obama to do more than set up a website that largely posts commentary articles from elsewhere, and a nice list of endorsers, tasks mostly done from a seated position, before hectoring others to "get off your butts."

Get off my butt and do what? Work for the Obama campaign? How will that build an independent movement for change? Maybe it can, but I don't see the way. Progressives for Obama say they do. So let us in on it. What's the strategy? How would this work? Suppose I'm already off my butt doing something else. What's the relationship of this new injunction to that work?

CD: All you have to do is read the very first post on the 'Progressives for Obama' site, which spells out in some detail what 'getting off your butt' means. In brief, start where you are. Take your local peace and justice group, or whatever, map out your neighborhood, go door to door IDing the vote, then Register the Vote, then recruit volunteers, not to the campaign, but to your group, educate the vote, train poll watchers to protect the vote, and then expand the electorate by getting out the vote. You can't do it all, so form alliances with church and labor groups doing the same. They'll be new partners in some cases, to keep long afterwards. You never even have to meet with the official campaign or the Democratic Party if you don't want to. Every peace group knows a majority in its base opposes the war, but when I ask them if they know the names and addresses of those who oppose the war, support the war, and are undecided, and do these people know THEM, there's never an affirmative answer. Taking part in this election is about empowering US in this way, not just helping Obama defeat McCain.

CL: On Sunday Barack Obama attracted a crowd of 75,000 people downtown by the river here in Portland. He lucked out that he got the 85 degree day rather than the 96 degree day of a mini-heat wave. It was astonishing. People lined up on the sidewalks for dozens of blocks to get in. It seems to have been the largest crowd in recent Portland history except for 250,000 turning out for the Trailblazers when they won the NBA championship some decades ago, and possibly the annual Rose Festival parades.

CD: Attributing this to 'luck' sounds like sour grapes, and disparages you, not him.

CL: Some people from our local anti-war coalition passed out UFPJ voter guides, which I believe Carl Davidson may have had a hand in formulating, with contact info for the coalition added. The guides, without endorsing anyone, show John McCain as worst from an anti-war perspective, Hillary Clinton somewhat better, and Barack Obama a little better than her, mainly in his willingness to engage in direct diplomacy (a significant difference). Comparatively, they were pro- Obama, but implicitly they contain a criticism of his anti-war position as insufficient. Which it is. In the significant gap between our demands as a social movement (e.g. UFPJ has a clear "immediate withdrawal" position, and does not support backing Democratic half- measures in Congress, even for purposes of provoking a veto battle with Bush that might make sense from a purely electoral point of view) and Senator Obama's positions, lie a host of questions.

CD: I had more than a hand in formulating it. I implemented it here in Western PA, and wrote up and posted a couple accounts of how to get out and do it, in places outside the usual comfort zones. Running a website is best done from a chair, but that's hardly all I do. I rarely post strategies and tactics I don't try to deploy myself, engaging directly with ordinary people beyond the usual left circles. As for excellent critiques of Obama's positions on the war, just go to the 'Progressives for Obama' site, where we keep putting them up for others to circulate.

CL: How should we in our actually existing imperfect local anti-war social movement go forward? Should we shut up about the insufficiency of Obama's anti-war position until the election is over? Should we try to raise the demand for immediate withdrawal within the Obama campaign context. If so, how would that work, exactly? Should we split our existing coalition, in which we work together despite widely varying positions on electoral politics, over whether or not to join the Obama campaign? Should those of us willing to work in Democratic Party contexts shift our energies wholly to pro-Obama electoral work, and remove them from direct anti-war work? Or should we just carry on with our anti-war work, supposing that the more clearly the public's overwhelming anti-war views are made visible, the more it will benefit Senator Obama, and press him to a better position? Or will he just triangulate against us?

CD: No, you should not shut up, but in your critique of Obama, you should note that's he's different from McCain, the main danger. Yes, you should stick to 'Out Now' and raise it in every context. You don't have to split your coalition; there's plenty to do without endorsing any candidate. Get out and register new voters, which helps Green and Democrats, and only hard-core anarchists object to it. No, you don't have to work full time for Obama, even if some want to. As noted above, build your own peace groups in the thick of the campaign. Many of the people who have taken up the Obama campaign do so because they see it as their main instrument to stop the war, and part of the antiwar movement, not separate from it. You and I may not completely agree with that assessment, but that's not the point. With a stand-offish attitude toward the Obama movement by too many, I see the traditional peace movement squandering countless opportunities to expand itself in this arena. Obviously, there's a problem with 501C3s, but even that can be worked around with UFPJ's nonpartisan approach. Yes, Obama will probably 'triangulate' us to some degree; he's not a leftist or even a strict progressive. He's speaking to the center of a left-progressive-center coalition. He has his tasks and we have ours, one of which is to keep his feet to the fire on the war from now to November and afterwards, no matter who is in the White House.

CL: Our local anti-war movement has never turned out more than 45,000 people to a rally, though for a city our size we've done comparatively well. The utility of those crowds is much under question, however, as the occupation of Iraq protracts. This year, our five year invasion-marking event turned out perhaps 3000, perhaps 5000, depending on whom you ask, despite heavy rain and hail in the middle of the march, with a day-long educational fair of issue-based tents on the wider peace and justice context, and a youth-oriented music festival. It may have been the largest such event in the country -- though we did not face the problem of avoiding competition with Winter Soldier as did the East Coast movements. More impressive, because new and inspiring, was a walk-out of 2000 high-school students from schools around the city later in the week, who marched to City Hall, climbed all over it, demanded and got to speak with the mayor, then continued marching in ways that completely flummoxed the police before dispersing. The event was called and coordinated using new electronic media, with tactical decisions made on the spot, and successful non-violent unity, but had no underlying infrastructure connecting the student peace groups and committees at different schools. Some of the key student activists had been involved with our wider coalition. We are now working together to strengthen the student infrastructure. Should we turn away from that work to devote ourselves to electing Senator Obama?

CD: Not at all, but when organizing students, you might look beyond the usual suspects and engage those working for Obama and bring them into your network, not only for the immediate period, but beyond November. Moreover, of all your local groups, how many know how to actually work an election, not just vote on Election Day? Gaining those skills is part and parcel of grassroots, independent political empowerment, especially if you ever hope to mount an electoral alternative to supplant the Democrats. If order to do that, you have to have something to do it WITH, and this is a good place to start.

CL: On May 1st, our coalition endorsed and participated in three events. A commemoration of the dead in Iraq called by ILWU Local 8 in conjunction with their participation in the West Coast anti-war port shutdowns had particularly visible support from Veterans for Peace as well as Jobs with Justice, and many individual anti-war activists. A day of anti-war education was called at Portland State University in solidarity with the ILWU actions. People are working to make that event the beginning of more systematic anti-war organizing at PSU, which could be huge for both student organizing in the area and for the local movement more generally. For the third annual May Day immigrant rights rally and march in Portland, perhaps 5000 strong, the organizers chose the slogan "Stop the war on working people at home and abroad!" explicitly to draw the labor connections of the immigrant rights struggle on May Day, and to connect with labor-centered anti-war actions. This built on our coalition having an immigrant-rights tent as part of our education efforts at the March 15th invasion-anniversary protests. The anti-war coalition in turn co-sponsored the May Day immigrant rights rally and march, and turned out members of our constituent organizations to participate.

Is it possible that our efforts, small by comparison to the immense crowd that Senator Obama mobilized to hear him speak on Sunday, nonetheless have contributed to the sense that change is necessary, into which he has tapped and to which he is giving a voice of hope? Our coalition's coordinating committee is, with one exception out of six, composed of people in their 20s or early 30s, though the participants in planning meetings average in age somewhat older. Some of them may be Obama supporters. Some belong to a left party that opposes supporting Democrats. Some were originally drawn into organizing by the anti-corporate globalization movement several years ago. To what extent is the Obama campaign now capturing some of the energy which was only beginning to unfold around those issues when disrupted by the responses to the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the attacks on civil rights and liberties and the rule of law by the Bush administration?

CD: The Obama campaign is capturing some of it, but far more, it is pulling out hundreds of thousands of people for whom this is their first entry into political activism, and it's mainly because they're fed up with the war and racism, ie, in the progressive camp. Rather than see Obama as raining on your parade, why not turn it around and see that he's expanded the base of activists you can organize among by at least a factor of five?

CL: Should we turn away from the work we have been doing, to work on Senator Obama's campaign? Is that what Progressives for Obama asks? In what way? The proposition is advanced that we might strengthen the social movement work by supporting Senator Obama's campaign. How would that work? What is the strategy proposed? What methods would make it worth the possible cost to direct movement organizing we already have been doing, off our butts, so to speak?

CD: Once again, no, you should not; you're still not getting it right. Use you imagination. Working a campaign doesn't mean you go to some Dem precinct captain and ask for your orders for the day. It can be done that way, but that's not what we're stressing. Think outside the box. Don't separate your work from the campaign, integrate it. You don't have to go to Obama's apparatus; set up your own, with a focus on your issues. Just add defeating McCain as the main danger as part of your tasks, and offer whatever critiques of Obama you think appropriate at the same time, if you like.

CL: Progressives for Obama gives no guidance on its website. Nor does Carl Davidson, apart from using the time-tested and notably successful organizing and motivational tactic of subtle name-calling.

CD: As I said, read the very first post on the site. It contains everything I've said here, and more. Read the practical 'How To' examples I've posted to this site and others. This claim just shows you haven't bothered to read them.

CL: Does Progressives for Obama intend to create an actual organization, or an electronically linked network of local organizations, perhaps? Should they be new, Obama-defined groups? Or perhaps local coalitions of existing organizations such as Progressive Democrats of America (I see Fr. John Mark-Gilhousen of the recently formed Oregon PDA chapter is an endorser) and the nascent MoveOn.org local on-the-ground groups (one of my own associations here in Portland)? What would or should such local organizations or coalitions do?

CD: 'Progressives for Obama' is a rather modest effort less than three months old. No, we're not in the business of creating a new organization, but yes, we are working to link and network both existing and new local efforts as best as we can, using the site as a resource and clearing house. We're working on Google mapping so if people enter their zip code, local groups and contact will pop up that they can work with. If you want your group listed, let me know. Yes, PDA is part of the effort, but there are many more. Some a MoveOn groups, but unfortunately, very few so far. As to what they should do, again, read the very first post on the site.

CL: It is kind of Mr. Davidson to say we need no approval to do anything. It is especially kind in light of the demanding injunction that starts the Progressives for Obama call: "All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama," and Davidson's own forceful recommendations, shall we say, to "get up off your butts" and "tell me what you are doing, in the context of this battle, to get the job done."

Yet despite Carl Davidson's benevolence in such a demanding context, one can't help wondering just who it is who isn't doing their job. Is the only role of Progressives for Obama to issue a call and publish commentary? Is there no responsibility that comes with such a call to outline possible strategies, suggest ways of doing things, analyze the tensions between the needs and demands of an electoral campaign and those of movement building, and show how they may be overcome or circumvented in favor of movement building? Is there no responsibility, dare one say it, to at least illuminate the network resulting from the "networking for change" among progressive voters that defines the P4O website, if not take up a more active organizing or coordinating or information-exchanging set of tasks?

CD -Kindness and benevolence are lifelong virtues I try to practice, but my main concern here is to light a fire under people who should know better, to get them to be more effective. My apologies to those rubbed the wrong way, but we have urgent tasks in the months ahead. 'Progressives for Obama' is a website, but it has a forum section, with several posts, as well as ongoing commentaries debating the strategies and tactics, plus much wider debate spurred far beyond our site. We're responsible and accountable for everything we do, and hope to do more. We're working on a presence and the Democratic Convention, on the floor and in the streets. I'll put this exchange up in our Forum section, post it more widely elsewhere, and we can have an ongoing discussion.

[Erudite Crap a.k.a. Chris Lowe Portland, Oregon, with commentary by Carl Davidson,  http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com]

Keep On Keepin' On!

Carl Davidson


homepage: homepage: http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com