Cowards vs. Hypocrites: Why Democratic Politicians Despise the “Professional Left”

by Randy Shaw on August 12, 2010

Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs caused the biggest blogosphere firestorm of 2010 by publicly condemning the “professional left” during an August 10 interview. Many observed that while Republican politicians fear their base, Democrats “hate” theirs, a statement certainly borne out both by Gibbs’ comments and those previously made by Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel. I wrote a January 20, 2010 piece titled Blaming the Left on this dynamic, which gets worse as Obama’s list of legislative accomplishments grows along with progressive disenchantment over the lack of transformational change. Republican and Democratic politicians treat their bases differently because the former is accused of lacking political courage while the latter is charged with hypocrisy; progressive criticism is more deeply felt because it challenges politicians’ personal identities.

When Republican politicians are criticized from their core base, they are typically being accused of lacking the political courage to take on unpopular issues.

In contrast, progressives believe that their agenda is politically popular, but that Democratic politicians are too beholden to corporate interests to aggressively advance it.

It’s a difference between cowardice and hypocrisy.

Republicans can deflect charges of cowardice by saying that the base does not understand political reality. But progressives believe the public supports more progressive stands (e.g. polls showed strong support for the public option that Obama abandoned), leaving Democrats to fend off charges that they talk about serving the public good but instead serve corporate interests inimical to the public welfare.

Democrats who campaign for greater social and economic fairness, and who often deliver on such goals, deeply resent such accusations.

And I have known enough successful politicians to know that this resentment is greatest when the accusations are correct – politicians get the angriest and most self-righteous when the base catches them putting campaign contributions or other political interests ahead of the values and policies they publicly espouse.

It may have been coincidental that Gibbs bashed the left on the date the Obama Administration won House approval for $600 million in new funds for “securing” the border against undocumented immigrants. The Center for Community Change and other sectors of the “professional left” opposed this action, and has been increasingly irate over Obama’s lack of progress on immigration reform.

Democrats who run and are elected as progressives do not want to hear that funding an endless war in Afghanistan, and maintaining massive defense spending, undermines their claims to want to fund housing, education, transportation or other domestic needs. It infuriates them that their commitment to the cause is even questioned, notwithstanding their actual record.

And this is not simply a “DC Democrat” problem. Many local progressive politicians also come to “hate” their activist base.

Many local politicians are looking for campaign contributions for higher office, and expect activists to understand that they have to promote large development projects or other corporate agendas in order to get this financial support. Since these politicians equate the advancement of their political careers with the advancement of the progressive cause, they feel deeply offended if their base criticizes their support for such profit-driven projects.

It’s a very sad dynamic for activists experiencing it firsthand. A person you walked precincts and made phone calls for suddenly treats you as the enemy simply because you seek to hold them accountable for their campaign promises.

As I argue in The Activist’s Handbook, successful activists have concluded that even most progressive politicians only respond to pressure, and that a “fear and loathing” relationship is often required. In other words, being feared and hated by the Obama Administration is likely to achieve more for progressives than being invited to the White House or otherwise treated as a “friend.”

Many seasoned activists thought it would be different under President Obama. Gibbs’ comments confirm they were wrong.

Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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